COMMENTARY | A flier was recently sent home with some fifth-grade students from a Nebraska elementary school listing nine “tips” meant to help minimize the harms of bullying. The only problem, according to ABC, was that the “tips” called for the victims of bullying to do things like turn the other cheek. Parents were understandably upset and, when questioned about the flier, the school district claimed it had no knowledge of the document and apologized for its controversial contents. The school has since created a new flier that asserts “asking for help is not ratting!”
Though the offending original flier seems laughable, particularly in today’s staunch anti-bullying culture, I couldn’t help but nod along with its advice…not because the advice was particularly correct but because, as an elementary school kid who was picked on in the early ’90s, much of it rang true to my experience. The flier was basically a “schoolyard rules” of anti-bullying self-help.
It reveals the true complexity of bullying and should not be mindlessly condemned. Though the advice is not what we want to hear, we as educators and parents must be aware of the “schoolyard rules” of student interactions. Turning a blind eye to the necessities of handling bullies helps nobody.
Sure, as a kid I knew the “textbook rules” about how to be a victim of bullying – tell a teacher, assert your rights, all that good stuff. In reality, I knew that the situation was far trickier. Not all bullies were simply dumb louts who would blunder into getting caught by a teacher.
Much bullying occurred in subtleties and when teachers and administrators were not looking. Some of it, to outsiders, would have looked like good fun. “We’re just playing” is what many bullies would say, knowing they could play dumb when asked “don’t you know what you’re doing is hurting ___________?”
Not wanting to be a “tattletale,” I did what the offending Nebraska flier suggested:
I used humor and feigned ignorance to deflect the comments that were meant to hurt. I pretended not to be bothered. I avoided showing pain or discomfort. Obviously, I hated feeling like I had to do this. But, in the end, I preferred to play by the “schoolyard rules” than be a social pariah. Even if I was successful in getting some form of “witness protection,” a virtual impossibility, or sufficient punishments levied against the bullies, I would have been an outcast.
Eventually, the bullying faded away. I grew up, the bullies grew up, and I found my niche.
If we really want to stop bullies we must empower teachers to levy punishments and disciplinary actions in the moment. Currently, most teachers can only report instances of suspected bullying to the office, where future action may or may not be taken. Unfortunately, the ultimate decider of any punishment, the administrator, has little context to go on and, out of restraint and attempts to avoid angry momma drama, often errs on the side of laxness. The bully gets a slap on the wrist because the principal or assistant principal has little “proof.”
A skilled bully, in the amount of time it takes for a teacher’s disciplinary referral to get processed and an administrator to haul the offender in for questioning, can easily cook up a good story: “I was just joking,” “I didn’t mean it like that,” “I thought we were buddies,” etc. Even if the principal calls in the victim and the witnessing teacher for explanation or verification, often enough time has passed for the victim to want to clam up and not risk becoming a social pariah. “I guess it wasn’t a big deal,” the victim might say, feeling sheepish now that time has passed, especially if a weekend has gone by.
The principal, eager for it to not be a “big deal,” readily agrees and gives the bully the lightest of slaps on the wrist.
This is why many victims of bullying conform to the “schoolyard rules.” If we want to have any hope of stopping this system, we need to empower teachers to levy real punishments on offenders. Take it from this current high school teacher and former bullying victim: Empowering teachers is what will work.