Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Bullying dilemma

We have all had the experience of being victimized – or watching someone else be victimized – by the school bully.

It follows a pretty pathetic pattern. Someone appoints himself (or herself … for the purposes of eliminating confusion I will henceforth use the male pronoun) the official alpha and proceeds to use physical and emotional intimidation to solidify the position.

What happens next is fairly predictable too. The alpha – with the help of a few members of his “posse” – comes up with some sort of rudimentary pecking order that, for reasons we’ve never really been able to figure out, remains cemented in place for the entire duration of the school experience.
If you find yourself at the top of the food chain, then good for you. You may find your four years of high school tolerable. However, you might want to consider this: the pressure that comes with trying to stay on the alpha’s good side might still make your life a stress magnet.

The lower you are on that chain, of course, the more susceptible you are to various degrees of bullying, depending on your position, your personality, and the various other unspoken whims that govern the alpha’s modus operandi.
If you were to compare going to high school with any one aspect of the animal kingdom, the most appropriate scenario would be a pack of wolves, where the alphas reign, the pecking order is almost unbreakable, and loners are shunned.

And with regards to the outrage that accompanied the suicide of Phoebe Prince of South Hadley, Mass., all I can say is this: if it were that easy to get a handle on bullying, and to stop it in its tracks, it probably would have been done decades ago. You can probably take every student-perpetrated school shooting in the United States and trace it back to the fact that the shooter was either victimized by bullies or felt overwhelming rejection by those he targeted.
This doesn’t make it right. Nor does our lack of understanding, not to mention our inability to come up with a workable solution to the problem, excuse us from continuing to try.

I just don’t think, though, that every aspect of bullying falls under the parameters of a criminal complaint. In fact, I take the exact opposite approach … that if we’re elevating bullying to criminal status, we’re a) admitting that we’re powerless to deal with the situation; and b) we’ve done a horrible job nipping these incidents in the bud early … BEFORE they rise to the level of criminality.
Before we can start arresting people, and charging them, willy nilly, we must set parameters. If, as the result of bullying, a person is physically injured, then the appropriate criminal charges must be filed … assault and battery, aggravated assault … any one of a number of them.
That, of course, is contingent upon whether the victim considers filing them a safe, sensible thing to do. More often than not, they conclude that it isn’t, because the schools cannot adequately protect them from repercussions … either from the bully himself or his posse of lackeys whose collective moral integrity is probably even farther down on the food chain than the alpha’s.

But bullying doesn’t always rise to the level of physical confrontation. Actually, the worst bullying almost always involves patterns that do not involve violence. Taunting and name-calling generally rule the day. Fellow teens are also very good at ostracizing peers they deem unworthy of their company, and that can often feel worse to the victim than a punch in the nose. At least you can retaliate against one of those.

Finally, there’s the growing, and very alarming, aspect of cyber-bullying, which is the new-age extension of scrawling incriminating graffiti on the restroom stalls and walls.
Let’s take these one at a time.

Name-calling and taunting are not criminal issues and neither is ostracizing classmates. This isn’t to say either should be tolerated. But trumping up charges of “violating civil rights” over these issues is gross overreaction. Only in the most extreme cases – and the Prince case certainly comes to mind – should these steps be taken. And even then, if you’re going to file charges for them, the schools that served as the clearing house for all this abuse should be held accountable too.

That’s what bothers me in the Prince case. If the DA in western Massachusetts found it necessary to charge nine students of South Hadley High School on various counts, then there has to be at least one offense – perhaps the civil rights one – to pin against the school system. Obviously, if this abuse went far enough that Phoebe Prince felt that life was no longer worth living, then it had to be pretty darn pervasive. For school officials to act as if they hadn’t known about it, or that they did all they could to prevent it, is absurd. Especially if those nine students were still in school to torment the girl.

Schools need to knock heads on this issue and work out a step-by-step solution to the problem. And it doesn’t start in high school. It starts in the first grade, which is when kids begin to get the idea they’re better than everyone else.
The bully in the third grade is generally still the bully in high school. These patterns develop early and they do not change. And although bullies tend to pick up victims along the way, they seldom stop abusing the ones they’ve already collected. Sadly, that pattern remains in place too.

I say first or second grade is not too early to suspend children for being bullies, whether it’s physical or mental. Children who taunt, belittle, ostracize … they are exhibiting an almost pathological behavior that goes well beyond “just being kids.” They should be removed from the mix and their parents forced (with the penalty of not being able to return to school without verification) to deal with their issues – professionally if they’re bad enough.

If parents are not going to teach their children these things then it’s up to the schools do to it … by default, I suppose. And it’s too bad if parents consider that usurping their right to raise their children. Maybe if they raised their children schools wouldn’t have to resort to these draconian measures.

I would propose the following: Children exhibiting antisocial behavior in the form of bullying get one written warning sent home to their parents. If the problem continues, a suspension would accompany the second incident. And if that doesn’t work, then the child obviously needs some sort of professional intervention and should not be allowed to attend school until that help is obtained.
Even then, it’s questionable as to whether you can ever root out all bullies. But you might be able to eliminate the “posses” that empower the alphas to continue to be bullies.

On the other side, there are, sadly, chronic victims. And they form their patterns at just as early an age as bullies do. They have the same lack of self esteem as bullies (yes, that IS the root of all bullying … self-esteem issues manifested by aggression), but channel it in a different direction … timidity, awkwardness, inability to interact socially. Again, to use our animal kingdom comparison, they stand out as easy prey. And if you know anything about carnivores, you know that they don’t go after the strong … they prey on the weak.

I think it’s just as important that while we attack bullies head on we do not ignore the needs of the victims. It’s not enough to stave off the bullies. Schools have just as important a responsibility toward the victims, because once you’ve become a target, everything you say and do becomes magnified … and, perhaps, distorted … until it begins happening repeatedly. Then, it feeds on itself and the cycle continues, and tightens, until your life becomes a living hell. You lose your identity, and you find yourself trying to say and do things that you think will keep the bullies off your back … except that it doesn’t. Instead, the bullies and the posses sense the awkwardness and unease, and keep pressing their feet on your throat.

Just as I think bullies need professional help to sort their issues out, victims likewise need the aid of an impartial professional to deal with their situations. Otherwise, these feelings fester to the point that, maybe, someday, you have another Columbine on your hands. But even if you do not, schools that ignore this side of bullying run the risk of moving extremely wounded, emotionally fragile people through the system. And that’s a worse risk, I’d say, than going light on bullies. After all, remember that bullies do not prey on confident people.

This leaves us with cyber-bullying. I do not minimize this. It goes to the very heart of what pours fuel on this cycle. Bullies rule by intimidation. If you speak up about any of this, you run the risk of making your life worse, not better … unless the school system, and all the adults involved, step in and back you up. More often than not, they do not. They just don’t understand the nature of the beast.
This might change in 20 years, when all aspects of the education system have been fully integrated into the social networking system. But for now, there are still far too many administrators whose familiarity with Facebook and MySpace are passing, at best.

It’s hard to get a handle on cyber-bullying because, obviously, you cannot control what you cannot see. The onus here is on parents to do a better job of monitoring what their children do on the internet. And spare me the argument of rights to privacy. I don’t want to hear them. They are not relevant. They don’t exist. Not when you’re 14 and 15 and have no clue about how easily what you say and do can come back to haunt you and hurt you … and others.

I don’t know how you combat this, except that the same laws of slander and libel should absolutely apply … and the same defenses against them as well. If your child is spreading lies about another student on the internet, that is libel. And the victim’s family should absolutely have the right, under libel laws, to seek redress through the courts. If it gets to this point, we’re not talking “kids will be kids” anymore.

Schools still need to step in, though. If a court case is initiated, it is absolutely up to the schools to protect all involved here … using steps up to, and including, expulsion. And if restraining orders become necessary, schools need to do whatever they have to do to enforce them … even if that means keeping the accused bully out of the school.

They key here is to make it not worth the bully’s while to continue the behavior, and the hope is that by doing so, you moderate the behavior. That’s the best you’re ever going to be able to do, because – I’m afraid – humans, being animals themselves, are hard-wired to set up these social structures and exhibit these behaviors no matter how old they are, and where they are. Bullying is just as prevalent in the work place, in politics, and – especially – in organizations involving adult leadership over kids (or maybe you haven’t been on the board of directors of your local Little League).

But hard though it may be, schools and parents bear the responsibility here to do whatever they can to keep all of this antisocial behavior from spiraling out of control. Failure to do so can – at some point, but not always – be considered criminal.

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