Bullying existed long before this election. Montana, my state, has routinely had the (dis)honor of being among the top five states for most bullying in schools. Now, with a president whose behavior and words embolden bullies, it is far worse. I wrote this essay five years ago. Since then, the piece has morphed into several shorter essays and a full manuscript. I am sharing it here in its long-essay state, in case it proves useful.
In the cafeteria, the sea of children’s heads undulates. Laughing, chewing and talking all at once, the children lean towards each other over their ransacked lunch boxes and trays until some subtle but universally understood signal causes a whole table to rise in unison, benches scraping back on the floor as the children clear out for recess. Another wave of children fills the empty benches as an older woman continues to stroll down the center aisle between the two long rows of tables, stopping to share in a joke or admonish an especially boisterous pupil. She pauses at and then passes one table where an animated conversation is taking place. The food trays are pushed back; lunch boxes are zipped and ready.
Why aren’t the girls at this table eager to rush to the playground as the others were? Wouldn’t they rather get out of the stuffy room and head to the jungle gym or the jump ropes? No, their sport is going on right here.
Seated in the middle of one of the benches, a girl sits hunched, her arms pressed across her stomach, fingers clawed into her sleeves, her forehead nearly reaching the table where her lunch sits untouched. She stares down with eyes that see nothing and know everything. It is a full blood event in this modern day Coliseum, and while the victim has conceded defeat, her challenger will not stop until she extracts the maximum price. The spectators, the other girls at the table, have given the “thumbs down.” No mercy. As the monitor strolls by yet again, the attack intensifies. The lone girl, a veteran by now, pulls herself tighter, waiting for this round to run its course. She is eight years old, and she is my daughter, Nina.
I wish I could say that I swooped in and saved her from her tormentors, but that was not so easily accomplished. That day, I did come to her as she sat there, and lifting her up, I pulled her head to my stomach. My overwhelming desire was to take her back into my body, to hold her there where no one could reach her without first going through me. I remember the feeling of helplessness, but mostly I remember rage.
Bullying is a nightmare that ensnares everyone. Trapped in a field of land mines where the best outcome one can hope for is loss of limb, the victim may survive, but she will not be unscathed, and neither will be any who dare enter the field to come to her rescue. Even when the bullying has stopped, a phantom pain, a remembering, remains. The wounds fester and don’t heal properly. One cannot take pride in the scars because they carry stigma and shame. While conflict can be extremely difficult and upsetting, it can have the same effect as lancing a boil: it brings the underlying infection to the surface where it can be addressed and tended. Bullying, on the other hand, drives the infection deep below the surface, where the damage is more threatening and more lasting.
Kids argue. They call each other names. They hit. They steal from each other, exclude each other and give each other dirty looks, sometimes all in a day or even just one fairly productive recess. All of these actions are examples of misguided behavior and need to be addressed when they happen, but none are necessarily bullying. Bullying can involve any or all of the above, and it often starts there. Unchecked, it can progress to far more horrifying forms of intimidation and assault, but what makes bullying so toxic is not the severity of the behavior; it is the context in which it happens. It is more than the aggressor and the victim locked into their own awful pas de deux; it is the people who know, who watch or turn their faces away, but still, they know, and they remain silent. It is the inclusion, willing or not, of those around the bully and the victim that turns what would otherwise be conflict into bullying. Bullying is about power, and in a sense, it is very democratic: the power of the bully comes from the people. Although it may make people more comfortable to assume so, bullying is not just one mal-adjusted individual preying on a weak target.
It starts with an opening gambit, a test salvo. The would-be bully makes some sort of move: a taunt, a swipe or a snub. This is not so much to test the reaction of the victim, although conventional theory suggests that this is so, and it is tempting to believe it: that there is some sort of magic on/off switch that gets flipped based on how a potential victim reacts to a bully. If this were true, we could empower our children to evade bullies by coaching our children to give the right response. If only it were that simple. But the test is not for the victim. It is to see how the others will react: thumbs up or thumbs down?
Right before we moved to Montana with our daughter and infant son, just such a testing event occurred in a very public way. A rash of hate crimes had swept through the city of Billings. Someone threw a brick through the window of a six year-old Jewish boy who had displayed a picture of a lighted menorah there. But the attacker misjudged the community. People from all religions and walks of life acted to reject the attacks and the hate that motivated them. Among other events, the local paper published a full-page picture of a menorah. In days, there were 10,000 menorahs in the city’s windows. “Not in our town” was the message. As the police chief said, “silence means acceptance.”
This sort of testing of a community’s reaction happens all the time on a smaller scale in the schools, on the playground, or in a neighbor’s backyard. Often, it is a relatively minor assault: ridicule, a caustic put-down, a shove out of line or a subtle exclusion. Sometimes, the community (the rest of the kids) responds to this initial probe by sending a message that the bullying won’t be tolerated. Too often, the opening salvo is met with some combination of open encouragement, voyeuristic interest or looking the other way.
This is what is so insidious about bullying: the victim IS powerless. Whether or not the attacks continue is not related to how she responds. It doesn’t matter whether she fights back, giving as good as she gets, pretends that she is not hurt or even ignores it. Only the bystanders, the audience, can give the red or the green light. Once that green light is given, a vicious cycle is put in motion.
The silent observers allow the sacrifice of the victim because to speak up is to risk too much. They just want it all to go away, and they fear drawing the focus of the bully and her crowd toward themselves. They are forced to choose between protecting themselves and helping the victim. This is where the snare closes in. This choice is a heavy burden. These kids have done nothing wrong. They just want to get on with their own business, and now they are forced into an uncomfortable position. And as people so often do when they feel guilty, they look to ease their burden by finding someone to blame. Who would serve best? Surely not the bully or her accomplices: too risky. But the victim is already in a vulnerable position. It is not long before they consider what she might have done to bring on the bullying…. she probably even deserves it. The rationalizing begins, and the silent observers, who were innocent to begin with, are now complicit. It is not often long before some of them have joined in and taken an active role in the bullying. The longer the bullying goes on, the harder it is to act on the victim’s behalf. They come to despise the victim, for her mere presence exacerbates their discomfort. The jaws of the trap have snapped shut, and everyone is trapped into their roles.
Who are the bullies?
In our case, it began with a few girls in our daughter’s class. The town was small; the school even smaller. We knew them all. They were fairly unexceptional: they belonged to middle class families, did well in school, went to church and belonged to the Girl Scouts, played soccer or the piano. Most had been to our house to play, had ridden in our car to various events and had eaten the snacks that we always brought. They were nice kids, we thought. It all seemed so surprising, so unnecessary. But there it was: our formerly lively daughter was coming home to us each day, quiet, pale and withdrawn.
What about us? What about the other adults: the teachers and the other parents? Couldn’t we see what was going on and put a stop to it? We thought we were dealing with conflicts that had gotten a little out of hand, but it had progressed far beyond that point. By second grade, the test salvo had already been launched, and the class had given the green light: let the games begin! At first, my husband and I responded to the incidents as single events, and we failed, oh, how we failed to see the overall pattern for such a long time. Our daughter was so young. How was she to put into words that she was dying a death of a thousand small cuts? Instead of putting an end to the nightmare, we, along with the other adults, became unwitting participants.
Once we knew what we were dealing with, I turned to experts for guidance. We tried to prepare Nina by coaching her, as the experts suggested, to not show the bullies that she was hurt. It is the victim’s weakness and isolation that makes her a target, they said, and it is her show of pain that incites the bullies to torment her further. If she could just pretend that nothing was happening, that she didn’t care— didn’t feel, didn’t matter— the bullies would grow bored of their sport and move on. I sometimes wondered how those “experts” could live with what they were implying: that the bullies would move on to another target and that this was somehow an acceptable solution.
This advice is wrong on so many levels. First, it puts all of the responsibility on the shoulders of the victim, shoulders which have already been nearly crushed by the weight of abuse. We, the adults, who SHOULD be responsible, ask our children to handle something that has proven to be beyond OUR capability. Second, no matter how much the victim is reassured that she is not to blame, this method insinuates, and not very subtly, that if the victim were just different, she could avoid the bullying. She already feels that “there is something about her.” This advice confirms that. We are telling her to not be herself, to not trust herself and to not trust the responsible adults around her.
Third, it is simply unrealistic. I defy anyone— you, those experts— to put up with the physical and emotional abuse that bullies dish out, some of which would be considered criminal if it were done by someone older, and to do it without showing any sort of response. You just try it and see how far you get.
The whole idea makes my hair stand on end with rage and with guilt: so much guilt because we knew what shabby advice it was, and still, we tried it. Desperate as we were, I ignored my misgivings, and by doing so, I caused my daughter to suffer even more.
To her credit, Nina made a heroic attempt to follow our advice, but it was so woefully inadequate for her situation. It was like giving a child a whistle in a war zone. Perhaps if the whistle were to call in real rescue, it might serve, but what we gave her simply confirmed her feeling that she was on her own, out-manned and out-gunned. We didn’t understand then, as I am certain that she did, that NOTHING she did would help.
And the teachers: how did they respond? When she asked them for help, they told her she was a tattle-tale. By the time second grade rolled around, all of the children were in on the game in their various ways. The stage was set; everyone knew their lines, with the bully playing the part of the straight man and the teacher unwittingly delivering the punch line.
Here is how the gag goes: The bell rings, and the children gather to line up at the door to head back to class. Nina, who has been shunned throughout recess, approaches warily. In the subtle ways that children have, they make it clear that Nina is not welcome, that no place in line is safe. She holds back until the recess monitor admonishes her for straggling. Stealing herself against the sniggers, the whispers, and the cold shoulders, she enters the building, but while the monitor’s attention is elsewhere– oh, it is always elsewhere at the crucial moment– she is shoved against the doorjamb. More than by the physical pain, she is hurt by the ease with which this action is anticipated and then accepted by the other children. Fueled by anger, she pushes back, and by design it almost seems, the monitor sees. While the whimpers of the “victims” cannot entirely cover their smirks, the monitor puts on a suitable show of consternation at Nina’s outrageous behavior. It is not to be tolerated, and once in the classroom, she is made to stand before the class and apologize for being disruptive and for not respecting her classmates. Da dum. Mission accomplished, with an extra bonus dose of humiliation added in.
A visit with the teacher was unsatisfactory. “Nina is responsible for her own behavior.” True, and we would be the last people to deny that, but surely the teacher had witnessed…. but no, she insisted that she hadn’t. A call to the school counselor was even more discouraging. He admitted that he knew Nina was being treated badly by the students and some of the teachers, and he said that he found it personally distasteful, but he also claimed that there was nothing to be done to change it and kindly offered to give her some counseling once a week to help her deal with her feelings about it.
We tried talking with the parents of the girls to whom she had been closest: “The girls seem to be having a tough time together…. what could we do to help them with it a bit?” To a person, they were unified in blaming Nina for their own children’s behavior. Many even sympathized with how difficult it must be for her, while at the same time, each justified what their children had done. Then they tried to make light of it, saying it was nothing and would blow over. Their false sympathy enraged me, insinuating as it did that it was really another failing of Nina’s that she couldn’t somehow buck up and move on. Later, I came to understand that the parents were often the source: they modeled the attitudes and the behavior and, shockingly, sometimes even orchestrated the humiliations. Appealing to them was nothing if not a cruel joke.
Third grade arrived with a new teacher and a new principal. Some kids left; new ones moved to town. Maybe things would be different. Our daughter survived but just barely. The spark that was Nina diminished to a point where it was nearly invisible. As she seemed to disappear, I felt that I became a freak, a wild animal. When a teacher ridiculed Nina for using manipulatives in math class (“Only kindergarteners need those,” she announced to the delight of the rest of the class), I almost welcomed the chance to go in and scream, first at her, and then at the principal. “Since when did humiliation become a teaching tool?” I shouted.
A welcome respite came for Nina in the form of the Harry Potter books, which she read over and over, lost in his world and, for a few moments, no longer inhabiting her own. But reality persists, and the start of fourth grade brought new opportunities for misery. By now, the bullying was fairly well diffused throughout her whole existence. In our small town, whether one is at dance class or the doctor’s office, at the grocery store or at the pizza restaurant, there were always the same people present, so there was no escape. It had spread far beyond the school. Wherever she went, there were the knowing looks and the smirks, and, when the opportunity presented itself, there were punches and kicks. Worst of all, there were times when she was simply invisible, treated as if she didn’t exist, shunned.
It was a small town, so word got around. People knew. Not all of them, but enough. Enough so that almost any contact was a cause for pain. In a community that size, the school is the hub, the center of the universe. People naturally spent a lot of time at the school or talking about various people and events related to it. Listening as they gushed about this teacher or that class play was salt in our wounds. Did they not know, or were they willfully ignorant? Were they hoping that by singing the praises of the school, they would convince us– and themselves while they were at it– that it was a good place, a safe place? Were they really willing to sacrifice a child, our child, so that they could maintain their image of a cozy, welcoming community? I don’t honestly know. There were times when we had to get up and leave when someone felt compelled to expound on what a nurturing environment the school provided. There was always an implied corollary: that anyone who didn’t experience it that way was somehow to blame. My daughter heard, loudly and clearly, what they were saying: “you deserve it.” And because it was such a small town, there was no escape.
When fourth grade came, I felt hollow. We had tried to make home life as warm and rich as we possibly could, an IV of sorts, to replace the vital fluid that was draining out of our daughter. That year brought a different school building and a new teacher: new to the school and a man at that. Maybe this would be an opportunity for a fresh start. Within days, the attacks continued: on the playground before school and on the walk between buildings to the cafeteria. Maybe, since the three fourth/fifth grade teachers were in a different building, they might not have been sucked into the vortex yet. We decided to give them a try. I called Nina’s teacher and explained that Nina was really struggling and that we needed his help. He was sympathetic, outraged even, and he suggested that we should meet with him and the other two teachers to see if together we could address the problem.
For the first time, we felt that we might make some actual progress. But then, the day before the meeting, the phone rang. I picked it up and, without even a greeting, the school principal growled, “You back off. You back off my teachers.” I was dumbfounded. “There is no bullying in my school,” the principal continued. “I can see the playground from my window, and I know there is none.” Well, there you go. If she said it, it must be true. She cancelled the meeting and forbade the teachers from discussing it with us.
Some days later, an event occurred for which I will be eternally thankful: three girls attacked Nina on the playground, all together, knocking her down, hitting and kicking, while the rest of the crowd watched. It was two weeks before Christmas, and it was a gift. At that moment, with absolute clarity, we knew what we needed to do, what we should have done right from the start, oh God, why hadn’t we done it before? We got her out. Finally, we got her out.
This was rural Montana. Our only other option was to teach her at home, so we did. Shortly after we took Nina out of school, several mothers approached me at different times, each one pulling me aside and telling me in a low, confidential voice that she was so relieved that we had taken Nina out of school. Her child, she would say, had often come home from school in tears over what the other kids were doing to Nina, and she would explain in detail what her child had witnessed. Often it was something worse than what we had known about, something that Nina couldn’t bring herself to tell us. And the mothers: they felt terrible. It had been so very difficult for their kids.
In my lesser moments, I wondered if these mothers felt absolved by telling me these things. The children who tormented my child, who, in fact, continued to torment her, were, I knew in my heart, just making mistakes. They had fallen into a hellish nightmare and were just as trapped, in their own way, as my daughter was. They have been forgiven. The teachers were also trapped, limited by the constraints of the school and the principal. They have been forgiven. But these mothers…. they knew, for God’s sake, even before we did. They knew, and they did nothing, said nothing, smiled at me at the dance school, at the summer festivals and at their doors when I dropped their kids off at home. These mothers were the hardest to forgive. Well, except for myself: I am not quite there yet. It is our job to protect children, if nothing else: all of the children, our own most of all. And in that, I failed.
Who are the victims? Can we pick them out before they are bullied so that we could inoculate them somehow? It seems, at first, that this might be easy. We assume that the weaker ones will be the targets: the ones who don’t fit in, who have fewer friends, who are somehow different or unusual. But the truth is that everyone is vulnerable in some way, depending on the circumstances. As I watched the shifting tides of bullying sweep through our community, I noticed that some of the kids who I would have guessed would be targets were not bothered at all. Some of the ones who seemed the most powerful ended up as targets. Sometimes the bully became a victim, and vice versa.
Are the victims to blame? There is a strong undercurrent in our society that says “yes.” One of the reasons that the wounds of those who have been bullied don’t heal well is because of the tendency to assume that victims, in some way, bring it upon themselves, that they somehow invite it. To be a victim is to be trapped in a loop of circular reasoning: your weakness invited the bullying; the fact that you are a victim confirms that you must be weak. Some believe that being bullied is just a part of life and that it builds character: “if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger!” The epidemic of children and teens committing suicide because of being bullied should put an end to that sort of whitewashing.
One of the books that I read about bullying had a whole section on how to coach children to look at themselves and their habits and change any that draw undue attention, in other words, to mold themselves to be just like everyone else, to fit in no matter what the cost. The implications of this advice are simply horrifying. The price of not being bullied (as if anyone could guarantee that) is to not be who you are. Not a good trade. Even if one could figure out which was the right group to fit into, it would be a false security anyway, since it is often those who are closest to the bully who fear the most that they are next. Let’s get one thing straight: no one deserves to be bullied, no matter how different he or she is. It is never, ever justified. Blaming the victim is an abdication by those whose ultimate responsibility it is to make children safe.
What about the bullies? Who are they? Can we pick them out before they bully? I don’t think so, and here is why: we all could be bullies. Like a cancer, the potential for bullying lies within all of us, waiting for the right conditions to multiply and destroy. Thinking that any one group or type of person is more likely to bully is a dangerous mind-set, a sort of petri dish for discrimination and stigmatization. It allows the real bullies to fly under the radar.
Are the bullies to blame? They certainly are the most visible part of the problem, and what they do is undeniably wrong. Are they responsible for their behavior? Absolutely, just as we all are responsible for our behavior, no matter how much we may feel provoked or justified. One must contend with the consequences of one’s bad choices. The repercussions of those bad choices are severe, it is true, but I believe, nonetheless, that there are no bad children, just ones who make bad choices. And why do they make bad choices? Because they need better guidance. The bullies need to be dealt with, but they are not the only problem. We waste time thinking that we can somehow do away with the bullies. They will always be there, I am afraid, because as I said, we all have the potential to be bullies, given the right circumstance. But we can work to make those circumstances scarce. Bullies can’t operate in a power vacuum, and this is where our attention would reap the most benefit.
Why do bullies bully? Because they can. And they can because they have been given power, a nod of permission, a green light, by the surrounding community. As the Billings police chief said, “silence is acceptance.” Until we recognize that bullying requires a whole community, it will continue unabated. Focusing on the bullies and the victims is missing the forest for the trees. It is giving an aspirin for a headache when the whole body is septic. Bullying is not about conflicts or arguments, disagreements or miscommunications. It is not about an issue that needs to be resolved or mediated between the bully and the victim. The bully is only one source of torment. She very rarely operates alone. The onlookers play a vital role, and therefore, they must be included for a solution to have any real effect.
What about schools? What makes them such an inviting arena for bullying? For starters, although bullying goes on everywhere, schools are where the kids are for a good amount of the day, so that is where a lot of the bullying will happen, simply by default. There are also some limitations– some logistical, some related to attitude– that many schools share which make it particularly difficult for them to adequately address bullying.
The nature of institutions is to protect the image of the institution first, and to protect those whom they serve second. This is true of schools, even the small ones. Schools respond to crises with the slowness and lack of spontaneity common to any institution. If the school administration will even recognize that it has a bullying problem, a high hurdle, it will often isolate the incident as a sort of “rogue” event, the doing of a few students. It may tout its anti-bullying policies, have a program or an assembly with a motivational speaker who exhorts the students to get along. But all of this lacks authenticity. The students listen to the speaker because they have to. It is not an outpouring of heartfelt solidarity. It is like a forced apology: everyone can tell that it is fake. It is another box being checked off before moving on. The protocol has been followed.
Perhaps the bully is disciplined, but as we know, she did not act alone, and being called out can lead the bully to anger and to a greater desire to hurt the victim, whom she blames for her punishment. Next time, she will be more careful to not get caught. And the rest of the actors in this tragedy are still there, playing their parts: watching, knowing, smirking, looking away. Nothing has changed, except that the victim is reminded that the school is powerless to make any real difference. She is still alone.
What about the teachers? We ask so much of them, and like any cross-section of the population, some will be more sympathetic than others. Some are bullies themselves, or are burned out, grumpy, and seeking only to get through the day with as few waves as possible. Many of them make a superhuman effort every day, pouring their hearts and souls into their work. But even these become unwitting accomplices to bullying. Adults will never know the whole story. They may see part of the drama, but they will never see all of it. With the power and silence of the rest of the class behind her, it is so easy for the bully to manipulate the adults, to escape unscathed, to even turn the tables on the victim and set her up to be blamed for the disruption, as Nina was. Not only does this add to the victim’s humiliation, it shatters whatever trust she might have had in her teacher.
Every experience of bullying has its own particular flavor of distress. Given how pervasive bullying is, the fear that your child might be bullied is a legitimate one. So, how can you prevent your child from being bullied or help your child if she is being bullied? Unfortunately, there are no guarantees that you CAN prevent it, but at the least, you can do better than I did. Because it involves so many people at so many levels, bullying is an extremely slippery problem to grasp and contain. I have some suggestions, but they will need to be treated as starting points. First are ideas for what schools might do to change their environment so that it is less conducive to bullying. Second are some suggestions for how schools might respond when bullying does occur, as it inevitably will. Third are some thoughts for you, the parent, to consider if your child is being bullied.
Changing the school environment
There are three changes that schools could make that would provide a better environment (for learning as well). While being entirely feasible, it is fairly unlikely that these suggestions would ever be adopted, but, as I said, these are starting points, and there is always hope for the future.
- Shake up the boundaries that divide the grades.
If you want to bring out the best behavior in children, would you put them together with a group their own age, or would you put them in a group whose ages covered a range of several years or more? If you guessed the latter, you would be correct, and the opposite is true as well: same-aged groups tend to gravitate toward the lowest common denominator in terms of behavior. So having children spend all day in the company of their peers is not a great recipe for good behavior. When there is a wide range of ages together, the oldest will feel the responsibility to model better behavior because of the very youngest being present. The ones in the middle will be striving to be like the oldest, and will, therefore, imitate them. The youngest benefit as well by the good models, and act as a check on the temptation of the oldest to lead the middle ones down the garden path– the oldest won’t go so far with the younger ones are there.
It is fine for each grade or class to develop its own unified identity, but that needs to be balanced with more fluid movement and connection among the other grades, so that there is a true sense of belonging to the whole community.
2. Teachers remain with their classes through the grades.
If teachers stayed with their classes instead of staying with a grade, the benefits would be monumental for the social and emotional, as well as educational, growth of the students. There are always the same objections to this proposal, but the benefits are clear. It takes a long time for a teacher to get to know a class, really know and understand each child, how she learns and views the world and what her life is like outside the classroom. Each year, all of that is lost, and the teacher must start anew, largely from scratch. I have heard teachers say that it takes them until Christmas to really get to know their class, and then by the end of March, the students are so scattered with the coming of spring and having been cooped up that there are only three solid months for real learning. Another common objection is that the amount of effort it takes to prepare for a new grade is too much, but this is something all home school teachers and some school teachers do every year with verifiably excellent results, and it would certainly allow for more than three months of actual teaching time. The small shift from an emphasis on teaching material to emphasizing teaching the children has profound results. A teacher could, at least, stay from first through fifth grades and from sixth through eighth grade. High school would require some other sort of role, since the need for expertise in the subjects is more of an issue.
The teacher who stays with her class has a true opportunity to develop relationships based on actual knowledge and understanding of her students, which is necessary for developing any feeling of trust between them. To expect teachers to be able to monitor and influence the behavior of their students without that trust, which takes time to develop, is to expect too much. It is not that teachers are bad at managing behavior; it is that they have not been given the time that they need to lay the necessary foundations. The other most common objection to a teacher following a class is that if there were a bad teacher, one class would be stuck with her all the way through. The obvious solution to that is to remove the bad teacher. Spreading out her damage over several classes is clearly not an acceptable alternative. As well, the main class teacher would not be the only teacher, but she would be the one that spent most of the day and taught most of the subjects.
Educational benefits aside, a teacher who has a long-standing relationship with her students is in a much better position to attend to incidents of bullying with warmth, clarity, and a positive but firm response.
3. Pay attention to routine, daily interactions.
It is important to understand what schools can’t do. Hatred, discrimination, the polarized atmosphere of politics, the near-extinction of basic manners in public discourse: all of these provide fertile ground for bullying. Any and all work that schools do to counteract this and all that they do towards modeling and teaching tolerance and respect is worthwhile. But while they may exert some influence in that they provide a broader perspective, ultimately, schools can’t control their students’ world view, which is determined largely at home. While world view can play a significant role in bullying, as a practical matter, schools would be more effective in curbing bullying if they addressed behavior, not beliefs. There is wisdom to sweating the small stuff, attending to the details of day-to-day interactions: how the teachers treat the students, how the students treat the teachers, each other, and the school property, and letting that spill over and nudge the big stuff, the underlying values, which are much harder to influence directly.
How schools can respond to bullying once it happens:
If schools treated acts of bullying as mistakes, the same general principles for handling any mistake would apply. For all involved, bullying is emotionally charged, and I am not overlooking how severe the damage is (how could I?), but we must not react out of emotion and pain, even while we acknowledge it. Like manners, this sort of equilibrium is most needed when it is hardest to maintain. To put the principles for handling mistakes into action in the larger, institutional setting of a school would take some flexibility and creativity, two qualities which are not generally the first to come to mind when one thinks of schools, but it could be done if there were will enough.
1. Name the mistake.
This is not a time to affix blame. This may sound crazy to you— we aren’t going to make the bully apologize or punish her? Nope. Not directly. In this current climate, “accountability” (which is just a fancy way of saying, “knowing who to blame when things go badly”) seems to be the ultimate goal, taking precedence over practical, healing action. Holding someone accountable is not an end in itself. Because it is usually so fraught with contention, it becomes a substitute for action, and it is not particularly conducive to healing. It is important to understand how one’s bad choices can lead to making mistakes, but blaming is generally the least effective way to encourage the sort of soul-searching and introspection one must engage in to truly recognize one’s mistakes.
Putting so much focus on the bully has some inherent risks. It confirms her power, for one, publicly elevating her at a time when she needs to understand that her place is within, not above, the group. Also, when bullying occurs, like with most complicated problems, there is usually quite a bit of blame to go around. Focusing it all on one individual will backfire. Others are involved, whether actively or passively, and they will know that the bully is taking some of their share. The bully herself will know this as well, and she will feel it is an injustice, which it is, and this gives her an out. She doesn’t have to bother herself with remorse for the pain she caused; she is too busy being indignant over the unfairness of having those in charge place all the blame on her. By giving her all of it, she is given an escape hatch that lets her avoid accepting any of it. A focus on blame serves only to confirm the power of the adults.
For the most part, the students will know who has done what. They don’t need to be told. And as we know, the teachers will be the last to find out, and they will rarely know the whole story. So instead of acting on incomplete or erroneous information, instead of standing before the class and blaming the wrong person (!!), which only undermines the students’ respect for and trust in the teacher, the teacher can act when she becomes aware that something is up. She doesn’t have to know all the details. She can, without blaming, make a simple announcement: the rule that all students must be made to feel welcome and safe has been broken and the integrity of the class is suffering as a result. No big assembly, no exhortations. Minimum talk. She can acknowledge the emotions: the pain, the confusion, the discomfort, the fear, the frustration, the anger, all of it. She does this just once, not pinning it to any one student, just acknowledging that the emotions are there. The students are aware of these things, but they need to be brought to the surface and named, the equivalent of lancing a boil. But only once, and briefly. Like with a boil, there is no further benefit from continuing to poke around. Once the infection is released, it is time to focus on how to heal the wound.
Not focusing directly on the victim is just as crucial. For one, the victim has already been the focus of unwanted attention, and airing her pain in front of the whole class is just a further humiliation and could be a cause for her to be even more fearful that she will somehow be blamed for whatever follows, that she will be trapped in an endless tit-for-tat cycle. It also separates her, isolating her from the class, which only exacerbates what she already experienced, making it even harder for her to be either left alone or find her place of belonging.
2. Treat the class as a whole.
When bullying occurs, the health and safety of the entire community is at stake, not just that of one or two students. The class, and ideally the whole school, needs to be treated as one organism. It must sink or swim together. No one is expendable. This is the most essential ingredient: no one is expendable. If one can be sacrificed, then all might be. The power of the bully to decide who is to be sacrificed comes from the community around her. The solution to bullying is to empower the community to respond out of a feeling of connection and wholeness, not fear and hatred. They must all – bully, victim and onlookers– be treated as one.
The next step is to act. Toward what end? Making amends. To whom? The whole class, the whole school, if need be. The victim has taken the brunt of it, but everyone pays a price. The connections that bind the community together have been ripped apart. They need to be rebuilt. The act should be one that requires effort from everyone: teacher, students, other adults as well. It could be anything from cleaning the school, playground, or neighborhood to painting a mural in a hallway. It could be painting an elderly person’s house, or cleaning up their yard. It could be a day of recognizing the efforts of the janitors or bus drivers, the people who contribute but who are often taken for granted. It could be putting on a play for a younger grade or helping the librarian move bookshelves around. Heck, it could be an intense, day-long lesson with a charismatic foreign language teacher where the students begin to learn a language that none of them speaks. The act is not a punishment. It is an affirmation of the wholeness of the community, and ideally, it is one that cuts across the usual boundaries and signals a move forward. It is not a continuation of the way things were, a whitewashing, but is a process of truth and reconciliation.
Good/better/best: what to do if your child is being bullied:
In an ideal world, there would be no bullying. In a nearly ideal world, bullying would be stopped as soon as it happened. We exist in neither. Bullying is common, and schools fail to address it adequately, not always for lack of trying, but nonetheless, they fail.
What follows are suggestions for families to consider if their child is bullied. Because no one lives in an ideal world, I am going to suggest what would be good to do, what would be better to do, and what would be best to do. When there are limitations, and there almost always are, good sometimes has to be good enough. One can, of course, follow more than one at a time.
Get your child out. It is your first job to protect her. Don’t wait, as we did, hoping that you will be able to work it out with the parents or the school. This question may seem somewhat harsh, but I mean to make the point: if your child were being sexually assaulted (sometimes bullying includes forms of this) at school, would you continue to send her there every day? The damage that comes from prolonged bullying is, I believe, just as bad.
If you have no choice but to leave your child in the school where she is being bullied, find another community that will rally to support her. Ruby Bridges, who was eight years old in 1950 when she became the first black student to attend a formerly all-white elementary school in New Orleans, was treated viciously every day, but she managed to rise above it, even praying for her tormentors, and some of her inner strength came from the fact that she had strong and public support from several overlapping communities: her church, the broader black community, and the federal government, no less. It is dangerous to mistake the exception for the rule. I don’t know that the other black children, who had the same support, fared as well as Ruby Bridges did, but one can extract some hope from her story, and use it to guide us now. The support of these communities did not stop the bullying. But if your child must go, every day, to a place where she is going to be abused, having wholesale support from another community can only help.
Even if there is no outside community that will actively support your child and will vocally and publicly take a stand, your child will still benefit from being involved in activities that are entirely separate from the school. These can involve hobbies or other pursuits of your child’s interests, but even better would be some sort of group activity, where your child felt that she belonged (and of course, the wider the range of ages that are involved, the better). If she is going to be bullied in one community, it will help her to separate herself from it emotionally, if not physically, if she belongs to another and is not entirely alone.
A small but beneficial step you can take at any time is to include as wide a range of people as you can find into your family life. Invite neighbors over, seek out guests from all walks of life. Welcome them with courtesy and curiosity. Encourage them to tell their stories. In a small way, this can show your child that we don’t need to define ourselves by who we are not. It will show them the truth, that we are all bound together in some way, and that we can choose to make that positive or not.