To deny, minimize, avoid, ignore or condone bad conduct – to suffer in silence or to take the blame or to “Rise above” bullying, harassment or abuse. How many abused kids and suicides will it take before we realize that bullying does not stop by itself? How many battered women does it take before we realize that abusers don’t simply wake up one day as better people?
To beg, bribe or appease relentless, chronic bullies to try to get them to stop – the Golden Rule won’t stop real-world bullies. Bullies interpret your kindness and niceness as weakness and an invitation to push more boundaries or to go after you more.
Mediate, negotiate or compromise forever.
To accept excuses, justifications or promises forever, or to try to educate or rehabilitate forever without requiring immediate change the behavior of bullies – to sacrifice good kids or adults at work (the targets) in order to try to rehabilitate the bullies.
Not to have a program with real and escalating consequences to bullies – to dump the bullies on other classes at school or other teams at work.
Relentless bullies are predators who go after the weak, the isolated and those who don’t resist.
You’ll be seeing more and more articles by hand-wringers and worriers who claim that stop-bullying programs might become too hyper-vigilant, that “normal” behaviors will now be labeled bullying and that kids will be encouraged to rat each other out.
Of course, such over-reactions might be possible, but these anxiety-ridden defenders of the way things are, look only at one side of the equation.
The worriers usually give three types of arguments:
As detailed in his article in the Wall Street Journal, “Stop Panicking About Bullies,” Nick Gillespie’s kid is okay so he thinks the rest of you wimpy parents with wimpy kids are the problem. Get strong and your kids will stop bullies.
Our country was made strong by individualists, not by big government so let’s not create a bureaucratic monster to solve a kid problem. Statistics show that childhood is safer than ever but today’s worrying parents need something to worry about and want big government to protect their interests.
We’ll go too far and create a Nazi-style socialistic state in which normal kids are labeled bullies and punished too harshly, while all kids are encouraged to become the thought-police; just like in communist or military dictatorships.
These same objections were made to programs designed to protect women from being battered by spouses or raped by dates. They’re also the same arguments made to justify not having programs to stop bullying at work.
These objections to laws and programs that stop bullies, and requirements that principals, district administrators, teachers and staff stop bullying are based on viewing a tiny possibility as if it’s the whole situation and all that matters.
Yes, these fears might be realized in a very few situations. Some normal dislikes or arguments between kids might get blown up hysterically into cases of bullying. Power hungry kids might use accusations of bullying to further their own ends.
But that’s going to be a very small percent of the daily experience of kids at school. And the responsible adults are supposed to have the intelligence and determination to minimize these injustices.
In the minds of nit-picking perfectionists, laws have to be perfect. To them, one bad possibility far outweighs the benefits from a thousand situations in which bullying might be stopped. I think that’s a ridiculous way of thinking.
Approximately 50% of kids admit to having been bullied at school and to not being protected by supposedly responsible adults. Many more report that they’ve witnessed bullying and when they’ve reported it, they got in trouble. Are we going to continue tolerating a huge amount of relentless bullying because we’re worried that we might go too far in protecting kids?
How many suicides will it take before we think the risks of not having programs that protect kids far outweigh the risks of over-reacting with programs that are too strong or too misguided?
Let’s expand our vision to similar situations of abuse and brutality to children. How many Jerry Sandusky’s or child-molesting priests does it take before we demand laws to protect kids, and courageous, right action from respectable adults?
I’d rather swing the pendulum far to the side of protecting the targets and victims of bullying, and live with the very minor consequences of the potential for some misuse of the programs.
Also, “This was the case for parents of a special needs student at Miami Trace Middle School in Ohio, who sent their daughter to school with a hidden tape recorder last fall after the girl repeatedly complained about teacher bullying. The revelation was shocking: the educators on the recording called the child lazy and dumb, and forced her to run on a treadmill with increasing speed.”
Although each situation is different, bullies exhibit common styles, techniques and patterns. These commonalities enable us see what responses are ineffective and also to develop responses that are effective to stop bullying.
Whether in relationships, by our own children’s temper tantrums or nastiness, by false friends, at school or in the workplace, there is one rule of thumb that’s critical in order to stop bullies: Don’t suffer in silence.
For some relationship examples, see the comments to the articles:
Kids’ silence prevents effective action from the principals and teachers who would protect them.
As parents, we must learn to recognize the signs that our children might be subjected to bullying and abuse. Sometimes, we must pry the truth out of our reluctant kids. Sometimes, we must check their phones, computers and social websites. Sometimes, we must investigate with parents of their friends or with teachers. Sometimes, we must learn to force reluctant principals to act, even though that might violate our old beliefs or values.
I’m not going into the many reasons that targets suffer in silence. We don’t need a scientific study to analyze all the reasons. If we and ten friends make a list, we’ll cover more than 90% of the reasons. So what?
I attended a wonderful presentation on cyberbullying and sexting by an officer from a local police department. The question came up about spying on our teenagers’ phones and computers: “Do our teenagers have a right to privacy?” That was followed by the question: “If we spy on our teens, how can they consider us friends? They’ll never open up to us. Won’t that thwart our efforts?”
Let’s distinguish between two types of threats to our teenagers:
Adult predators who lure them and groom them – whether to exploit them or to gain personal, family information to use against their parents.
Other teens who will slam them, cyberbully them and share sexted pictures.
Although most parents worry about the first situation, most kids worry about the second or will blow it off as “Drama.” But the answer is the same in either case.
Teenagers have no privacy. I want us to know what our kids are doing so we can help them. We’ve been there and done that and have more wisdom, even though they don’t think so. If we don’t have wisdom, we should make learning a first priority.
As long as they’re dependent on us and we’re responsible for them, we must know. They may be more technically savvy but we can learn enough. That’s what our friends are for.
In addition, of course, we can be alert to the first signs of cyberbullying. Have they withdrawn or stopped eating, being with friends, or wanting to go to school? Have they become emotionally labile (mood swings, happy, crying, excited, depressed, angry, hysterical all in 10 seconds)? Do they engage in negative self-talk and put-downs? Do they lack self-confidence and self-esteem? Are they changing everything in order to get friends or please boy or girlfriends? Are they anxious, stressed, not sleeping?
When they accuse us of not trusting them, we already know the answers:
It’s not about trust; it’s about experience, wisdom and safety.
They’ve hidden, lied and deceived us before and will do so again. Of course we don’t trust them, just like our parents shouldn’t have trusted us.
It’s about which risks we’ll allow them to take and which we won’t.
When they insist that they’re old enough to make their own decisions, we also know the answer to that: “When you’re capable of supporting yourself and living independently, then you’re old enough to be responsible for yourself.
As for their opening up because we’re their friends; how many of us opened up to our parents – or would have if they tried to be our friends? We thought we could or had to solve things on our own or we knew better than to open up.
Whether we physically check phone and computer logs or we also use spyware, we must take the initiative. If they don’t like it, they don’t need a phone. Also, we should take steps to find out about their friends and what their friends’ parents allow or encourage.
Unfortunately, too many examples can be found in the headlines of what happen when parents don’t know what their teens are doing.
The Teachers’ union is clear: since dues are paid by teachers, not by kids or parents, the union’s job is to protect and increase teachers’ salaries and seniority.
I love good teachers. I come from a family of teachers. My life has been crucially enriched by teachers. I teach.
But I won’t support the teachers’ unions focus only on salary and seniority. There’s something simple the union can do to protect its own members and to get my support.
The Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal report that, “Facebook and Time Warner are ganging up on bullies to address a problem that torments millions of children and young adults. The partnership announced Tuesday calls for Facebook and Time Warner to use their clout to raise awareness about bullying and encourage more people to report the abuses when they see them.”
They recognize the need. Facebook also recognizes the economic problem if they allow massive amounts of bullying to flow through their pages. Eventually parents will force their kids off Facebook or will start suing Facebook for carrying the content.
The present educational efforts will sway many kids and their parents by sensitizing them to the issue and encouraging them not to be drawn into bullying by the truly relentless bullies. But these sensitized kids will be encouraged to come forward if, and only if, responsible adults – school district administrators, principals and teachers – respond swiftly and firmly, and protect the kids who speak up.
As a parent, there’s a lot you can do this summer. Don’t count on Facebook and Time Warner to do all the work to protect your children. Don’t count on advertizing/educational campaigns to protect your children
In her New York Times article, “Web of Popularity Achieved by Bullying,” Tara Parker-Pope describes increased bullying used by social climbers trying to become popular. As they near the top, these climbers increase harassment, bullying and abuse, especially cyber bullying, in order to increase their popularity by crushing those slightly above and below them. The studies claim that at the uppermost levels of the “in crowd,” bullying between peers decreases. Of course, everyone feeds on the little fishes when they want.
According to the study, it’s all about increasing social networks and status.
With expert coaching and consulting, we can overcome the voices of our fears and self-bullying. We can overcome childhood rules and simply take charge of our personal choices. We can become strong and skilled enough to resist being coerced by bullies into doing what we don’t want. We can look at individual situations and plan tactics that are appropriate to us and to the situation.
“How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” and “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids” have many examples of kids and adults getting over their early training and creating the environment and life they want. For more personalized coaching call me at 877-8Bullies (877-828-5543).
In his New York Times Op-Ed column, Charles M. Blow reported on the experience of his three children and the results of a study conducted by the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics, which interviewed more than 43,000 high school students. He reports that the study showed:
“Boys who went to private religious schools were most likely to say that they had used racial slurs and insults in the past year as well as mistreated someone because he or she belonged to a different group.
Boys at religious private schools were the most likely to say that they had bullied, teased or taunted someone in the past year.
While boys at public schools were the most likely to say that it was O.K. to hit or threaten a person who makes them very angry, boys at private religious schools were just as likely to say that they had actually done it.”
In addition, he says that, “While some public schools have issues with academic attainment, it appears that some private schools have issues with tolerance. No person is truly better when they lack this basic bit of civility.”
Most of the discussion and argument will focus on whether or not his general conclusions are correct about most private versus public schools. And many people will base their conclusions on their personal experience in each type of school.
But the important point is not about the generalizations. Don’t get distracted by academic speculation about the generalizations. The important point is about the schools your children are going to.
If your children are going to a school that tolerates or encourages other children to think that they’re special and, therefore, that they can tease, taunt, mistreat, bully or abuse people who are different, that’s the situation you need to focus on.
Children need to feel that they’re special and that high standards of behavior are expected of them. The problem is caused by the idea that, therefore, they can scorn or torment other people who aren’t in their group or who are different.
Bullies will target any difference they can find. It’s not the difference that causes bullying; it’s the bullies who find the difference. Of course bullies will focus on race, religion, color, gender, sexual preference, etc. But we all also know examples of mean girls and mean boys who bully people they decide are too tall or short, too skinny or fat, or who have different hair color or hair style, or different clothes, or who aren’t as fashionable or faddish.
I’ve consulted with principals, teachers and staff of both public and private schools, who won’t ignore, tolerate or support bullying. And we have developed effective programs to stop bullying. In addition, I’ve seen both public and private schools in which principals, teachers and staff look the other way or condone or even applaud harassment, bullying and abuse. Some even think that building school spirit this way is worth sacrificing a few weaklings or sinners.
More than generalization to be discussed and disputed intellectually at a party, we’re hit home emotionally by what happens to our children. If one school, whether public or private, doesn’t stop bullies and it’s your children’s school, that’s the one that counts in your life.
But there is one generalization that cuts across all lines; we can stop bullies before we’ve analyzed in detail the reasons why a particular kid or group of kids selects its target(s) and long before we can teach them to have increased empathy and tolerance. The first step is always having clear, firm and immediate consequences for the perpetrators.
In his article in the New York Times, Erik Eckholm, points out that, “Alarmed by evidence that gay and lesbian students are common victims of schoolyard bullies, many school districts are bolstering their antiharassment rules with early lessons in tolerance.”
The article continues, “Rick DeMato, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church, [who] opposes the curriculum changes in the school district in Helena, Mont. [has led] angry parents and religious critics…[to] charge that liberals and gay rights groups are using the antibullying banner to pursue a hidden ‘homosexual agenda,’ implicitly endorsing, for example, same sex marriage.”
Stealth bullies win when they can change the subject to fit their agendas; when they can distract you from your subject and make the focus of discussion be something they want to discuss and over which they think they can win.
For example, suppose you complain about your date or spouse’s public or private sarcasm, put-downs and nasty, mocking humor. If he’s a stealthy, manipulative bully, he might change the subject by saying that you’re hypersensitive and you over-react, or that you hurt his feelings by complaining. If he can get you to focus on whether you’re hypersensitive or have no sense of humor or on making him feel better, then he wins and you lose. You’ll never get him to stop making those remarks.
Or suppose you’re angry that he hit you. If he’s a stealthy predator, he might complain that you didn’t communicate that in a supportive way or that you over-reacted or that you started it and you provoked him or that he felt put-down by your anger, which reminded him of his childhood. And that’s the only thing he wants to talk about. If he can get you to focus on your poor communication or his hurt feelings and past trauma, he wins and you lose. He’ll never have to talk about your pain when he hit you and, since he has a good excuse for hitting you (his past trauma), he doesn’t have to change.
Therefore, you must take charge of the agenda. Make him focus first on his sarcastic put-downs or on his hitting you. And you have to be satisfied by the result before you’ll discuss his agenda. If he doesn’t satisfy you, don’t go on to his agenda. Go as far away as you can.
What does this have to do with the anti-bullying policies and programs we started with?
The initial agenda in those schools is stopping harassment, bullying and abuse of kids or adults. The reason given by the bullies to justify their verbal, emotional and physical attacks was that their targets were gay or lesbian. I pay more attention to the actions than to the excuses and justifications. The agenda is stopping the bullying and violence. The agenda is stopping the negativity, pain, anxiety and depression bullying causes. The agenda is stopping the targets’ loss of self-confidence and self-esteem, and the increasing number of bullying-caused suicides.
Some people want to make the agenda be a torturous and emotionally-charged discussion of whether schools can be allowed to promote a pro-gay and pro-lesbian agenda. And whether parents or educators control what’s taught in schools.
If those stealthy bullies can get you into those discussions, you’ll never stop school bullying. They won’t have to stop their children from bullying and abusing other kids. They feel that bullying and violence should be condoned or at least tolerated because the bullies have good reasons to torment their targets. Since, they think, being gay or lesbian is a sin, if one of the targets becomes a victim and commits suicide, the world is a better place.
So keep the focus where it should be: anti-bullying programs that stop bullies. When I’m called in to help schools develop effective programs, I always challenge dissenters to come up with a better program to stop bullies before we talk about areas that would distract us from the main agenda.
Principals didn’t stop school bullies and now there are more school bullying-caused suicides. In all of the cases I’ll describe, there were differences in the bullies’ methods of harassing and abusing their targets. But what was the same was that the parents complained and the responsible school teachers and principals didn’t protect the children in their care. Also the same was the principals’ or school district administrators’ defense: “We didn’t know.”
To me, especially after the parents of the targets complained, that’s an admission of incompetence, delinquency and neglect. The other kids at school knew who bullies were and where, when and how it occurred; why don’t the college-educated, supposedly intelligent and responsible adults know?
I know that the first culprits are the bullies themselves and their parents. But I want to shine two lights:
I know that the first culprits are the bullies themselves and their parents. But I want to shine two lights:
Second, on the skills parents need learn in order to force inactive, conflict-avoidant, lazy, cowardly or uncaring principals to protect their children.
Notice the similarities in all these cases:
In Texas, a straight “A” eighth-grader, Asher Brown, took his life 18 months after his parents claim to have reported on-going bullying by four other students. Despite the evidence of repeated conversations offered by the parents, the school district spokeswomen, Kelli Durham, whose husband, Alan Durham, is assistant principal, claims that they never knew and never had evidence. Nothing was done to stop the bullies or remove them.
However, numerous comments from other parents and students on the web site of KRIV-TV Channel 26, which also reported a story about Brown's death, stated that the boy had been bullied by classmates for several years and claimed Cy-Fair ISD in Texas does nothing to stop such harassment.
An 11-year old Oklahoma boy, Ty Smalley, committed suicide after being bullied repeatedly for about two years. Despite the parents contact with the school, teachers, counselors and the principal never saw anything and never stopped the bullying. The parents were told things like, “Boys will be boys” and “It would be looked into.” According to Ty’s father, Kirk, the school never documented any of these conversations so they can now claim that they never knew.
The event that precipitated Ty’s suicide was when he finally retaliated against the bully he was suspended for three days while the bully, previously identified to the teachers, was suspended for only one day.
An eight-year old in a Texas Elementary school tried to commit suicide, but survived his leap off the balcony of a school building. He had been repeatedly harassed but school officials had done nothing. His mother said that teachers kept telling her they'd “handle it” when she complained about the bullying over the past seven months. The last straw for the 8-year-old was when he was told to leave his classroom after two other boys pulled down his pants in front of the class.
The principal, Linda Bellard, said teachers never informed her of the harassment until the boy's suicide attempt, although the child's mother had visited the school seven times since September to complain about the problem.
Each of these cases will wind their way through courts, settlements will be reached in some, some school administrators will get off because there aren’t specific enough laws that require them to act and we’ll probably never know the whole truth because we weren’t there.
As a parent whose responsibility is to ensure the physical safety, and the mental, emotional and spiritual well-being of your child, you need to know how to get appropriate action from principals and teachers who will resist acting strongly and swiftly to stop bullies. Your child’s self-confidence, self-esteem and life depend on your skill.
Complain to teachers, counselors and principals. But it’s never enough to complain or even to keep a record of your visit and conversation.
Give the responsible adults one chance. Do they remove the bully? Do they continue to monitor the bully and his or her friends for further retaliation? Or do they remove your child? Do they excuse the bully’s behavior as, “Kids will be kids?” Do they say that the bully has a right to be educated in classes of his or her choice?
Use “The Lucius Malfoy” test. Is your child’s principal standing up to the bullying parents of the school bully? Or will he or she cower in front of bullying parents who say their child does no wrong or who threaten to sue the school if anything happens to their little darling?
If your principal fails theses test you must bring pressure to bear - immediately. Remember that principals fear three things more than anything else: loss of job, publicity and law suits.
Get a lawyer and media publicity. Learn what constitutes evidence and documentation. Record all communication. Communicate in writing and have proof that school officials received the letters you write.
Bullying is rarely an isolated event. Unite with other parents whose children are bullied. Get witnesses who will put their evidence in writing.
Have great appreciation for principals who simply won’t tolerate bullying – who will have strong, proactive programs to train their staff and who will act swiftly and firmly in response to complaints. Training is never enough: strong and courageous people are required to make these programs effective.
Have realistic expectations; don’t assume that principals, teachers, counselors and district administrators will be active in stopping bullies. Expect bullies’ parents to thwart your efforts. Expect most uninvolved people to look away. If nothing bad happens to bullies, expect other kids to pile on.
Bill Cosby is right.
On a special anti-bullying segment on Larry King Live, Cosby lashed out at the bullies who tormented Phoebe Prince for months before she committed suicide. He also took on the teachers, principal and school administrators who said that they didn’t know what was going on.
For months, Prince was assaulted, pushed and shoved, called a “slut” and a “whore” and even had soft drink cans thrown at her – all in school.
The eight students involved are all being prosecuted. Already two students have been expelled from the school and other students will face felony charges in connection with their actions against Prince.
Among the charges against the teens are statutory rape, violation of civil rights, criminal harassment and disturbance of a school assembly. Prosecutors accuse the students of tormenting Prince “relentlessly” online and in school, often in plain sight of school administrators, right up until the day Prince hanged herself.
On the day Phoebe Prince took her life, one of the bullies wrote the word “accomplished” on Phoebe’s Facebook page.
Of course, many failing principals, teachers and administrators hide behind the phrase, “We didn’t know.” That shows why the most important thing you can do as a parent is often to document your contact with those supposedly responsible adults who actually won’t help you or your child.
Then they’ll hide behind the same plea that was given by the mother of one of the accused bullies, another girl, “Prince was not fully innocent and they’re teenagers. They call names.”
Can you imagine if principal Smith, standing with the teachers, superintendent Sayer and school committee chairman Boisselle before the assembled parents of South Hadley High School in Massachusetts back in August had said:
We’ll ignore this whole problem of bullying despite many studies showing that:
When we allow harassment, bullying and abuse the victims who are left unprotected by the responsible adults suffer from increased anxiety, stress, shame and depression, and low self-confidence and self-esteem for life.
Bystanders and witnesses who don’t come forward or who aren’t supported by the authorities suffer from guilt and shame their whole lives.
Bullies who get away with bullying in youth tend to become relentless adult bullies as adults, in their personal lives and at work.
We won’t have school policies that prohibit bullying or a program that trains us to recognize bullying in the school. We won’t patrol the classrooms, hallways, bathrooms or cafeteria to see if bullying is occurring. We won’t work with the police to do anything to the bullies. When incidents occur we’ll say later that we weren’t responsible because we didn’t know.
We won’t involve students in recognizing and reporting bullying to us. If we accidently hear about any bullying, we’ll minimize it and pretend its just “kid stuff.” If you tell us about your child being bullied, we’ll tell you that we’re too busy to do anything about it and we don’t want to violate the rights of the bullies.
The bullies in our school are really good kids with anger and self-esteem issues of their own. They just haven’t had good enough parenting. That excuses their behavior. We have to be more sympathetic toward them than toward their targets.
And imagine him finishing with, “Now, parents, we’d like you to hire us, vote for us and pay increased taxes to support your local school and its staff. We’re going to be your top executives but we won’t know what’s going on.” Do you imagine the parents at South Hadley High School leaping to their feet with wild applause because they thought that their children would be protected in the next academic year?
Of course I start with the bullies themselves and their parents, who turned a blind eye and will now protect their little darlings. They’ll blame Phoebe Prince for being a weakling. As if they think that what the teenagers did was okay and Phoebe should have taken it like a good victim because it was her fault.
I also say the same about the supposedly responsible adults at school who failed in their primary responsibility; creating a safe environment in which character and values are modeled by adults and in which academic learning can be maximized.
Maybe the suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince will finally wake us up. Maybe the articles in the New York Times, Huffington Post, People magazine and dozens of others will wake us up. Maybe the long list of charges against the bullies and tormentors will finally goad the public to demand strong action. Maybe charges of statutory rape, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, harassment and stalking will get a stronger response from the district attorney than, “The inactions of some of the adults at the school are troublesome.”
Phoebe’s suicide is another red alert. But we know that hundreds of other children in our schools are being bullied, harassed, tormented and abused every day. And parents and school officials are not protecting these targets of bullying. Some of these kids will gain strength by fighting back effectively against these predators.
Others will be overwhelmed and destroyed by the bullying, but even more, by the lack of protection by the very adults who have taken on the responsibility to protect them. These kids will grow up concluding that they are helpless and their situations are hopeless. They will grow up with debilitating, negative self-talk, with anxiety, stress and depression, with little confidence and low self-esteem.
We don’t need more suicides to remind us of what we saw at our own schools, what we see in our adult personal relationships and the interactions we observe at work. We know the depths to which humans can sink. We know how alert and courageous we must be to prevent the worst consequences.
A huge number of people failed in Massachusetts. Start with the two boys and four girls between the ages of 16 to 18 who have been charged as adults. Continue with the three minors who have been charged as juveniles. Continue with their parents. Their parents failed to teach and control their children. Of course it’s difficult to teach and control teenagers. But will those parents now defend their venomous children or will they stand with Phoebe Prince?
I think the greatest failure is that of the school authorities, especially the principal and the district administrators who set the tone for the teachers and staff. They pretend to be education experts. They pretend to be worthy to teach children. Yet none would stand up for Phoebe or for the other girl in school who was bullied by one of the accused teenagers.
We know that there are difficulties and that they will hide behind the lie that “we didn’t know how bad it was.” So what? Personally as a parent and grandparent, professionally as a coach, consultant and expert on how to stop bullies I say that these people represent failure and should be forced to go into jobs in which their tasks don’t matter.
Would you want someone who pleads “difficulties” as an excuse for their failures when your life is on the line – for example, a school bus driver, a doctor, a pilot, a cop, a fire fighter, a repairman of train tracks, a quality control worker on an assembly line for your medication, pacemaker or your car’s brakes or accelerator? I wouldn’t give them the responsibility. All that education has been wasted on them. And maybe the type of education currently in how-to-be-a-teacher courses is a waste.
Whether the abuse is cyber-bullying, physical violence, sexual attacks or the many varieties of mean and vicious verbal and emotional abuse – the spite, gossip, rumor-mongering, ostracism, targeting or mocking – there will always be “experts” who say “it’s not so bad,” lawyers who say that it’s too difficult to write enforceable laws, and there will always be difficulties in stopping harassment, bullying and abuse. So what if there are difficulties? If we can’t overcome those difficulties, we don’t deserve the responsibility and trust, and we will reap the bitter fruits that will await us in our hours of need.
As reported in separate stories by Yadira Betances and Margo Sullivan in the New Hampshire Eagle Tribune, some middle schools are effectively implementing anti-bullying, anti-abuse programs. The recent suicides of four teenage girls may stimulate a sense of urgency. There are some differences in the programs to stop bullies, but both have the seven elements crucial to success.
1. The programs specify what acceptable and not acceptable behavior is
General statements about respect and empathy are not enough. These programs give graphic examples of many forms of harassment, bullying and abuse. The unacceptable violence ranges from prejudicial put-downs and personally demeaning or mocking comments, to repeated acts of supposedly accidental tripping and shoving, to physical attacks. The programs point out that bullies may act any where – on the school bus, by the lockers, in the lunchroom, in the playground and in classes. In successful programs, the specific list of unacceptable behaviors evolves as new incidents arise.
2. Children are taught specifically what to do if they’re bullied or if they see someone being bullied
Critical to the programs’ success is that kids stick up for other kids. The kids always know who the habitual bullies are. The principal, teachers and staff must also. Ignorance is not an acceptable excuse.
3. The programs involve everyone
School board members speak out against bullying and review and support the programs. Principals and teachers are involved. Administrative staff and bus drivers are trained and supported. The adults set the tone: No bullying allowed. The adults are proactive, not merely reactive.
Most heartening is the involvement of the students. Kids lead the way in promoting the programs within their schools and in presenting it to other schools. Education is on an emotional level that’s age and grade appropriate. Fifth graders learn differently than seventh graders do. Most kids are excited to know they’re important participants in the programs and they know they’ll be listened to, supported and protected by the adults.
Parental support is critical; especially a core group of parents dedicated to supporting the principal and teachers.
4. Consequences are clear and action immediate
Programs fail if repeat bullies are allowed to continue bullying during lengthy therapy and education processes. The first task of the adults is to make the schools safe. That often involves isolating or removing bullies rapidly. Rehabilitating or converting habitual bullies takes second place.
5. Administrators, school principals and teachers are courageous
Their moments of truth are when they have to face irate and bullying parents who defend their little terrorists by threatening to sue the principal and school for harassment. That’s like in the Harry Potter series, when Lucius Malfoy protects his vicious son, Draco.
In order to survive those moments, principals need to have good documentation, staff needs to pool written reports and school district administrators need to back the program. A good lawyer helps make staff’s efforts legal.
Critical to the programs’ success is a vocal group of parents supporting the principal’s actions.
6. Individual training of kids takes place at home
Teach children not to bully to get what they want or to make themselves feel better. Also teach them how to respond successfully to bullies; from learning to use verbal skills to learning how to fight back physically if necessary. Face it; some bullies won’t stop until you beat them up. Physical consequences for repeated physical actions are a good lesson for them as they grow up. A child’s effective self-defense sends a different message to bullies than does any repeated beatings they might have gotten at home.
7. All steps are done at the same time
There is no one cause of bullying – like bad parents or uncaring teachers or cowardly principals or rotten kids – so programs won’t succeed if they focus on only one aspect of the problem. Successful programs get everyone involved to stop behavior that affects everyone. They work at the individual level, the classroom level, the school level and the district level.
Here’s a new slant on the cluster of suicides of four teenage girls from Schenectady High School, New York, that was stimulated by abuse and bullying in school and a war-zone environment outside school.
Instead of working together to transform the school and the neighborhood environment, Rev. Veron House, pastor of the Life Changes World Ministries in Schenectady, and school superintendent, Eric Ely, are arguing over who was to blame and who should be responsible for fixing the problem.
Rev. House has been quoted as saying, “This is not a community problem, this is not a church problem, this is a school problem, and this is becoming a school epidemic because everyone that has done this is from Schenectady High."
On the defensive, Superintendent Ely responded, "We're not the parents of these children. We have them a third of the time, parents have them two thirds of the time. We're going to do everything we can to keep it from happening. But ultimately, when a child goes home and takes their life, there's not a whole lot a school employee can do about that."
Who’s right? Of course both of them are right. But facing each other with finger-pointing makes both of them wrong.
The useful question is not who’s to blame and who should be punished, the people in the neighborhood or the principal and teachers in school. The better question is how to bring people together after numerous and tremendously painful deaths, in order to create a community that simply won’t tolerate hate and violence in the school or on the streets. Here in Denver, after the massacre at Columbine High School, it has taken 10 years for that healing spirit to become evident.
This question is not new. The difficulty of establishing a safe and functional communal life after multiple, horrible deaths has been part of human struggles since the beginning of time. For example, we see the same struggle in the families of Romeo and Juliet.
Even further back, the same subject and a wise solution are described in graphic detail in the three tragedies called the Oresteia, written by Aeschylus in 458 BC. In the Agamemnon, the Libation Bearers and the Eumenides, the murders are for different reasons than in Schenectady and Columbine High School, but the end effect is the same. Violent death rips apart the fabric of a community and people struggle with what to do.
Why do I bring up literature that’s 2,500 years old? Because the violence of today has also been faced by people in all cultures, times and places, and we have recorded the approaches that only lead to more pain and also the wisdom that points the way to solutions.
Aeschylus shows that the age-old solution – pointing fingers, apportioning blame, imposing punishment, retribution and vengeance – only drives people into separate, warring camps and perpetuates the cycle of violence. He also shows that only after the people involved have come together, having been transformed by the intense pain and suffering that everyone feels underneath their defensive and hostile poses, can they dedicate themselves to change the environment together. One line from the tragedy is, “We must suffer, suffer into [wisdom].”
As community leaders, Rev. House and Superintendent Ely are failing in their responsibility. Instead of analyzing and parsing out the blame, they must lead the community to come together to create a new spirit that will neither tolerate harassment, bullying and abuse at school nor the street violence that requires police and metal detectors at school doors.
Until Rev. House and Superintendent Ely rally a core of outraged students and parents to rid the area of violence, there are no tactics, plans and skills that will help them. I’d expect Rev. House to know how rituals for painful grieving can transform the hearts of his parishioners into wisdom and determined action. Only after they have united resolutely to clean up the school and the neighborhood, will expert tactical advice and guidance be productive.
A rash of teen suicides (4 in the last six months) has alarmed a Schenectady, New York school district. At least two of the suicides have been directly attributed to abuse and bullying, especially girl to girl harassment. However, the school superintendent has been quoted as spreading the blame, “The community is also beginning to understand that these activities are embedded within neighborhoods and even in the homes across our city and across our country.” He has also made the point that educators aren’t parents and that their influence and control are limited.
I was interviewed by Steve Van Zandt and Jackie Donovan on their Daybreak program on Radio WROW in the Albany-Schenectady area. Our focus was what the school district could and should do. Steve and Jackie are great in presenting the issues and fielding calls.
Of course, the superintendent is right, but I’d like to see him step up and tell what part of the problem he’s going to attack with speed, intensity and determination.
First, he sounds like he’s leading a debate down the pathway of analyzing all the factors involved and describing the ones he might label as the most important. He’s an “educator,” which means he’ll get stuck in “analysis paralysis.”
But he doesn’t have to analyze or solve the whole problem of teen abuse and bullying in society. He simply has to take responsibility for the number one task of his school district and of each principal. The number one task is not education, it’s safety and security. Only when he can guarantee pretty good safety and security, can the principals and teachers in his district do their second task of education.
Second, he doesn’t have to continue analyzing what’s wrong at school, the kids know and each teacher, principal, administrative assistant and bus driver also should know. One brave middle school student spoke up at a community meeting pleading, “Just help us. We need help.” The four suicides, all in the same high school should be a wake-up call to him.
The superintendent is also wasting the summer; his best opportunity to get programs developed and installed. Summer is the best time to do the behind-the-scenes work to get an anti-bullying, anti-abuse campaign ready so they begin resolutely on the first day of school. A few straightforward, but sometimes difficult steps are for the superintendent, principals and a core group of committed parents are to:
Notice that I haven’t said anything about educating, therapeutizing or rehabilitating bullies. That succeeds only after anti-abuse, anti-bullying programs are implemented.
Wall plaques saying that students must respect each other are nice but ineffective by themselves. A detailed program with clear consequences, implemented strategically, firmly and continually can solve 90% of the problems at school. That’s the best that schools can do
Also, that would be teaching children and teenagers that the adult authorities will actually fulfill their responsibility. New York may also need laws to force this superintendent to do his job.
As reported by Reid Epstein in Newsday, New York teenager, Denise Finkel has sued Facebook for $3 million because, she claims, it carried a fictitious Facebook chat group to bully, ostracize, ridicule, abuse and disgrace her. The lawsuit states that former high school classmates, Michael Dauber, Jeffrey Schwartz, Leah Herz, and Melinda Danowitz created the chat room in which they falsely claimed that she had “inappropriate conduct with animals,” and had AIDS, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases.
I want to focus on two related areas that I think are more important in the long run.
Of course there will be a lot of furor over whether any or all of the accused four did it and whether Facebook is liable for content that’s not obviously pornographic. Did Finkel complain to Facebook and did Facebook turn a deaf ear to Finkel’s complaints? And are the four people guilty as accused?
The first area that I think is more important in the long run is the ongoing effort to make new laws in response to new crimes, especially using new technology. The natural way that we make new laws begins when some people commit acts not specifically covered under the old laws that have terrible consequences. We respond by specifically labeling those new actions as crimes, and attach what we feel are appropriate criminal penalties. Then we see, by trial-and-error, where to draw better lines. The legal system is inevitably slow, inefficient and never perfect.
Given the increasing number of lives ruined by cyber bullying, emotional harassment and abuse, especially in schools, and the number of suicides stimulated by cyber bullying, I think that our society will make laws specifically stating that false and malicious statements and postings, in addition to pornography, are illegal. I don’t think we’ll hold carriers like Facebook, MySpace, etc. liable for their postings. But I think we’ll hold them liable for ignoring complaints about specific chat groups and postings that they continue to carry.
Many states and school districts, including Kansas, Oregon and California are considering such laws to protect children and teenagers from cyber bullying.
One stumbling block in making such laws is where to draw the lines and the hidden assumption that cyberbullying laws can and should be made “just right” for all situations – never too lax, never too harsh. But the letter of the laws can never cover all situations with “just right” justice. We always depend on human wisdom in the law’s application to specific situations. That’s just the way it is – for better or for worse.
And I think that in this area, safety should triumph over cyber freedom.
The second area that I think is more important in the long run is parenting for the specific situations involving our kids and teenagers. Our job is to monitor our children:
Do they look like they’re having a hard time (maybe being attacked by cyberbullies)? How can we help them stop bullying on their own or do we need to intervene?
Are they witnessing cyber bullying and are they struggling to know whether or how to intervene?
Are they cyber bullies? How do we stop them and help them develop the character to make amends and do better next time?
Should they even be on MySpace or Facebook or any social networking sites? What else would be a better use of their time and energy?
There are no safe environments. Schools and the real world have never been safe. Schools and social networks are testing grounds for the real world. And the real world is not and should not be safe. Facing risks and danger helps us develop good sense, good character and the qualities necessary to survive. Imagine growing up on a farm, in a wilderness village or in the middle ages. Not safe. I grew up in New York City. Not safe. Millennia ago we had to learn what a saber-toothed tiger’s foot prints looked like and how long ago they were left. The world still requires survival skills, even if different ones.