As an elementary school principal for 30 years, I always believed that schools should have a strong stance against bullying. It has always been prevalent in our schools and it has too often been ignored. Too many schools continue to be unresponsive. Children have had to suffer through their own social hardships while adults, who are there to protect them, either look the other way, or provide only tacit support and consolation.
Bullying is a messy business. It requires vigilant intervention and a strong commitment to ferret out the details of a bullying incident so that the victim and the bully can both be helped. The main problem with dealing with bullying is that it usually happens when there is no adult supervision. Playgrounds, the bathroom and the back of the school bus are major areas where bullying takes place at the elementary level. But bullying can also take place right in front of an adult and still not be seen. Bullies tend to perfect their assault methods and know exactly when it is safe to attack. It only takes three seconds for a bully to hit, spit, kick, push, punch or threaten a victim. Too often adults, at all levels of authority within a school, either look the other way or say that unless they saw it – then it didn’t happen. When confronted, the bully usually goes into high gear with denials, or the counter punch of saying it was self-defense, or their best shot – “I was only fooling.” The victim is then further victimized and dis-empowered by the situation.
Children who are victims of bullying learn very early that little help will be forthcoming, no matter what they do, and they learn not to tell anyone. Parents, teachers, school aides, are then surprised when a child who has been a victim either rebels in a rage to strike back randomly, or snaps in a way that inflicts pain on themselves or on others.
Until now, schools have unfortunately been part of the problem, by not taking a strong stand against bullying. If we are to make any progress in reducing the prevalence and severity of bullying, schools will have to become part of the solution. Schools can do this by asserting their authority to address the bullying problem. They must begin to actively implement the bullying policies that they already have. Parents of bullies and victims must be notified immediately and behavior plans established for the bully. The adults in our schools must begin to advocate for the victims. Although this means taking some time away from instruction, it also provides an important learning opportunity for appropriate social interaction. It is not OK to ignore a victim of bulling because the victim is “annoying other students.”
The student bullies in each school are almost certainly known by the educational staff. Many are extremely difficult to confront and their parents may be equally difficult, and frequently argumentative and defensive. Whenever possible, bullies should be approached privately. They must, however, be confronted. Each incident must be documented and reported, including the accompanying progressive consequences, so that a paper trail exists which documents incremental intervention. Accountability drives behavior.
To make any progress in combating the increased prevalence of bullying, schools must do several things simultaneously. They must establish rules and consequences for bullying and carry them out. They must publish and disseminate, with a high profile, their bullying policies so that parents, staff, and students are aware of all components, rules, and consequences. They must train their teachers, principals, and support staff to be vigilant child advocates and to follow through in implementing the policy, and to learn the warning signs of the bully and the victim. They are right there in front of us. We just need to notice them. Schools need to teach their students to be caring and kind, while training them to know what to do to get help if they need it. Since 85% of our students are the bystanders of bullying, we need to train them also to be a support to a victim by coming forward and contacting an adult. These student-bystanders need to understand that their actions can help prevent major school-wide catastrophes.
Teachers need to establish classroom rules that reflect appropriate behavior and extend to all parts of the school. They need to clarify the difference between telling and tattling, which is always a source of major confusion for children. If a bystander tries to tell a teacher about a bullying incident, the teacher needs to listen and take action. Telling the bystander to “mind their own business,” or telling the victim to “ignore the bully or stay away from the bully,” only helps to bolster the brazenness of the bully and eviscerates the victim. Teachers need to become assertive when witnessing bulling incidents instead of ignoring them.
The most important message to students is that they need to ask for help if they are being bullied. And they need to continue to ask and seek adult help until they finally get it. Trust in an adult is paramount in a child’s sense of security. Ignoring or avoiding telling someone is only a recipe for disaster. One of the main unfortunate tactics of a bully is to scare the victim enough into not telling anyone. Unfortunately, this usually works. Children in middle school and high school are less likely to tell an adult because the peer pressure of being “a snitch” is too great. These children would rather suffer in their own solitude than risk the added pain of increased taunting and being viewed by their peers as not cool. This, of course, is a recipe for further pain and humiliation.
Let this school year be the beginning of a renewed vigilance to address bullying in our schools so that all children can feel safe and be able get the most from their education. All adults in a school community must take responsibility for keeping our children safe. We must begin to put the bullies on notice that their behavior is not acceptable.