Although bullying is an old problem, it sure seems to have a new face. Starting out as a teacher three decades ago, I tended to tell parents to simply step out of the picture and let their son or daughter face their bullies on their own. That was the advice our parents gave us when we were kids. However, looking back I don’t remember any shootings in my elementary school. I’m pretty sure that we didn’t have gangs on our playground. I know that we didn’t have the Internet.
The Website www.targetbully.com defines bullying as “repeated, unprovoked harassment of another individual in which that individual has difficulty defending himself/herself.” That sounds simple enough, but bullying has changed. For sure, the old school playground and hallway stuff that I remember — as both victim and perpetrator — still goes on, but the Internet has ushered in a whole new breed. While our mothers wisely cautioned us that sticks and stones might break our bones while assuring us that names would never hurt us, “cyber-bullying” has ratcheted everything up with devious attacks on reputations by invisible perpetrators who hide behind the insidious cloak of anonymity that the Web provides.
The Web site www.parentingbook.com presents some troubling statistics:
- 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students.
- 85 percent of girls and 76 percent of boys have been sexually harassed in some form, and only 18 percent of those incidents were perpetrated by an adult.
- Young bullies carry a 1-in-4 chance of having a criminal record by age 30.
- One in seven students is either a bully or a victim. Seventy-one percent of students report incidents of bullying as a problem at their school.
- One out of 20 students has seen a student with a gun at school.
Suffice it to say that the digital world has brought bullying to a new level. So how do we address it?
On one hand, my seasoning as an educator makes me reluctant to merely echo the advice that my parents and teachers gave me. At the same time, I often find myself trying to keep the parents from getting overly involved. Maybe that’s because I rarely encounter parents who err on the side of being under-involved.
I have come to visualize a balance. If the adults step in, take complete charge, and “fix it,” the “fix” tends to result in a short-term bandage. Eventually, the problem will once again rear its ugly head, usually when least expected and often with greater intensity.
Even if we manage to install so many controls that we are successful in stopping blatant bullying, there is the risk that we can inadvertently fuel two problematic side effects: 1) We may drive it underground (or over to the Web) where things can get especially nasty; 2) We run the risk that our children will grow up ill-prepared to handle the many challenges they will face as adults when we are no longer hovering like helicopters to protect them.
If the balance tips to the other side and the kids try to do it all by themselves, a “Lord of the Flies” mentality can form, resulting in an anarchy or gang mentality that creates as many victims as it helps. Hence, there needs to be a balance of kids and adults working together.
Three decades ago at the Hyde schools, we pioneered a concept called “Brother’s Keeper” which calls upon students to interact with and occasionally even intrude upon their peers in order to help each other pursue their personal best. If it has taught me anything, I am convinced of one thing: the “cops and robbers” system we grew up with (cops = teachers; robbers = students) is doomed. While Brother’s Keeper has been forged in Hyde’s two boarding schools in Bath and Woodstock, CT, the real test has been in its transference to our public schools in the Bronx (NYC), New Haven, and Washington DC.
I called some of my colleagues from Hyde’s public charter schools to get their take on bullying. Both schools are justifiably proud of what the Director of High School, Washington DC Ronaldo Murray calls a “culture of acceptance.” (Hyde-DC stands out as one of the few inner city District high schools with no metal detectors at the front door.)
Assistant Head Chrissie Brown chimes in, “While the kids initially see our concept of Brother’s Keeper as snitching, they ultimately realize that they are actually helping each other out. When we adults get purely punitive, we take away their power to practice that.” (We also increase the climate for bullying.) This is not to say that bullying never happens, but as Yvonnia Wise at Hyde’s South Bronx charter stresses, “We must develop both an eye and an ear for bullying even in its smallest form. Both the victims and perpetrators need to know that bullying will be addressed immediately.”
At the end of the day, we need a mixture of Mom’s advice from days gone by combined with a modern understanding of “It Takes a Village.” They can’t do it by themselves. We cannot do it for them. Maybe we can form a partnership that can get it done.
President, Hyde Schools