We all remember: Colorado was home to the Columbine High School shootings in 1999. But as Jessica Fender reports in the Denver Post, “More Consistent Anti-Bullying Program Urged for Colorado,” after 11 years “good intentions have devolved into an uncoordinated approach that ignores best practices in some instances and leaves state authorities with no clear picture of how well the myriad policies work.” As, “Susan Payne, [who] directs the state's Safe2Tell effort, [says,] ‘One of our issues is there is no consistency. While each school has to have a bullying policy, their policy is unique to their school.’”
They’re right, but laws and policies are only the first of a number of necessary steps.
Instead of thinking about which component is the most important, let’s look at what’s necessary in a different way. Think of what we need to stop school bullying as if you were imagining a target with a bull’s eye in the center. Everything in the bull’s eye is necessary. If you leave out one of the elements in the bull’s eye, you won’t be successful.
- Effective, well-written laws to specify what’s illegal; that is, what’s bullying. Without these laws, people like Lori Drew, the mother who set-up the Facebook page and led the attack that caused teenager Megan Meier to commit suicide, can get away with that behavior. Or the kids who tormented Phoebe Prince, Asher Brown, Jon Carmichael, Ty Smalley, Jaheem Herrera, Brandon Bitner, Samantha Kelly, Billy Lucas, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover and so many others in 2010 until they committed suicide, will also get away with it. Don’t limit the laws to include only protected categories of victims based on race, sex, religion, sexual preference, etc. Be inclusive about the abuse, no matter who it’s directed against. Maybe the phrase about protected categories should be, “…including but not limited to…” Laws should contain provisions against verbal bullying and cyberbullying, as well as physical violence and abuse.
- Require all schools to have policies. Make principals, staff, school district administrators and school boards legally responsible for stopping bullying in their schools. This way, reluctant, lazy, uncaring principals will be forced to act or face criminal and civil penalties for their failure to protect targets of bullying who are in their care. Also, responsible officials and administrators will have legal support for taking effective action to discipline bullies in the face of bullying or uncaring parents who would sue them for disciplining their bullying children.
- Require all schools to have programs designed to stop bullies. These programs should contain a sequence of swift and firm steps to remove bullies from schools and school activities like sports. The steps should focus on protecting targets first, and rehabilitating bullies only after they’re removed. Effective anti-bullying programs also educate bystanders to become witnesses. That requires spelling out what witnesses should say and do, who they should report to and how principals and teachers will keep them anonymous and protect them. Effective programs also include close contact with police, especially in cases of cyberbullying and physical abuse.
- Require training for everyone involved with school children, including bus drivers and cafeteria monitors. Increase recognition of the more subtle but very pernicious forms of verbal and emotional bullying. Increase awareness of the difference between episodic arguments and even fights between kids versus destructive patterns of taunting, harassment and physical bullying. Give all staff specific steps to follow in documenting and reporting bullying.
Colorado’s Safe2Tell program is a wonderful effort to help kids come forward anonymously and to bring legal pressure to bear on bullies, their parents and school officials who need to act.
Of course, laws, policies, programs and training are merely the necessary guidelines on paper. What makes them effective are dedicated people who are concerned and courageous enough to stop bullying.
Consulting and coaching within individual districts and schools does produce effective programs, stimulates the leadership of strong principals and energizes the support of good teachers and staff. In addition, there is a natural weeding out of people who choose not to act effectively and shouldn’t be put in positions of responsibility for children’s welfare and education. Effective programs develop and highlight models of great adults acting on behalf of children.
We don’t need to wait until there are more studies about why bullies bully. We don’t need to wait until we have more studies to define all the consequences of bullying that turns targets into victims. We don’t need to wait until we can write perfect laws, policies and programs.
We know enough about the stress, anxiety, depression, self-hatred, negativity, and loss of self-confidence and self-esteem, to know that the effects of being a victim can be life-long. Just as successful school bullies tend to become bullies as spouses and parents, and bullies at work, so victims of school bullies tend to become victims as spouses and parents, and at work.
We know enough to act now to stop bullies. We do need to act before more lives are ruined while we analyze, debate and vacillate. I’d rather err on the side of protecting targets at the risk of being to harsh on a kid that wasn’t really a relentless bully, than the present situation that errs on the side of protecting bullies and leaves targeted children isolated, unprotected, helpless and thinking that suicide is the only way to end the abuse and pain.
Expert coaching of kids and families helps them become strong and skilled enough to resist being targeted by bullies and to stop the bullies in their tracks. These children do not become victims of bullying. And their parents learn how to make school administrators, principals and teachers do their duties, even if they’re reluctant.