Thursday, June 2, 2016

On Bullying in Schools

Those who know me particularly well know that for several years in school I was bullied.  For three years, I was beat up after school almost every day.  For another year it was a periodic occurrence.  I don't normally talk about this because we have this narrative in the US that we start out healthy and are damaged by trauma.  Instead, I think we learn from our experiences and the end-state of healing is when we are aware of what we have learned and then the trauma becomes a gift rather than a burden.  We all go through bad experiences in life.  The question is, do we eventually value what they bring us (insight, strength, etc)?

In discussing the current restroom controversies regarding public schools, showers, and transgender students, someone said something to me that lead me to understand something that had genuinely puzzled me before.  This is not about that controversy but the larger issue of bullying.  I now have a much greater understanding of why students who are bullied may either commit acts of mass violence (like Columbine) or commit suicide.  Before, I never understood that but a missing piece was given to me and I think it is worth sharing.

My Story

I was lucky to come from a strong family and attend a school where the administration were more concerned about addressing the issues well than preventing lawsuits.  So what I have to say here needs to be taken in a certain spirit.

Anyway....  Usually I was beat up by one person or another.   There were a few bullies and usually they took me on, one on one.  There were never any demands.  Just beatings.   I never hated the bullies.  There was always something about it that I could never put my finger on that made me pity them.  But that was the usual pattern.  I got very used to physical pain to the point where physical pain has never really bothered me since.

Once in a while groups of kids would join in.  Once or twice even those I had considered friends did.  That hurt in a way that the beatings never did (apologies were given and as far as I am concerned that is water under the bridge, but I mention it for comparison purposes).  The sense of betrayal from that sort of event, however, was still minor compared to the sense of betrayal that came from the school's involvement.  The school administration, as I mentioned above, tried to address the issues but the problem with bullies is they tend to be very good at manipulating image and more times than not the school would unintentionally take the wrong side.

Even well-intentioned administrators are particularly bad at connecting the dots here because they are often used by bullies and cannot, by nature, see the whole picture.  This, I have come to understand is a fundamental problem of authority and information, and school administrators are simply unable to prevent bullying because of these problems.

The teachers who could see what was going on also tried, but they had no power and consequently resorted to methods that (when I saw them) greatly offended my sense of justice -- at least one of the bullies (who did back off) was bribed to do so.

How things have changed since I was in school

In the discussion over current bathroom/locker room controversies someone pointed out to me something that struck me as extremely important in understanding the current problems.  It was pointed out to me that under zero-tolerance policies, the normal approach is to suspend or expel both the accuser and the accused depending on the severity of the accusations unless one side is independently confirmed.  But that is no measure of who is right, and so this confirms to my mind the fact that schools, when they try to address the issue will more often than not unintentionally take the side of bullies.  With zero tolerance, this increases the stakes and ensures that when schools are in the wrong, the victims of bullying are even more victimized.  I am genuinely thankful that I went through what I did before zero tolerance became a "best" practice.

Give a bullied kid social support and he or she can live and even thrive despite the bullying.  Turn the organs of authority against him or her and that is a recipe for very bad things.  Look at how many heinous crimes are committed by people who come from broken homes, who then are bullied in school, and are effectively denied all sorts of support.  Such people are pushed outside the system and relentlessly attacked by it without any real support from anyone.  Columbine can be understood as an act of rage against a school which not only failed to protect but probably also contributed to the bullying.  The suicides that sometimes make headlines are also from people who have insufficient support.

What We Need to do Differently

I am writing this because I think we need a fundamental shift in how we address school bullying in the US today.  Currently we expect the schools to shield students, but that puts the school in an impossible situation and ensures that the school's main interest is in avoiding lawsuits rather than helping students thrive.  That concern means that schools will err, and when they do, bullied kids will pay a very heavy price.  The first priority I think needs to be a commitment to stop the worst of the harm -- the harm done by school authorities when they re wrong, and that means a commitment to erring on the side of doing nothing.

A second thing is that we need to shift from seeing bullying primarily as a disciplinary issue to one which is primarily a support issue.  Bullies themselves may come from bad home environments, and victimizing them again in school doesn't make a lot of sense either.  What the school can do is offer counselling and moral support early and often, and then move to disciplinary action only when more serious problems emerge.

A third thing that schools can do is they can bring the parents and the administration together and insist on joint solutions involving both sides of a conflict.

But suspending or expelling kids for seeking help regarding bullying?  Absolutely not.  I don't even think we should expel bullies.

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