By Joann Morris October 6, 2011 3:49 pm
Bullying is vexing. Bullying creates anxiety and fear, causes students to avoid coming to school, and affects their ability to learn. We know too well that it can also lead to despair and students’ taking their own lives
But, we also know that bullying behaviors can be changed, altered, and even eradicated. We’ve recognized a problem, we have a solution, but bullying is even more commonplace in our schools than ever before. That’s what’s vexing about bullying.
I believe that one reason bullying continues in our schools is that many of the myths surrounding bullying are still held to be truths. One such myth is that children bullying other children is a character builder or a normal rite of passage or just normal play and teasing, so it’s ignored.
Young people slowly build their character by observing family, friends, community members and the larger society. If we model positive, caring, socially just behavior, that’s what students will see and, hopefully, adopt. But if we indicate by our silence that intimidation and bullying are acceptable ways to get what you want in life, those are the behaviors students will adopt.
Bullied students are told to stand up and beat up the student bullying them; that too is supposed to build character. Such a response only teaches that violence is a primary solution to problems in life. There are better ways to teach problem solving, character development and social justice than through the complicit acceptance of bullying in all its forms.
There are ways to distinguish between bullying and normal play and teasing. Bullying goes beyond teasing when it occurs day after day, when repetition of the harassing behavior happens almost daily, such as brazenly ridiculing and isolating an overweight student.
When the bullied student is also smaller, younger or is perceived to have a lower social status, this power differential is also an indicator of bullying, such as openly calling poorer students “welfare” or “ghetto”. This goes beyond normal play and teasing.
And if the bully intends to do harm and enjoys seeing their target upset, such as taunting a student with food allergies by claiming the bully has peanut butter on his hands and threatening to touch the allergic student, those too are indications that bullying and not normal play is at work.
In conversations and trainings held across the country on bullying awareness, I routinely hear educators speak of unbelievable acts of intimidation and harm by one student to another, starting as early as Kindergarten, yes, Kindergarten. All forms of bullying are far more commonplace than adults want to believe.
When educators are asked if they were bullied during their days as a student, many admit that they were, and when prodded, can even recall the name of the person who bullied them – so many years ago. Bullying is NOT child’s play. Its impact stays with students long into adulthood.
It’s time adults – educators, school officials, and parents – put a stop to bullying. We must stand up so bullied students know they are not alone, speak up for improved policies and programs, and stop bullying when we see it. We must be the adults in young peoples’ lives who model caring behaviors that develop ethical, socially just citizens of the future.
Learn more about bullying prevention from NEA’s Bully Free: It Starts With Me campaign.
Joann Sebastian Morris is a Senior Policy Analyst and lead staff on NEA’s Bully Free: It Starts with Me Campaign.