Are you thoroughly frustrated yet? Your child has finally reported that he has been bullied, you have gone through the emergency process to set in place some supports and services to try to help him prospectively, but your report against the bully appears to have gotten you little of what you think you wanted (Revenge? An ounce of justice?). You learned nothing, you know nothing, and your child still feels unsafe.
This is not your employer who will fire any harasser for the first offense. Schools simply are not going to expel a kid for bullying. It just doesn’t happen and, candidly, in light of what I know about positive behavioral management, it probably would not be the best solution to deal with a bully who needs education not punishment. That being said, there must be consequences and I have rarely seen any that are meaningful, at least to the victim, who does want to see meaningful punishment so that the bully suffers as much as he has been suffering. I think it is much more meaningful for parents to be pro-active and help districts to come up with meaningful ways to prevent bullying and teach tolerance. Sure, they all claim that they teach these things but ask your older kids and none of them have any recollection of any curriculum designed to address these issues. And, did you know that at least in California, there is state mandated curriculum on these issues?
Consider the following state standards in California:
1.10 G Recognize that there are individual differences in growth and development, physical appearance, gender roles and sexual orientation.
2.5 G Evaluate how culture, media and other people influence perceptions about body image, gender roles, sexuality, attractiveness, relationships and sexual orientation.
5.5 G Use a decision making process to analyze the benefits of respecting individual differences in growth and development, physical appearance, gender roles and sexual orientation.
8.2 M Object appropriate to teasing of peers and community members that is based on perceived personal characteristics or sexual orientation
5.4 S Evaluate why some students are bullies
5.5 S Apply decision making or problem solving steps to hypothetical situations involving assault and intimidation, including sexual harassment.
8.3 S Design a campaign for preventing violence, aggression, bullying and harassment.
When you decide you want to get involved, set an appointment with the director of curriculum in your district and take any relevant state standards, such as those above in California. Ask the director who is responsible for fulfilling the instruction on those standards. They will likely tell you the health teacher. Then make an appointment with that teacher and ask for curriculum samples on each subject. Yes, they do teach about biological differences and growth and development but the minute you start talking about sexual orientation, they have nothing. This is significant because most of the harassment suffered by kids today is gay bashing, although bashing based on physical characteristics is also regularly involved. The curriculum above is not part of some “gay agenda” as some conservatives believe, but rather was mandated as part of the California hate crimes law (which was passed after the Mathew Shepherd murder in Laramie, Wyoming). Whatever you might think about gay rights, and I am not here to promote any agenda other than the “protect our children” agenda, the only way to start to reduce gay bashing is to promote tolerance toward gays and lesbians. Think about it. In the last century, racially motivated harassment was commonplace. Schools were segregated, there was an “us” against “them” mentality in the South between whites and blacks, and the N-Word was common place. How often do you hear that word anymore? How often do you hear gay bashing and the f-word? Watch Glee on Netflix and you will see how prevalent it is (and don’t get me started about the R-Word because that pisses me off royally too).
So, yes, if we want to promote school safe zones, reduce bullying (particularly in its most prevalent form of gay bashing), we need schools to teach tolerance. Ask any high school student in California what they have learned about the state standards above, and they likely will tell you “nothing”. Ask what curriculum they recall about bullying and, if you are lucky, they might remember that one hour rules assembly the first week of school, when they were all in the gym, texting their friends, and goofing off, and the Vice Principal reminded everyone that this was a zero-tolerance school. Meaningful? I don’t think so.
Do schools teach fractions in one hour, in a crowded gym, in the first week of school? Heck no. They spend weeks on it, every year, repeatedly reinforcing them through follow up lessons. Why don’t we do the same for tolerance curriculum? It isn’t as if they don’t have opportunities. Most middle school and high school English classes have daily or weekly journal prompts. It would be simple to put in weekly prompts that inspire kids on lessons in perspective taking. How many of your 9thgraders read “The Lord of the Flies”? Do we really think Piggy liked being called Piggy? What if half of the class had to write a diary entry as if they were Piggy and half of the class took the perspective of Jack. Sounds like some curriculum about why bullies bully and how bullying impacts the victim, if you ask me. If schools only looked at resources they already had – teachers, literature, the news – they would find examples in every day life to use as talking points. Some teachers are now using blogs for students to have a more naturalistic discussion forum, among themselves. These blogs are perfect vehicles for students to discuss things they hear or see – like last month's Glee episode, where Artie yells that he is tired of being told that “things will get better”; “I want it better now”, he cries.
I could go on and on with examples on the web, public interest commercials, organizations that are out there, fighting the good fight, where “in the heat of the moment” examples could be found for teachers to teach about. Here are a few of my favorite examples (in addition to the Lord of the Flies and Glee examples above):
1. Soren Palumbo’s speech to his high school senior class urging them to stop using the R word http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zFKFshINuw [Soren, as a popular senior in highschool, told a story to his senior class during "senior day" activities, about his disgust with the R-word and the unconditional love that he got every day from his little sister, Olivia, who was intellectually disabled as a result of brain surgery for her eplilepsy. Soren became a national spokesman for the Special Olympics, after a successful four years at Notre Dame, and regularly advances their "Spread the Word to End the Word" campaign.
2. Think Before You Speak PSA’s http://www.thinkb4youspeak.com/ In this series of public service commercials, Hollywood stars talk about the hateful feelings engendered by saying “That’s so gay”.
3. Pink Shirt day. http://www.pinkshirtday.ca/about/ This Canadian campaign, was organized by a few high school friends. They decided to all wear pink shirts to show sympathy for a 9th grade boy who was being bullied. They distributed pink shirts to all the boys in their school. They stood up for the weaker student.
I think you get the idea. If children are asked to read these stories and discuss them, while you will get the occasional “we are overly sensitive” comments, the majority will be empathetic. If the assignment is to discuss ways to support a victim, oppose bullying, promote tolerance, you at least get the kids talking. If, at the same time, teachers are given discrete, specific, and uniform instruction about their roles in reporting abuse, harassment, name-calling, you go far to starting to change the status quo. Teachers won’t report name-calling, gay bashing, generalized “bad citizenship” for many reasons. They may think it isn’t a big deal. They may think they stopped it by telling the student to stop. They may not want to get a kid in trouble because they THINK the school has a zero tolerance policy. Or, they may not want to get the nasty-gram from the angry parent who taught the child how to be so disrespectful and intolerant by modeling intolerance at home. While none of these excuses teacher apathy, our goal here is to promote a global response.
When my own son started an organization to end hate motivated behavior on his school campus (Voices Against Cruelty, Hatred and Intolerance – www.vachi.net) he suggested a comprehensive overhaul of the discipline policy to provide a first offender program. The program had two parts: training for teachers to automatically refer any offensive comment, statement, bullying, name calling, etc. together with a uniform response that was educational instead of punitive. Modeled after the Criminal Justice First Offender program in many states for small quantities of marijuana possession, the program freed teachers of any responsibility for determining discipline. They automatically refer all students to a central person (usually the vice principal) The staff are told that they are referring the children for education, not punishment so hopefully they will not be resistant to making the initial referral. The school creates a unified, comprehensive education program in which all referred students (and their parents) participate. Yes, parents have to be part of the process too - from whom do you think the bullies got their moral compass? The program includes instruction and curriculum on bullying and its consequences and requires students to participate in counseling with the school counselors to learn about perspective taking. The educational program takes place during lunch, so that there are consequences (e.g. student’s miss their “fun” lunch time). In addition, students sign behavioral contracts that make clear that if they remain “clean” for the remainder of their educational career, the offense will be wiped off their record, with no trace of the incident. However, if a second incident occurs, the student is made aware of what must be significant consequences, which, at least in my mind, include loss of school privileges for at least the remainder of the year. While schools are loath to expel or otherwise long-term suspend students, with the number of on line home-school programs, such expulsion must be encouraged. Unless there are real consequences, bullying will continue.
At the same time as schools are working with teachers to teach them how to report and how to teach tolerance, students need to band together to encourage and promote positive witness behavior. Research shows that student witnesses appear to have a central role in creating opportunities for bullying and harassment. In a study of bullying in junior and senior high schools, 88% of students reported having observed bullying. Studies suggest only between 10 and 20 percent of non- involved students provide any real help when another student is victimized. Students are looking for ideas to stand out among a national group of over achievers and get into the best universities. What better way than starting a club to promote tolerance and end bullying by focusing on witness behavior. That is what my son did, not for the do-good points but for his own self-preservation. While bullying will obviously continue, bullies are not stupid and likely would not target the president of the anti-bullying club for their abuse. At the same time, what started out of despair, grew out of hope and a real desire to inspire change.
Voices Against Cruelty, Hatred and Intolerance (VACHI) now has an international presence thanks to its website (www.vachi.net) and FACEBOOK page. They created “No Hate Zone” signs to post in every room. They spoke directly to teachers asking them to post the signs and to tell kids that “in this room, there will be no dissing, no name-calling, and no bullying”. They worked with the English department to forward curriculum ideas. They sponsored activities around No Name Calling Week. They create a Ties for Tolerance Contest (the class having the largest percentage of tie-wearing students, in support of tolerance, won a pizza party). They had bake sales to support the Matthew Shepherd Society. They made wrist bands to raise funds for anti-bullying books for the elementary school. In short, they were present and active and reminding everyone, everyday, that they stood for a new tomorrow.
While it is with great pride that I share this story, as my son is a survivor, it is not a shameless promotion that causes me to promote his program. It was something. It is present. It got kids talking and teachers thinking. It seeks to do what administrators won’t do – admit there is a problem and work to help to fix that problem by asking students to speak out in support of someone they see being maligned and to promote a more tolerant environment. Any student can start their own chapter by going to the VACHI website and hitting the “contact us” button for a how to guide. Student service clubs are generally well received on public school campuses.
The key is never to accept the status quo. The status quo is what got you to where you are now – reading my blog. And, if your administration does not have comprehensive policies, you and any VACHI club on your child’s campus can seek to get those changed as well.
So, what is left on this bullying topic? Stay tuned for the final installment in this series: What to do with the bully.
November 1, 2013
IQ Testing: Should I Say No?
January 11, 2012
What's in a Label? When a Rose By Any Other Name May Not Be a Rose.