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Bullies and Bystanders — three years later

April 17, 2011

This morning I reposted an article that I wrote three years ago on the SocialSmarts Facebook page. This article, entitled “Bullies and Bystanders Beware” was featured on Huffington Post and, as a result, made its way into many different venues, all across the world.

The article was highly acclaimed at the time of its publication, generating hundreds of comments and emails from people all around the globe.  The sentiment was generally the same: “oh, my gosh, we didn’t know things had gotten so terrible, something MUST be done.”

That was three years ago…

What strikes me, when I reread the article today, is how little progress we’ve really made in the three years since then. In fact, while awareness of the problem has grown, so has the amount of money spent, laws enacted, and, at the same time, the damage path of anti-social behavior and suicides from bullying.

We may be learning more, but are we doing more, or doing better?  I think the answer is, generally, no.  Our schools are required to have anti-bullying policies in place, but we know, statistically, that most of them haven’t done much to stem the tide of hurtful behavior. More states have made bullying a crime, but have those laws actually been shown to reduce bullying?

When I wrote the original article, some of the kids who have made headlines were still alive:  Phoebe Prince, Scott Walz, Christian Taylor, Carl Walker Hoover, Jaheem Herrera, Jessie Logan…since then I’ve gotten to know some of the parents to varying degrees and I’ve shared their tragedies. I wonder, if we had done more then, would they still be with us today? Last year alone, we had 34 documented suicides due to bullying, and to date, it appears 2011 will out-pace that.  So much…and so little has changed in three years.

Albert Einstein, a personal hero of mine, is oft-quoted to say that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different outcome.” I’d say that this applies to the anti-bullying efforts in general. We are still doing more of the same, in hopes that this will have an effect. More money spent, more “anti-bullying” rallies, more legislation. If we want something different, doesn’t it stand to reason that we need to do something different?

But, trying to get people do something different is enormously hard. I recall nearly two years ago watching Ellen DeGeneres interview Sirdeaner Walker about her son’s suicide, and at the time, Ellen stopped the interview and asked why we weren’t teaching compassion, consideration and respect in each and every school in America, as part of the routine course of education.  I nearly fell out of my chair because that is exactly what SocialSmarts’ mission is.  I have since personally followed up with producers from Warner Bros and The Ellen Show numerous times to offer our services to show that Ellen has a point — that if we teach these skills, bullying is drastically reduced, if not eliminated in schools. Yet, each time, the feedback I receive from the show is that they don’t “do” these kinds of segments, or that they don’t want experts to talk about the issues.  Last Fall, Ellen and a host of other celebrities such as Anderson Cooper, Dr. Phil and Oprah did shows on the epidemic of bullying. But, there wasn’t anything different about those programs: it was all about the problem, the tragedy, the call to do something…but nobody talked about what is being done, what can be done now, and what’s proven to work. Instead, call for more legislation, more money, more “awareness.” Even President Obama’s recent pledge of $132M to combat bullying isn’t anything new, and really equates to little more than chunk-change when you do the analysis of how that gets allocated to schools. Even when it’s distributed, how do you think it will be used?

My point here is that we have to take a different approach to this problem if we are to see change.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — we need to focus on prevention, not management and mitigation. The problem of bullying is an end-result…it’s a symptom of a much larger problem, so if you just focus on that symptom, you are doing too little, too late.  What we’ve seen in our schools, our neighborhoods, and our communities points to this fact.

If we deal instead with the root cause of the problem by providing effective social skills education and character development, we will nip the problem in the bud. Sure, we’ll still have some problems — there will always be exceptions to what is considered appropriate behavior and conduct, but the good news is that they will be exceptions, and not the “normal conduct.”  We can then deal with those exceptions with appropriate consequences: discipline policies, procedures, and ultimately, laws. But you can’t “law” crime out of existence, and you can’t stop bullying by legislating it.

Clearly we can’t stop bullying by doing more of what we’ve done for the past three years, five years, or several decades. At what point do we say, “Let’s do something different?” If we don’t then, truthfully we are all bystanders who enable the problem to continue.

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