I have written about bullying before (See Don’t Go Back to Middle School, Zero Tolerance, and The Importance of Ickiness). Not surprisingly, it is a topic I hear about often from my child and adolescent clients and their parents. When I hear about an incident of bullying, I explore it from many angles. I want to know about the child(ren) who bullied and about the child who was targeted. I want to understand their relationship. I want to know who witnessed the incident and how the bystanders responded. I want to learn about the school’s (or other organization’s) written policies on bullying and I want to know about its actual practices. Far too often, the policies and practices do not align.
I have been working with Wes for about two years. Currently, he is away at college having a very successful freshman year, but when I met him, he was a pretty miserable junior at a local, highly regarded high school. Early on in therapy, he shared that he was a frequent target of jokes and name-calling and that he was especially upset about the ongoing harassment he was experiencing in his AP World History class. Wes, who is openly gay, reported having words such as “fairy” and “faggot” hurled at him on a daily basis by two boys in this particular class. When I asked why the teacher wasn’t present to intervene, his response was
The teacher just pretends he doesn’t hear. Wes, age 16
I have heard similar stories from kids of all ages and, prior to my work with Wes, I was unconvinced that some teachers were actually ignoring such inappropriate behavior. With permission from Wes, I reached out to the teacher, Mr. J., via email. I received a return email requesting a phone conversation; Mr. J. did not feel comfortable responding to my inquiry electronically. When we spoke, Mr. J. acknowledged that the bullying was happening just the way Wes described and that he had, in fact, not been intervening. Mr. J. chose to ignore the bullying for two reasons. First, he noted that Wes never appeared particularly upset about the comments made by his two classmates. Further, Mr. J. described the two boys as “basically good kids” with “very promising futures.” According to the teacher, the anti-bullying policy in the school district was so harsh that reporting the boys’ behavior could “ruin their lives.” One of the boys had been suspended for bullying once before, and the school district’s policy includes a three-strikes rule; if a student is disciplined three times for bullying, the student will have to spend the remainder of the school year in an alternative placement.
Initially, I was angry with Mr. J., but the more I listened to his viewpoint, the more I understood it. I still do not believe he was doing the right thing, but I believe he was doing the wrong thing with good intentions. This experience made me take a step back and look at the anti-bullying policy that motivated this teacher to remain quiet. I discovered, after researching about a dozen different anti-bullying programs marketed to schools, that many of them share a serious flaw; only the students who are acting as bullies are involved in any follow-up of a reported incident.
I would argue that bullying is not simply a problem that exists between two young people or between a young person and a group of peers. Bullying is a community problem. The community might be a classroom, a sports team, or an entire school, but in each of the situations, respectful treatment of all community members must be considered everyone’s responsibility, and the community must respond when this norm is violated.
By way of illustration, let’s look at a specific bullying incident described by Wes and Mr. J. It occurred on the day that Wes learned he had earned the male lead in the school’s production of the musical, Grease. As he entered Mr. J.’s classroom, a friend announced to the class that Wes would be playing Danny and congratulated him. A few others in the class, including Mr. J., also offered congratulations. As Wes sat down, he heard Brian say, “That fag won’t be very convincing as Danny,” and Brandon respond, “Not unless they are gaying up Grease.” A few classmates chuckled, and Mr. J. told everyone to pass their homework in and began lecturing. Wes reported remembering very little else about the class; he felt anxious and fought back tears for the rest of the period.
Here’s what I believe should have happened. As soon as Brian and Brandon spoke, someone in the class should have called them out on their inappropriate behavior. Someone should have said, “What makes you think it’s okay to treat someone that way?” or “Keep your ignorant comments to yourself,” or some other statement that would make it clear that the comments were out of line. Someone should have supported Wes by saying something like “Wes is perfect for the role” or “Wes, ignore them; they don’t know what they’re talking about.” And if none of the students spoke up, then Mr. J. should have turned to them and asked if they were okay with Brian and Brandon’s behavior. A discussion with the class should have then been facilitated by Mr. J. Brian and Brandon should have been required to stay; Wes should have been invited to stay or go. Following a discussion in which the members of the class (the community) were helped to recognize how their passive response to bullying sends the message to bullies that their behavior is acceptable and leaves a fellow classmate feeling alone and unsupported, Brian and Brandon should have been subjected to whatever policies the school has in place. In most schools, there is a written policy enforced by the disciplinarian. Without this final step, the anti-bullying policy might as well not exist; as soon as students see that it is not enforced, it has neither deterrent nor punitive value.
Very good teachers have shared with me how hard dealing with bullying is. Like Mr. J., some believe school policies are too harsh and/or too rigid; policies do not always allow for creative, individualized interventions. They worry about lost instructional time if they address bullying behavior during class. Some have had very negative experiences with parents after reporting a student for harassment. Every teacher I know has far too much on his or her proverbial plate.
Conceptualizing bullying as a community problem which requires a community response creates opportunities for learning for all members of a community. While addressing incidents of harassment in the moment may take time away from planned activities, it may also decrease the likelihood of future incidents. Further, because young people in the age groups that are most likely to engage in bullying tend to be very concerned about what their peers think of them, a community response is likely to have a much bigger impact than anything that happens between an adult and a student behind the closed door of an administrative office.
Wes’ story has a mixed ending. After Mr. J. understood how much pain Brian and Brandon were causing Wes, he agreed to intervene if he observed any additional incidents. Several weeks later, he overheard one of the boys call Wes a derogatory name in class and sent the student to the disciplinarian. Wes reported that the student was back in class the next day and assumed that there were no consequences. The harassment did not stop, but it did become less frequent. Brian and Brandon graduated with Wes. I continue to see Wes when he is home from college where he is having a very positive experience. He recently told me that he plans to change his major from History to Secondary Education. One day, he hopes to be a high school History teacher. He would also like to work on high school theater productions. He believes he can be a good mentor for kids who are struggling to fit in. I think he is absolutely right. I am not so hopeful about the futures of the other boys in this story. Their high school failed to teach them essential lessons about personal responsibility and accountability, about being part of a community, and about the consequences of violating community norms.
Addendum: Several weeks after I published this post, I came across this brief public service announcement. When you talk to your kids about bullying as a community problem, here is a simple way to teach them about the powerful role of the bystander.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]