The principal and teachers at Sheila’s school were proud of their efforts to stop bullies. They had a team, including a psychologist, to deal fairly with students accused of bullying. They were certain that:
- Students became bullies because they’d been bullied at home.
- Bullies had low self-esteem and weren’t aware of other ways of making friends.
- Bullying was in retaliation for bad treatment and that if provocation decreased, so would bullying.
- If other students stopped hurting the feelings of bullies, bullying would eventually stop.
- Since bullying was not the fault of one person, negotiation and mediation, would eventually stop bullying.
- The best way to stop bullying was through forgiveness, sympathy, compassion, understanding, education and compromise.
These educators were not going to let those poor, damaged kids who’d turned to bullying be harassed, taunted or abused, verbally or emotionally, or through unjust accusations.
What’s wrong with this picture?
For example, when Sheila finally had enough and complained that a clique of mean girls made disparaging remarks about her weight, hair, pimples and un-cool clothes, her teacher asked for proof. Sheila could only offer her word against the girls who denied being mean to her.
Since there was no proof, and the accused clique was composed of popular girls, Sheila’s teacher told her that she didn’t believe those girls would act so mean and Sheila better watch her false accusations. The teacher said that Sheila was probably jealous and maybe she should dress better, lose weight, make friends and avoid antagonizing the popular girls.
Sheila’s mother met with the teacher, principal and school psychologist. They assured her that there was no evidence for Sheila’s accusations. Then they asked many questions about Sheila’s home life and psychological state. Maybe Sheila was going through something difficult at home. Or maybe she was simply jealous and suffering from some teenage turmoil because she didn’t fit in.
They suggested that Sheila try to make friends with the popular girls – be nice to them, ask them what upset them and try to change that, give them friendship offerings, open her heart to them or turn the other cheek if she was misunderstanding what they said to her. Maybe Sheila was simply too sensitive to the way high school girls naturally were.
They told accused clique of girls that Sheila had complained about them and encouraged them to be nice to her, despite her complaint.
Having been forewarned and directed at Sheila, but having no consequences to make them stop bullying, the accused girls escalated their attacks and got sneakier. Sheila was subjected to daily barrages of hostility, venom and meanness. When nothing happened to the clique, they got bolder and eventually beat Sheila up in the bathroom.
Unfortunately for them, a teacher happened to be in one of the stalls and heard the whole scene.
The school officials now initiated their program to stop bullies.
- They investigated to find out what Sheila had done to provoke the attack.
- They told Sheila’s parents to trust them. They were working on the problem, but because of confidentiality issues, they couldn’t share what they were doing.
- They encouraged Sheila’s parents not to talk with the parents of the clique girls.
- They encouraged Sheila’s parents not to go to the media or to a lawyer.
- They assured Sheila’s parents that the quieter the issue was kept, the more likely there would be a rapid resolution to the situation.
The principal and therapist had Sheila meet with the girls to mediate the situation by themselves. They told the girls that they thought the students could solve the hostility on their own and that Sheila was willing to compromise with them.
At that meeting, the girls pinched Sheila, punched her, pulled her hair and threatened her with worse after school. Then they told the principal and therapist that they’d apologized and promised not to do anything if Sheila would treat them nicer, but that Sheila had called them names, insulted them and refused to compromise.
Over the next six months, the attacks on Sheila increased, and the principal and his staff kept trying to educate the bullies. Subjected to repeated teasing, taunting, harassment and physical abuse during this time, Sheila’s inner demons emerged, she gained more weight, became morose and depressed, and often had suicidal thoughts. Her confidence, self-esteem and grades plummeted. She even went through a period of guilt, thinking that the way the girls treated her was, indeed, her fault.
By the way, the truth of Sheila’s accusations was later verified because one of her narcissistic persecutors had proudly used her phone to record most of the attacks.
There were many early warning signs that could have alerted Sheila’s parents that school officials would do nothing to stop the bullying. There were:
- No school-wide program including parents to stop bullies.
- No training for teachers, administrators and other personnel (janitors and bus drivers) to recognize the early warning signs of overt, covert, verbal, emotional, physical and cyberbullying.
- No effort to monitor areas of the school where most bullying occurs.
- No proactive effort on the principal or teacher’s parts to look for bullying.
- No effort to gather proof before it dropped unexpectedly into their laps.
- No effort to keep Sheila’s complaint confidential.
I could say a lot about specific steps that the principal, teachers and therapist could and should have taken to protect Sheila. But they were the kind of do-nothing administrators who eventually make the headlines.
However, for this article let’s focus on the assumptions these educators had that assured that they wouldn’t consider protecting Sheila effectively.
- There are the ones listed at the beginning of this article.
- These supposedly responsible authorities cared more about understanding, educating and forgiving the bullies than about protecting their target or about creating a safe environment at their school.
- They thought that the feelings and confidentiality of the bullies were more important than Sheila’s pain.
- They were willing to sacrifice Sheila for the sake of education and therapy on the bullies.
Almost every student at the school knew what was happening and recognized the accepted culture of bullying. That’s why there were no witnesses; the students knew better than to risk their necks when they wouldn’t be protected by the adults.
As is usually the case, in a school in which bullies are not stopped, Sheila’s treatment was not an isolated case. When Sheila’s parents made her situation public, many other parents came forward with reports of how their children had been bullied by other students and how the administrators had not protected them. Even after many other cases surfaced, the principal and his staff maintained the same approach.
Only the results of extensive media publicity, a court case and the intervention of a district administrator changed the situation. Actually, more publicity resulted in a faster resolution of the situation.
Obviously, I don’t think that education, compassion and therapy are the best methods of stopping bullying. The best method is to stop the behavior:
- Create an atmosphere in which bullying is not tolerated.
- Remove bullies.
- Protect targets; don’t convert them into victims.
- Encourage witness to come forward, not to become bystanders.
Then we’ll see which bullies respond to education, compassion and therapy.