Friday, June 22, 2012

Busting Bullying - My Theory

By now, I'm sure you've all  heard about the middle school students that bullied the bus monitor. They said all sorts of hateful things to her. To her credit, she remembered that she's the adult in the situation and rather than just feed the fire by answering or reacting, she ignored it. Obviously, this took a great deal of resolve on her part in order to do this.  

If you somehow missed the story, here it is. the attack The reaction across the country was pretty strong. People were outraged at the kids' behavior towards the woman, leaving me to wonder how they would feel if she weren't old enough to be their grandmother? There was an immediate outpouring of support as well as an outcry to punish the youths. Here is the reaction to the story.  a few days after the attack

 My facebook friend, Barbara Minton, posed the following on her wall today: Bullying bullies is not the answer. ~ Throwing money at the problem is not the answer. ~ Just admitting that bullying has gone on for decades is not the answer. ~ But I am at a loss to think of positive steps toward a solution to the abusive bullying that has been exposed in this recent bus video. WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Several of us (her friends) shared some examples and some thoughts. From teaching, I knew that in rural districts, bullying was not a big problem for the most part. There was a lot more respect towards each other, and an understanding that bad behavior wasn't the norm. "Coincidentally?" (I think not) families tended to attend church together and they did things together such as attend little league games and county fairs.

My teaching experience in an urban setting, working with the inner-city kids that grew up in housing projects and in neighborhoods where murders were frequent, was different. These kids were extremely rude and disrespectful to everyone, from their peers to adults. Did they attend church with their families? No, though some did attend youth activities sponsored by churches, where they were fed a constant line of "they're keeping you down," and it fed into their anger and frustration. Some were raised in multiple foster homes, some by single parents, some by grandmothers or aunts, and some seemed to drift from place to place. It wasn't uncommon to have parents missing from the household due to drugs, prison, or death.

People have been appalled at the video of the grandmother being verbally abused.  Yet there are children that get a constant stream of this day after day in the hallways, on the bus, or other places where adults won't hear it. Some get angry and fight back. Others withdraw and lose whatever self-esteem they had. Unfortunately, a few feel so overwhelmed that they take their own lives in order to escape.

One of the people that posted, Mary, wrote,  "I don't remember as a child growing up here in Tucson if there was any bullying going on. Unless I was just not looking for it or not, I think is was not here. There is so much more that kids today are exposed to - TV, internet, email, their own ipads. Violence in the movies certainly does not help."

This spurred me to share my theory on bullying. As a teacher, having seen some of it, received some it, and more often, read journal entries by students that were bullied, I had reason to consider this quite a bit. My answer got long (imagine that!) and I decided to blog about it instead. I wrote:

I have kind of a theory on bullying, Mary. I went to school (K-12) from 1963-1976. Every once in a while you'd hear someone say, "She's picking on me," but for the most part, it was limited to a sibling crowding you in the back seat of the family station wagon. There were people that did bullying type things (Mike Whitley took my brand new pencil in 3rd grade. Obviously, I never recovered from it, not so much the loss of the pencil, which was returned to me, but due to the trauma of having to talk to the principal about it. In Mike's case, this wasn't unusual.)

Back then, as today, most abuse was verbal which leaves less of a trail.  When someone did that, they'd either get punched in the nose (if a boy) or snubbed at recess (if a girl) and no one got freaked out. It didn't escalate because no one was running around in hysterics about it. We also watched Mayberry and The Waltons, and neither Andy nor Grandma Walton would've tolerated being mean, so we just didn't think it was the way to behave. Parents knew other parents, so if you did happen to do something, your mom knew before you got home and you were in trouble. When kids were bullied, they didn't see it as a personal failure, but that the other person was wrong. They didn't blame themselves and over-react.

It started getting worse in the early 90s. Students watched Bart Simpson and other shows with crude humor and put-downs, and all of a sudden, it was "cool" to make fun of someone. At the same time, the "You're okay, I'm okay" lessons started with the guidance counselors. There wasn't any personal responsibility and everyone made the team.  By 2000, the kids were often "in charge" and were bored. Middle school students, especially, like to push the limit. It was getting harder and harder to push limits that kept stretching. They didn't hear the word, "NO" very often. It was more important to pass the state math and reading tests, so the school ignored behavior that wasn't "too" bad.

Now, a decade later, we have an atmosphere where people of all ages think it is okay to be rude to others, to insist on "my way or the highway" and see bullying as a sport, using new tools such as technology to take it even further. It is seen in politics and in the corporate world when executives make decisions that make millions for them, yet devastate those lower down on the food chain. Some adults, as well as children, seem to think it's acceptable to belittle anyone that is different than themselves. As long as the television shows, movies, video games, and music, glorify a self-serving rude behavior, bullies won't stop easily. "Role models," such as entertainers, are seen pushing others around and aren't held accountable for their own behavior. This sense of entitlement feeds the attitudes of those that like to bully. 

Rather than ignoring it, those being bullied seem to internalize it more than they did when I was a child.  They either began to believe what they are told, or feel such despair that it'll never end, and begin to feel desperate. In our "instant-gratification" world, there is little patience for "later," and we often fail to see the big picture outside our own perspective. Little do they realize that if they can just make it until they are out of school, they can move away from the losers (who generally don't have much of a future or a choice) and have a wonderful life.

So, the problem is out there, what can be done? For one thing, I think the atmosphere is already improving. While it might not be affecting individual people yet, there is an awareness that it's NOT okay to bully others. People are getting fed up with it and are tired of seeing innocent people die.  There is a call for tolerance of diversity. It's not unusual for bullies to be doing this in order to feel powerful.  They may have been bullied themselves and may have such a dismal education level and resources, that they know they are doomed to live near the lower rung of the opportunity ladder the rest of their lives.  Bullying someone else gives them a momentary feeling of power and they enjoy it. As long as those being bullied curl up and wimper, rather than ignoring it or fighting back (legally) then there's no motivation to discontinue the behavior.

Schools need to stop the mind-games and giving students a dozen chances to do something. While it was intended to make everyone "successful," it made students lazy and lowered expectations. In games, everyone wins, which means that no one really wins. In the real world, they won't get that treatment, so need to learn to cope at any early age.  This same empowerment might also catch the future-bullies, giving them skills they need to cope.  If people start being treated as if they are EXPECTED to be responsible, reasonable, and respectable, then I suspect they just might rise to the occasion. The pendulum has been spinning out of control, so it's about time that we get back to civilized behavior.

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