I’ve been here too many times. The lights are dimmed and shades drawn to allow the flashing white light of the television screen to illuminate the rows of students sitting, legs crossed, on the blue storytime carpet. Necks crane uncomfortably at the television resting upon a tall, black, movable cart for teachers to easily move the schools technology, but also resulting in sore necks for students sitting at the feet of the stand. Playing on the screen of a TV, older than most of its young viewers, is a scene familiar both in reality and fictitiously. It goes something like this: Billy pushes Kevin on the playground, claiming his turn at hopscotch has come early. The playground children notice, and a few children begin to stand and watch. Kevin runs away crying, giving the children more reason to laugh. The clip cuts and someone, maybe a teacher or counselor, begins talking about it: bullying.
It happens in every school. Not just the incident between Kevin and Billy, but the response: the video, the tall TV, the stretched neck, and the ensuing discussion. Perhaps it takes place in some other form with the video substituted by a different medium - like a book or a role play, but the cast is still the same: the bully, the victim, the bystanders, and in the happily-ever-after version, an upstander who stops the bully. Tormenting another person is wrong; kids can see that without the theatrics. However, it still goes on and horror stories in the news of kids literally being bullied to death have parents and teachers saying that enough is enough. And so the array of bullying prevention programs keeps expanding. Students have heard it all in assemblies, presentations, and class lessons. The repetitiveness makes the term “bully” a little cliché in the eyes of students. It seems like a word grown-ups use to explain something children experience. Schools try to find different ways to convey anti-bullying messages, but, with anxieties continuing to rise about the issue, it seems none have found a concrete solution. The programs designed to curve bullying often stem from the same set of principles, but often these programs lack success because they fail to take into account an open discussion with students before making drastic changes to school environment and student interaction.
Bullying is a problem because it is a traumatic experience for children that can haunt them into adulthood. Stopbullying.gov has identified some of the effects of bullying on victims: “Depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy. These issues may persist into adulthood [. . .] Health complaints [. . .] Decreased academic achievement.” Targets of teasing and rumors are negatively affected by the emotional stress put on them, affecting their studies and outlook on life. The news that puts parents on edge about their children possibly being bullied is that of suicides of bullied students. Although this is not to be trivialized, the correlation between the two can be sometimes exaggerated. Stopbullying.gov says the following on the matter: “Although kids who are bullied are at risk of suicide, bullying alone is not the cause. Many issues contribute to suicide risk, including depression, problems at home, and trauma history [. . .] This risk can be increased further when these kids are not supported by parents, peers, and schools. Bullying can make an unsupportive situation worse.” Students know these problems inside out, but the way schools try to handle these situations is sometimes not conducive to how students would prefer to see things change.
Recently, a school’s attempt to stop bullying online (cyberbullying) has sparked outrage among its students. The students of Stockton High School in Stockton, California are protesting a school’s new policy calling for the creation of a Social Media Contract. The rule dictates that students who wish to participate in extracurricular activities such as sports teams and clubs must sign a contract promising to detach themselves from online bullying or face being kicked out of school clubs and sports. The Lodi Unified School District claims that online bullying is a growing problem and that the new policy is to protect students. Officials stand firmly behind the new rules. Students, on the other hand, are not pleased. Their objection to the contract is rooted in the idea that it restricts free speech. The harshness and ambiguity of the wording are also major concerns of the students. Sports, clubs, and outside activities are under the threat that “Big Brother” is watching. Moreover, students who don’t involve themselves with extracurriculars are more likely to be bullies, and the protesting students feel discouraging their pupils from such activities is a step in the wrong direction. Why does the rule only apply to some students and not all? At the heart of it though, students feel they are essentially being bullied into agreeing to these terms by the school district. Both feel that bullying is a problem, but are finding the solution cannot be forced. Creating a safe, school environment free of harassment and prejudice takes the ideas and actions of both students and administrators.
When children grow up, the bullies don’t go away. The playground just gets bigger. The situation replays with the same roles: the victim, the bully, and the rest of us watching silently. Politicians alienate each other in campaign advertisements during elections. The media bullies celebrities with rumors and criticism that drive some to substance abuse and depression. Stereotypes, prejudice, domestic abuse, intolerance, genocide, etc.: these are all part of a greater reality in which people can be cruel to each other. What is called bullying is just a small part of a greater pattern. The world is not fair because people aren’t. How our culture approaches violence and injustice translates to how children will handle it on the playground. Problems are easily identified but also easily exaggerated, and effective solutions are difficult. However, it starts with how individuals act and what each person tolerates as right or wrong. Students are taught not to be passive bystanders, and people of all ages should lead by example.
Billy pushes Kevin on the playground. The rest is up to you.