Views expressed in this blog are mine alone and are not intended to represent Williamson County policy nor intended as legal advice.
“You’re ugly.” “You smell.” “You’re stupid.”
Pushed into a locker. Tripped getting to your seat. Books knocked off your desk.
Being isolated. Having no one willing to sit with you. Whispers and rumors and giggles following you.
These are all forms of bullying. They happen every day in our schools. They are NOT acceptable, normal behavior. They hurt everyone involved – the child who’s bullied, the child who bullies, the bystanders, the teachers and the parents. It’s directly related to an increased risk of truancy. Addressing the bullying problem in our schools starts with acknowledging the problem.
The 2014 statistics reported from nobullying.com, show that 30% of schoolchildren in America (1 in 3) experience some level of bullying between grades 6 through 10. Sadly, throughout an entire childhood that percentage jumps to 83% of girls and 79% of boys that will experience some form of harassment. Middle School seems to be where bullying becomes most prevalent, though it can happen at any grade level.
Dr. Kimberly Mason, PhD. author of "Bullying No More" calls bullying a form of aggression where the child who bullies deliberately intimidates and humiliates their target to induce fear through threat of further aggression. There are four types of bullying: physical, verbal, relational and electronic.
But what, exactly, is bullying behavior?
There are three criteria that need to be present for behavior to be considered bullying. One, there must be a power imbalance. Two, there is intent. Three, the behavior is repeated.
Imagine this scenario: The queen bee of 7th grade (Sophia), mocks her classmate’s (Allison) clothing in her hearing on a daily or near daily basis. Sophia derides Allison’s outfits, mocking their cost, their cleanliness and how they make her look. Sophia’s friends laugh. Other students start avoiding Allison, not wanting to draw the attention of Sophia and her friends. Is this bullying behavior?
Let’s break it down. As the individual at the top of the social hierarchy, Sophia has a great deal of power. She’s a leader, of sorts. Her decisions regarding other students can make their lives much harder or much easier. Thus, we have a power imbalance. Sophia’s comments are made in such a way that Allison, and others, can hear them. There is intent since they are said without concern of Allison’s feelings. Lastly, we have repetition. This is an ongoing campaign by Sophia to isolate Allison.
There haven’t been any physical altercations between Sophia and Allison but there has been relational and verbal bullying. Sophia’s comments isolate Allison. Those students who avoid Allison are affected as well. Their fear of becoming the next target makes them part of the bullying. Teachers and administrators who turn a blind eye or don’t recognize Sophia’s actions as bullying send a clear statement – this type of behavior is acceptable and they won’t help you if you’re the next target. Allison’s parents are faced with a child who may suddenly refuse to go to school, who becomes withdrawn and depressed or who acts out at home.
The entire community is affected, not just Sophia, Allison and their classmates and it will take the entire community to solve the problem.
We’ve all heard the phrase “boys will be boys”. Its partner is “girls can be mean”. Neither one is an acceptable excuse for poor behavior or a lack of action on an adult’s part. Telling a child who is bullied they need to toughen up and not take things so seriously does far more harm than good. We, as a community, must take responsibility for the messages we’re sending our kids when we use these tired phrases. We’re telling boys it’s ok to harass someone weaker. We tell girls being mean and petty is the path to social acceptance. We tell those who are bullied they are weak and the bullying behavior is unimportant.
So, what do we do instead? We must teach our children, our teachers and administrators and the entire community how to recognize bullying behavior. We must stress that this behavior is always unacceptable and serious. Next, we must create a culture of what Irish-American diplomat Samantha Power calls upstanders not bystanders.
An upstander is someone who sees wrong and acts. They take a stand against an act of injustice or intolerance and don’t simply “stand by” and watch it happen. They assume personal responsibility without fear of what others may think. They understand what a failure to act may cause.
Once we understand it is our responsibility to be an upstander, we need to know how to intervene. We must foster empathy and have a set of strategies in place to make us competent to intervene. The last step is taking that action – stepping up to diffuse a situation with a joke, sitting with someone who is being bullied and engaging them (not the one bullying), telling an adult – these are all ways to act.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that these tools are not just for our youth. We can all use them. Adults can be the ones who bully as much as any child. Sometimes they target other adults, sometimes they target children. Either way, stepping up and speaking out is always appropriate.
The list of resources this time is long. I hope you take the time to review them.