Repudiating the abuse of a harmful, yet prevalent, act
Bullying, a word that may conjure up the image of a belligerent provocateur kicking sand in the face of an awkward 90-pound adolescent, has long been as misunderstood as it is prevalent in human experience. In recent years, with evidence mounting behind the tenet that bullying was a contributing factor in a multitude of the challenges facing educators in the classroom, researchers began to take a closer look at the causes and consequences of what was once deemed merely “kids being kids.”
What they found was not only shocking but proved that bullying is more than simply a school problem; it is a societal issue that impacts the physical and emotional well-being of millions of human beings of all ages. It can be found in preschools and nursing homes, in occupations and daily activities, and everywhere in between. It takes a toll on the productivity of the workplace, the quality of care given in hospitals, and the physical and emotional well-being of our families and friends. A culture that promotes bullying carries not only an inestimable human cost, but, it turns out, a whopping financial price tag as well.
Dashing Myths, Promoting Peace
Contrary to many of the myths about bullying, persons that employ these behaviors do not necessarily suffer from low self-esteem; nor are they simply responding to some stimulus exhibited by the target of their abuse. To allow for the perception that victims have “brought it on themselves” is to abide by the same excuse that other malefactors, like abusers, have relied on for centuries. What we have learned is that bullying is a learned behavior usually picked up from a parent, sibling, teacher or peer. Bullying is about power and the need to exert control over a situation or other individual. As with other types of abuse, many of the victims will, in time, adopt the behaviors of their tormentors, perpetuating the cycle into the next generation.
While there is no single cause behind or lone way to identify a chronic bully, there are a number of commonsense measures that are remarkably effective at discouraging this type of behavior and limiting the impact they have on others.
• Create a culture that provides recognition for positive behavior, shifting the power from bullies to bully protestors.
• Send a clear message that bullying will not be tolerated; promote collective responsibility to support victims and report the incident.
• Empower bystanders by posting clear instructions on how to make a report, handle and investigate reports in a timely and professional manner, and protect those who provide information from retribution.
• Always respect the feelings and dignity of the victim. Reassure the victim that there will be consequences for the perpetrator, and that their concerns are being taken seriously. Follow up with them and provide counseling services when necessary.
• Provide professional counseling and evaluation to both bullies and their victims. While we tend to focus on the mental health of the victims, the bullies are at far greater risk of depression, suicide, substance abuse, delinquency, and failure, according to recent literature. The best way to help the victims is to prevent the abuse in the first place.
Children are impressionable. When the adult in charge fails to say “no,” the young mind will invariably interpret this to mean “yes.” Parents need to be clear and consistent in their expectations when it comes to bullying behavior; more so, they must model the behaviors they wish the children to emulate. Schools too must be diligent in promoting positive social behavior as they hold the sacred trust of protecting children and the awesome responsibility of shaping the character of the next generation. The teaching of reading and math is important, but not all-important; the education of the soul and the cultivation of the conscience deserve equal devotion. The idea that these are independent goals flies in the face of prodigious research that shows how anxiety created by bullying impairs learning in victims and witnesses alike.
A Broader Look, a Personal Appeal
Legislation to protect children from bullying in schools has been slow in coming, and continues to be minimal to nonexistent in a majority of states. As adults have only begun to appreciate the damage that peer abuse can wreak on the sensitive psyche of a child or young teen, bullying has rapidly made the jump from the schoolyard to the virtual world via the Internet. While adults continue to argue about the legal ramifications and distinctions between freedom of speech and cyber-bullying, youngsters recognize no such boundaries.
At a recent event, one student commented, “If you’re being bullied, you’re being cyber-bullied.” With the ubiquity of technology among teens, there is no escaping it. Schools that lack the authority to deal with this abuse might as well pack up and call it quits, because the nasty text messages being bandied about in the end take precedence over conjugating verbs and factoring square roots every time.
There can be no doubt it that, having lost a child to suicide as the result of bullying, I write this with a certain amount of bias. In a matter of weeks, I saw a bright and outgoing child transform from popular to pariah as a result of the deliberate malice spread by a classmate. Within three years, the gentle soul that had once listed his best qualities as being “a loyal friend and a good secret-keeper,” would be dead by his own hand at the age of 15. As a teacher in the same school, I was a witness to the impotence and incompetence of those that were supposed to protect my child. I count myself among these, and place no blame on my colleagues for this failure.
You might ask yourself why I didn’t remove my son from the school, threaten legal action, or simply take justice into my own hands. If only has become the litany that plays in my head through a thousand sleepless nights. The truth is simply that I placed my faith in the same myths and false hopes that I now work so passionately to discredit. Bullying is not a normal part of childhood. It is a malicious act that we do not have to tolerate. It is an act that leaves lifelong scars. And sometimes, it kills.
Deborah Johnston is the co-author of Bullycide in America. Her advocacy efforts helped pass the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for ALL Students Act, www. jeffreyjohnston.org [email@example.com]