This isn’t an easy piece to write. It involves specific people in the community where I live. But it’s important enough to take a risk. My wife was reading our local weekly paper and ran into a letter to the editor she (and I) found disturbing. It is about one parochial school headmaster’s feelings about state bullying laws.
The letter could have been written by any public or private school principal, any educator in denial about bullying. I’ll allow that I may have failed to understand the letter’s meaning: it’s not terribly well-written. But it is illustrative of a wider concept—that while bullying is a serious problems, “our own” school’s policies or moral foundations immunize us to its worst effects.
No public or parochial school is immune to bullying. Bullying is a serious problem, one that is easy to ignore, especially if you feel your own community or school is somehow “immunized” by good moral foundations. It is a problem that must be specifically addressed, within a particular moral framework or in a secular one.
Bullying is a slippery concept. As states begin to discuss anti-bullying legislation, disagreements arise regarding what exactly bullying is. In Michigan, the legislature wanted a “religious exemption” that would essentially allow bullying if it arose from a sincerely held religious belief. This was obviously problematic to those of us who don’t want to give kids a licence to shout “Christ-killer”, “fag” and other “deeply-help beliefs” as the beat the crap out of someone.
While most people with a conscience believe bullying to be wrong, there is scientific evidence to support this idea as well. For example, a recent Finnish study showed both bullying and being bullied predict future psychiatric problems. Still, most people tend to focus on bullying as a moral problem—hurting kids is bad—rather than a public health one.
Why should we need anti-bullying laws? The letter referenced above claims that children can learn the right thing without a law. Aren’t parents and other adults responsible for curbing bad behavior?
The insanity of this idea is obvious to those of us who see how child-bullies grow up into adult-bullies. Parents often enough shrug off their children’s bad behavior, chalking it up to the normal pains of growing up. But simple childhood fights and disagreements are very different from bullying. Bullying is a pervasive pattern of abuse leveled at a particular person, not a simple, transient fight. And adults are part of the problem.
No school, no matter how good its intentions, how strong its moral convictions, is immune from bullying problems. Without objective data showing the success of an anti-bullying program, we should assume the worst: that bullying is an ongoing problem.
Bullying is a behavior found in all religious and ethnic groups, and simply espousing a higher moral code is no guarantee of immunity. In all communities we must protect our children from the destructive effects of bullying. We must guard against complacency, against that idea that a good policy or a specific set of religious beliefs guarantees the safety of our children. For bullying policies to be effective they must track data, must continuously assess effectiveness. This requires that school officials see bullying as more than “kids being kids”, and see a policy as more than something to check on a list of school supplies, like chairs and desks. Kids aren’t furniture.