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What are we REALLY doing about bullying?

October 4, 2010

Bullying in schools is becoming a hot topic — again.  Dr. Phil is highlighting it again on his show.  Larry King Live will do something tonight related to bullying of gays and lesbians. This week, Anderson Cooper is dedicating his entire “AC 360” program to the topic.  We’ve heard of another student who killed himself — this time after a homosexual encounter was caught on tape and posted on YouTube.  It’s seeming like we’ve been here before, that the media attention is a positive.  But, at the end of the day, will anything really be any different?

As many of you know, I’ve been traveling pretty much non-stop the last few weeks, promoting the idea of positive social skills and character as a solution to many of the problems in schools. Bullying is one topic I’ve been raising with the children to whom I’ve spoken, relating the concepts of empathy, compassion and respect as the key to eliminating bullying. During these presentations, I’ve made several interesting discoveries:

  • In my presentations to students, I ask them to raise their hands if they know of someone who has been bullied (I specifically do NOT ask them to raise their hands if THEY have been bullied — too personal and we don’t want to call attention to those already victimized).  In every case, virtually EVERY hand goes up in group — some as young as Kindergarten and 1st Grade.
  • Now, as a follow on to that question, I ask them to raise their hands if they’ve never heard that bullying is bad.  “Who doesn’t know that bullying is bad and that we shouldn’t do it?” Not a single hand goes up. EVERYONE knows that bullying is bad.
  • So, I continue by asking: “If we all KNOW that bullying is bad, why do you suppose it still happens?”

The key to why may be in this next story.

A few weeks ago, I was giving some public talks in local libraries. These were “informational” discussions in which I shared “Overcoming Failure to Educate” which shows, among other things, how every problem we currently have in Education can be directly or indirectly linked back to poor social skills/character development.  At one of these presentations, a mother brought her 13-year old daughter.  One of the topics I discussed in the presentation was, naturally, bullying. Apparently this resonated with the mom and her daughter because after my presentation, they discussed the topic further in the car on their way home.

I know this because the mom emailed me the next day. The discussion as related to me, went something like this:

I said to her…what does your school do to promote anti-bullying? Her answer…well there are posters up in the hallways.  Nobody is assigned to “talk about the real issues.”   So, posters are plastered across the hallways, yet nobody talks about the real happenings and consequences and effects on the victim of bullying.

[My daughter] was a victim of bullying in grade school.  Same thing – posters were hung in the gym, etc.  When I approached administration regarding a bullying incident, little to nothing was done to correct the situation. 

I don’t think this is all that unusual. Schools are mandated to have some sort of anti-bullying program, approach or policy in place to deal with the problem. But there’s nothing that holds the schools accountable for how well — if at all — these programs work.  As long as they have their posters up, and a “zero tolerance” policy, well, they can check the box that says “yup, we have a policy/program in place.”

And, largely this seems to be the case.  After my presentation last week in Illinois, I was asked about the effectiveness of “Zero Tolerance” policies.  I know people who cringe when they hear that phrase because it’s largely meaningless. It’s great that we have these policies because they are necessary, but we also have a Zero Tolerance policy against murder in this country but it’s not enough to stop people from killing each other.

The point is, this is not “publish it and they will stop.”  These kids KNOW bullying and harassment is wrong. They’ve heard it.  Heck, even Dr. Phil is sending his son Jay McGraw into schools to tell them, once again, that bullying is bad — as if Jay will be able to tell them something they don’t already know.

We don’t need more “telling,” and “better policies” aren’t the answer, either. We need to show — teach the kids WHY it’s wrong and show them better alternatives that prevent this kind of behavior from happening. Teach all the kids, reinforce it all the time so that the underlying culture changes. Build a positive culture, and bullying will die down as a result. Then, when an incident does occur, it will be isolated and you can deal with it effectively by enforcing policies and imposing consequences.  You can’t do that if 20/30% or more of the student body is engaging in anti-social behavior. There won’t be enough jailers to lock up all the inmates!

If we spent one-tenth the amount of time, energy and resources on prevention as we do on mitigation and management, we might find ourselves making headway. As it is, slapping a poster up on a wall and hoping the students take it to heart isn’t going to make a whit of difference. Shame on the schools who think this is actually some form of effort toward ending bullying.  When no one talks about the real issues and impacts, how do you expect to get to the students’ hearts and heads? Yet, THAT’s the only place where we stand a chance of making a positive change.

Calling on empathy, compassion, consideration and respect — showing the kids “what’s in it for THEM” is vital. Because when you can do that, and show them a better way that gets them more of what they want, more easily, and less of what they don’t want…that’s the key to any change. Not a bunch of words on a piece of paper or poster.

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