Bullying: Address the Problem, Attack the Cause

Vol. 13 No. 2

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How do you define “bullying”? Each state has a unique legal definition of what it means to bully, but what do you think of when you hear that one student has bullied another? Is it the boy who had his head flushed in a toilet, or the girl whose lunch money was taken? Sure, but bullying can also be more subtle and insidious. Take Colin, an eleven-year-old boy suffering from a sensory disorder similar to Asperger’s syndrome. Colin told his mother that he didn’t want a birthday party because no one would come. While indirect, this social ostracism certainly constitutes a sort of bullying—all the more difficult to combat because it’s so hard to identify.

Colin’s mom was so upset when she heard her son say this, she started a Facebook page campaign to collect happy birthday messages for Colin so he might not feel so alone when his birthday rolls around on March 9. But, is this campaign to gather the greetings of strangers really the best way to handle Colin’s isolation?

Slate writer Sarah Dwyer-Olson doesn’t think so. In her response to the recent media storm surrounding Colin and his lack of friends, Dwyer-Olsen asks if Colin will understand that these people are not truly his friends offline. “It is so easy to like a [Facebook] page and write a two-sentiment to someone you have never met,” she says, adding that “it is much harder to ask that awkward child who lives down the block to come over and play, to your children’s total dismay.”

Dwyer-Olsen hit the proverbial nail on the head: It’s easy to “fix” the immediate consequences of bullying. It’s much more difficult to address the foundational attitudes of a community that allowed the bullying in the first place.

Private-independent schools are seen as safe havens from this sort of harassment. ISM surveys and national studies corroborate parents’ perception of private schools as places free from violence and bullying. Even Victoria Beckham perpetuates this perception, commenting in a recent interview that she “didn’t go to a private school” and that she “was bullied because [she] was different from all the other children at the school.”

Popular TV shows like Fox’s “Glee” have pushed private school as a respite from bullying. An openly gay character transferred to a private school halfway through the show’s second season, just to escape the dangerous attentions of a violent bully. A few seasons later, that bully tried to hang himself, his own tormentors driving him to the reckless act.

In a CNN interview about the climactic scene and the consequences of bullying, actor Max Adler discusses how, because some teachers are discouraged from discussing difference in their classrooms, bullies believe their abusive behavior is condoned by authority figures. The school culture becomes one of exclusion instead of inclusion, of misinformation because none was shared at all.

Of course, there are behaviors that are acceptable in a school setting—kindness, courtesy, integrity, etc.—and those which are not. In the end, however, a culture of positive peer pressure to promote a healthy, positive environment will help the students “self-police” such inappropriate behavior in their peers.

In a sterling example of positive peer pressure, an elementary school’s football team in Massachusetts saw how their water boy was teased by his classmates for wearing suits to school and practice. So, this “band of brothers” got together and all wore suits to school one day to show their support of their teammate, creating a safe environment for one young man.

This supportive, inclusive environment is one everyone wishes to encourage and cultivate. How do you do this? In a word: Educate. Without outside guidance, families and faculty alike will respond to provocation, occasionally in well-intentioned but misguided ways.

For example, one mother found her daughter had misused her social media accounts to harass a fellow student online. Shocked, the mother had her daughter sell her iPod and donate the proceeds to a bullying-awareness group. All of which was fine, until the mother forced her daughter to write a sign detailing her crime and punishment. The mother photographed her daughter with the sign before posting it online for all to see. The punishment was nothing if not fitting in an “eye for an eye” sort of way, but as the story went viral, it inspired questions as to whether the picture was, itself, a case of cyberbullying.

To avoid situations like this, educate your students on what bullying looks like in all its form—electronic and in-person—and how to respond. Educate your faculty and staff on any state statutes on bullying, new forms of harassment, and how they should respond to specific cases while supporting a class-wide community of inclusion. Educate your parents and families on how to encourage their children when they are the victims of bullying behavior—and how to react when their children are the bullies.

No matter how (seemingly) homogeneous the environment, every group of people will have outsiders. While admitting mission-appropriate students and faculty strives to reach this universal moral and ethical alignment, the fact remains that these outsiders will still be found in private schools, from children’s cliques to adult “teams.” But, by raising awareness of bullying on all levels and nurturing a supportive, inclusive environment, it is possible to make your private school a true “safe haven” for all who enter its halls.

Additional ISM resources:
ISM Monthly Update for Risk Managers Vol. 3 No. 2 Fight Bullying With an Acceptable Use Policy
ISM Monthly Update for Risk Managers Vol. 4 No. 4 Wisconsin Bullying Case Dismissed: Private School Note To Blame
ISM Monthly Update for School Heads Vol. 10 No. 8 The “Bully” MPAA-Rating Controversy
ISM Monthly Update for Risk Managers Vol. 2 No. 2 Tips for Students: Managing Bullying
Private School News Vol. 10 No. 5 Cyberbullies Need Protection, Too

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 36 No. 3 Addressing Bullying and Sexual Misconduct
I&P Vol. 34 No. 2 The ISM 37-School Parent Survey: Convenience Factors at Private-Independent Schools

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