Can We Stop School Bullies?
The suicide a little more than a year ago of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi was the final impetus for New Jersey to pass the most comprehensive anti-bullying legislation in the country. The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which supersedes a 2002 law already on the books, makes New Jersey one of five states to have adopted anti-bullying laws for their schools in the last year. But can the law make a dent in the growing incidence of bullying today? A 2011 report for the Centers for Disease Control estimated the number of students who reported being bullied more than once, and of students who admitted to bullying others, was around 20 percent of the school population in 2000; in 2009, the percentage had risen to 30 percent. While these figures indicate that bullying has become increasingly common in schools, they don’t take into account the virulent and growing phenomenon of cyberbullying.
Unlike playground or hallway bullying, cyberbullying can happen 24/7, even reaching into kids’ bedrooms. Smartphones, e-mail, and social media induce kids to discount any feelings of empathy and impulsively post nasty messages without thinking about the consequences. Cyber messages can be read by thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people, and remain visible for years. Clementi, a gay college freshman, committed suicide after his roommate posted a surreptitious video of him kissing with another male. At Oak Park River Forest High School in Illinois, a few boys recently rated their female classmates on the Internet on such things as their looks and sexual proclivities. Although these sorts of conversations have always been part of the locker-room scene, they have a completely different effect when shared with the world.
Early anti-bullying programs often ran into strong resistance from people who said that such programs went against human nature and prevented kids from learning how to defend themselves in the real world. But as bullying has increased and its role in student victims’ depression, suicide, and homicide has become clearer, that resistance has diminished. The opposition to New Jersey’s tough law focuses almost exclusively on whether schools can fund and implement its provisions.
In the past, anti-bullying efforts focused on building up students’ self-esteem, instituting zero tolerance, and meting out harsh punishments for infractions, based upon principles that sounded good but have proven ineffective. Newer programs are addressing the issue from different perspectives. Therapist Stan Davis, of Wayne, Maine, whose Stop Bullying Now! approach has gained international recognition, says that effective anti-bullying programs must first clearly define bullying, not just so that teachers and staff can identify and address it, but so students feel comfortable with the definition. This puts bullying into a common context, so that a sense of community—one of the strongest protectors against bullying—can be built among students, parents and educators. When there’s common agreement on what constitutes bullying, people who report bullying are less likely to be labeled as snitches. Davis, whose Youth Voice Research Project asked more than 13,000 young people in the United States what works and doesn’t work in bullying prevention, says that the best common definition of the problem boils down to whether a reasonable person would feel threatened or harmed by an action. That’s the definition New Jersey uses in its new law.
Davis also contends that while it’s important to have immediate consequences for aggressors, immediate, harsh punishments are counterproductive, unless the acts of bullying are particularly egregious. If students and staff know that the aggressor will suffer severe repercussions, they’ll be more reluctant to report it. When aggressors suffer harsh consequences for relatively minor incidents, those who report the bullying can seem like snitches, which sets them up for being targets again. The New Jersey law requires each school to institute a clear policy of progressive remediation and reeducation, with escalating penalties. Clearly defining bullying and meting out appropriate consequences helps create what for Davis is essential: an atmosphere in which all students feel supported. It also sharpens the focus on the real issue of bullying.
“If someone bullies,” says Davis, “everyone needs to realize that the aggressor, not the targeted person, is 100 percent responsible for the behavior. The worst effect of bullying is how it makes targeted people feel about themselves.” Most people who’ve been robbed or assaulted know the nagging feeling that somehow they’ve done something wrong—they weren’t vigilant enough, were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or made themselves look like an easy target. Only when everyone, including witnesses, adopts the perspective that the aggressor is completely to blame can schools reshape the culture that fosters the behavior.
Chilean Miners: Jonathan Franklin, “Chilean Miners Struggling with Financial and Psychological Problems,” The Guardian, August 4, 2011.
Bullying: For the complete New Jersey law, see http://njbullying.org/documents/Anti-BullyingBillofRights.pdf.