COMMENTARY | Bullying sucks. We should root it out and firmly assert that it has no valid role in the education and socialization of our youth (or adults). Research has long confirmed that old-school tacit acceptance of schoolyard bullying as a “toughen ’em up” practice actually leads to a slew of later problems for both victim and bully, both of whom are more likely to end up with behavioral disorders and other mental health maladies. Complicating the picture and making bullying even worse is the fact that bullies themselves were, or still are, victims of other bullies, establishing a vicious cycle of victimization.
Fortunately, society is now staunchly anti-bully. Unfortunately, bullying is harder to root out than most of us would like to believe. As a high school teacher, I am fortunate that there is rarely overt bullying occurring within earshot or line of sight. However, the more insidious bullies are smarter and can be subtle. They can also play the victim when confronted by a teacher or administrator. Kids know how to take a dive.
This sad fact brings us to the difficulty of the My Little Pony debacle. A nine-year-old boy was being bullied for bringing a My Little Pony backpack to school. He complained about the bullying. In a controversial move, school administrators told him to stop bringing the backpack, reports Today, angering the boy’s parents. The situation has gone viral, with many thousands of people supporting the parents’ insistence that the school crack down on the bullies rather than insist that the victim conform. Experts cited discussed other options the school should have pursued, such as treating the incident as a “teachable moment” and fixing the “environment” that allegedly was conducive to bullying.
Unfortunately, school administrators rarely have the time or resources to do such things. Even individual teachers, under the gun to get students ready for gobs of standardized testing, cannot easily take multiple students aside to counsel them about their actions. Macro-level changes are expensive, to say the least, and often slow. And, when minors are involved, cracking down on bullying is often harder than it looks: Chastised bullies are quick to run to their parents, who in turn grow angry with the teacher or administrator who punished.
Right or wrong, it’s often much quicker and easier to try and remove the bully-provoking object than crack down on the bully, who may know the tricks of the “run to mommy” trade.
Additionally, many people who have been bullied know the fear of having the bullies confronted directly: Once they know they are getting to you, they have an incentive to continue. And, when punished by the school, their desire for revenge often trumps their fear of harsher punishment for being caught bullying again. Kids can often be stupid that way. Many victims of bullying often fear reporting it because they know that the bully will be on the loose again soon, this time out to “get the rat.”
Like it or not, this is reality.
As a teacher and a parent I see both sides of the coin. I want my own son to never have to fear bullies, but at the same time I know how hard it is to control bullies. My ability to punish bullies is limited. We teachers are expected to go through umpteen different steps before sending a troublemaker to the office, meaning any bullying short of physical contact or witnessed property defacement does not result in swift curtailment.
Often, the bullying victim must find a way to minimize their contact with the bully. It may mean no longer wearing certain clothes or carrying a certain backpack, hoping to not attract negative attention. Idealistically, I know it is wrong for people to have to do this. Pragmatically, I know it is often the only way to minimize being victimized. Sadly, the My Little Pony backpack should be left at home.