Bullying: denial doesn’t help

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.

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17 Comments

  1. Manifestly, if “responsible adults” were preventing bullying or dealing with it effectively when it happened (in a way that was useful for the victims, not just the perpetrators), we wouldn’t need laws. Bullying laws seem to be the response that’s left when people who should be doing something are not.

    Also, “it doesn’t happen here” is the kind of thing one regularly hears from those “responsible adults” who are really, really good at not seeing a damn thing going down around them. Because, you know, if you don’t see it, it can’t be happening.

    • Former victim of bullying

       /  January 3, 2012

      I wouldn’t call it “it doesn’t happen here”. I’d more refer to it as “not my child” — i.e. “it’s not my child doing the bullying, so why should I care” or “my child isn’t being bullied, so perhaps those *other* children just need to grow up a little”. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that, both of those. Whenever bullying is even discussed, parents will clam up and pretend that their children are good little boys and girls — “oh it’s not *my* child”. And a parent of a bully will more readily believe that their child is completely innocent in the face of accusation, leading to denial that any bullying is occurring. And when the parents are in denial about it, what can you do?

  2. JOANIE

     /  January 1, 2012

    Isn’t it a sad commentary on our society that we need laws for everything?

    Unfortunately, we cannot legislate parental responsibility or involvement in a child’s moral and ethical upbringing. With all the laws we do have, and all the parental responsibilities that have been taken over by the schools, parents feel perfectly comfortable abdicating their responsibilities. It is a vicious circle.

    • I’m reading an interesting book right now about authoritarian personalities and politics. There appear to be a fair number of voting adults who conflate aggressive physical force with power and advocate violence even when their opinions are not founded in factual reality. I think it is fair to assume that they are passing these values along to their children.

  3. Hi Pal, I posted this article at The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism Facebook page. Typically our community comments there, rather than popping back to the original article to comment.

  4. Old Geezer

     /  January 1, 2012

    Parents may be responsible for curbing bad behavior, but the parents of bullies are often bullies themselves, so that is not a place where effective control can be expected. The law should considered as a backup to good parenting, but necessary nevertheless.

  5. DLC

     /  January 1, 2012

    I went to a good school, in a good, christian community where almost everyone went to church every Sunday and where the local social circles were heavily intertwined. (in other words, everybody knew everybody else, either directly or through someone they knew. ) Punishment for breaking the rules at school varied from detention to paddling to suspension, with the “Death Penalty” of expulsion as the worst possible. I was, at age 12, 5 ft 8″ tall and 160 lbs. And I was bullied, relentlessly, without letup, from 6th grade on. The perpetrators were 4 or 5 boys who decided they didn’t like me and who summarily set forth to ruin everything I did. I was harassed, my books vandalized, I was attacked by everything from hit-and-run fists and feet to a rock wrapped in masking tape thrown into the back of my head by the Jr Varsity quarterback. No one was ever punished for it except me when I hit back and got caught at it. Understand this much: You will not stop bullying. Not by laws, not by school rules. Bullying will not stop due to ad campaigns, PTA meetings or Teacher’s unions. The only solution I see forthcoming is if everyone — teachers, parents, administrators AND kids all understand that bullying is unacceptable behavior. All it takes is one kid who wants to be popular at someone else’s expense, and the deal’s off.
    Good luck.

    • saffronrose

       /  January 1, 2012

      DLC’s experience was much like my sister’s: only when she fought back did anyone get punished, and it was her.

      PALMd said:
      In Michigan, the legislature wanted a “religious exemption” that would essentially allow bullying if it arose from a sincerely held religious belief.

      I believe a number of groups of all kinds (of primarily fundamentalist Christians) have asked for this, as they have also asked for exemptions in paying for women’s reproductive health care (you know we’re all sluts, spreading disease and breaking up marriages, not to mention learning witchcraft, turning lesbian, and killing our kids (was that what one of the Big Televangelists once said, why we weren’t going to (their) churches?)), on the grounds of religious beliefs. They specifically asked for ***special rights***, too.

      Where have I heard that phrase before? Oh, yeah, whenever the LGBTQI community sought merely *equal* rights with hets.

  6. Former victim of bullying

     /  January 3, 2012

    I do not advocate this at all, but sometimes you have little choice. Bullying against my brother and I reached a head about 19 years ago when I was in 7th grade, when I was shot with a pellet gun one night out in front of my house. Our house was getting egged on a regular, nearly routine basis. They were vandalizing our property, chasing my brother and I down at the bus stops. It was terrorism, plain and simple, and it seemed it wasn’t going to end.

    Then we turned on the bullies. One of my mother’s coworkers at the time, a high school student, offered to help us… in the form of a gang of 20 of his friends who waited for the bullies one afternoon at the bus stop. We never had a problem after that.

    Again I do not advocate that at all. We were at the breaking point. We appealed to the police, the school board, the officers and administrators of the school(s) we attended. Nothing. No one was going to do anything to help us, and I think it’s because there wasn’t anything they could do to help us. We were powerless. And complicating matters more is that whenever my brother and I fought back, the bullies would turn us in and we’d get reprimanded by the school — my brother was suspended from school more than once because of that, in one instance because he was defending me. Meanwhile nothing happened to the bullies whenever we turned them in because the bullies always had friends who could back them up in their denial that any bullying was actually happening.

    What turns a schoolyard brawl into bullying is when the victor gets an invincibility complex in his mind. The kids we had to deal with had that invincibility complex. And in less than an hour’s time one spring afternoon in 1993, we snuffed it out. No longer did they feel invincible. Instead for the first time in a long time, the bullies were afraid of their victims. Nothing can describe that feeling, the feeling of knowing you’d finally gained the upper hand.

  7. JOANIE

     /  January 3, 2012

    Fifteen years ago, my son was beaten by a teacher, in front of a classroom full of students, one of whom was the superintendent’s daughter. Nothing was done to the teacher, but my son was suspended for cursing at the teacher (during the beating). So what does this say to all the students?

    Also, do ANY parents today ever admit that their child does anything wrong? Of course not….that might be bad for the child’s self-esteem!

  8. Monica

     /  January 4, 2012

    Thank you for this. I attended a hippie-ish quasi-Montessori private school from kindergarten through fourth grade and was bullied pretty severely using the kinds of quiet tactics that are most often deployed at girls: exclusion, gossip, teasing, name-calling. The school was so invested in its own self-image as a kind and loving place that for the most part, my teachers and the principal really failed to see what was happening. I only have a few clear memories of that school and only about 10% of them don’t involve some degree of me feeling miserable. Bullying hard-wires the child’s developing brain with feelings of fear and worthlessness that are very hard to shake–much like other forms of ongoing stress and trauma. You are absolutely right to name it as a public health problem, and I really appreciate it.

    • saffronrose

       /  January 4, 2012

      Monica says:
      Bullying hard-wires the child’s developing brain with feelings of fear and worthlessness that are very hard to shake–much like other forms of ongoing stress and trauma.

      It’s domestic violence without the domestic part. Victims of long term domestic violence certainly develop PTSD, it’s no surprise that bullying victims develop the same.

      My sister was a victim of both kinds of violence. I was lucky–except for verbal and emotional violence from my father, likely an undiagnosed bipolar–I was pretty oblivious to what little there possibly was towards me in school. Absent-minded professor here.

    • Some of the worst mom-on-mom bullying I have endured has come from one other Montessori mom regarding our differences of opinion on vaccination. As you said, ideology makes it hard for people to accept objective reality. That said, my son has used the Montessori peace curriculum tools effectively in his new public school.

  9. Frankly, religious kids who bully (perceived) gay kids should not be expelled under anti-bullying legislation.
    They should be incarcerated under anti-hate crime legislation. As should their headmaster, unless it’s truly a pattern of hostile climate the headmaster personally supported. In which case incarceration may be too gentle. These sick fucks are deadly, and bits in the Bible about stoning make them feel that their sadistic homicidal rage is righteous. I want them out of my society. Yesterday.

    • saffronrose

       /  January 4, 2012

      Sciliz, I think you’ve got something there about which laws under which to prosecute. I agree completely with what you’ve said, and I think it applies especially to Joanie and to Monica’s situations.

    • Intriguing. I like it.

  10. Although it’s another reason we need national Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation coverage for hatecrime laws.
    GrumbleMumbleGrumble.

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