The following post was written by a guest blogger. It's views do not necessarily reflect the views of P.O.V.
By Shaunda Kennedy Wenger
When I sat down to decide which topic I’d like to write about today, I perused the previous posts on P.O.V. Monday’s post about the tragic death of a bully victim caught my eye. As it turns out, this has been a subject weighing heavily on my mind. As a teacher at a private high school for at-risk students, this is a topic that I often deal with. However, the trends at my school may surprise you.
Bullying is commonly regarded as an unavoidable segment of our society. Articles which offer help to victims in dealing with this issue abound on websites for PBS, Mayo Clinic, CBS and Oprah. Unfortunately, these articles are needed — sometimes even early in life. Bullying behavior can creep up in preschools and kindergartens as young children learn to temper their ego-centered wants within a social environment. If left unchecked, bullying behavior can continue into adulthood and emerge in the workplace, threatening job security, decreasing morale and interfering with productivity.
As with any bad behavior, early intervention is an absolute necessity in modeling and molding what is considered to be safe, acceptable, and respectable. However, if this intervention wanes due to inconsistent discipline, or the age-old yet unfounded beliefs that “kids will be kids” and “that’s the way it is,” or “you just need to learn to deal with it and not let that bully bother you,” then bullying behavior is essentially given a free ticket to escalate and grow unchecked in schools and society.
And it is not just inconsistent discipline that falls prey to these beliefs. Published articles from professional counselors often offer the same advice for the victim. Let me repeat that. Published articles offer the same advice over and over again for the victim, who is told to avoid, ignore, and report the bully.
Thus, the proposed remedies start with the victim, and then more often than not, they end with him. And that, in my opinion, is the heart of the continuing and escalating problem of bullying in our society: laying the responsibility on the victim to avoid the bully who apparently cannot be controlled. Sometimes, this avoidance seems to carry over into the very people that bullying behavior should be reported (administrators, counselors, parents, teachers). Because if the case where otherwise — if swift, consistent and immediate consequences for correcting bullying behavior were the norm ---- then the majority of the articles that are published on the subject would not need to also suggest that the reporting child or adult “follow up” to make sure something was done to address the situation.
After having worked for the past two years at a highly secured, tight-reined residential treatment facility for at-risk youth where poor and disrespectful behavior is not tolerated and consequences are swift and consistent, I have seen that such behaviors can be changed. Intervention is possible. Bullying, as it turns out, is a learned condition. In my observation, it is one that can be unlearned. However, correcting the behavior does not happen overnight, nor does it follow with the first consequence. Unlearning poor behavior comes with a commitment to intolerance of such behavior whenever it arises by all the administrative staff, teachers and supporting faculty.
For some students, this intervention is needed on a daily basis. Over time, however, with constant reminders and consequences issued from staff, along with the role-modeling behavior provided from peers who are further along in the program, intervention is needed less and less. The student begins to unlearn his poor behavior and learns how to show respect to all of his peers, regardless of race, orientation or ability.
The student population at my school is widely diverse. We have students who are all over the spectrum. Issues that students deal with on a personal level range from learning disabilities, to emotional challenges, to recovery from drug and alcohol addictions, to boundary issues that may have gotten them into trouble. Typically, when students first enter the facility, they arrive clinging to the behaviors that landed them there in the first place. They bring baggage full of prejudices and immediately begin trying to establish their place in the social pecking order. However, it quickly becomes apparent to the new students that in this school — with as a diverse range of students as you can possibly get — there is no social pecking order. Not really. Due to the structure and enforced social and academic behaviors that are designed to elicit respect from all students for those around them, the students more or less eventually all learn to get along with one another, or at the very least, tolerate their differences and respect one another’s personal space.
During periods of “down-time,” it never ceases to amaze me when students at opposite “ends of the spectrum” will sit down and play a game of cards or chess together. Normally, in a more “traditional” school setting where social stigmas and pecking orders are accepted as status-quo, these card-playing students would never associate with one another, let alone share the same space for more than a few moments. Yet, I see it happen again and again at my school, where respect is molded daily into student behavior.
Thus, I believe that with a unified commitment from any community’s role models --- the elders, the parents, the administrators, the teachers — bullying can be unlearned in our society. It can be expunged. Kids who are “just being kids” can change. But in order for that to happen we all must make a commitment to becoming the undertow that initiates a wave of change. Adults, elders, administrators, teachers and role models must make a commitment to zero tolerance for poor behavior.
Implementing a zero tolerance policy takes time, stamina and training. It’s not easy. I know. But it is completely worth the effort. And if all adults and role models work together on the issue to support one another on a zero tolerance policy, it will seem less like a David-and-Goliath situation. One person cannot make the change alone.
Furthermore, the burden of dealing with bullies should not lie with the victims who are told to hide their feelings and “not let the bully see that their antics are getting a response.” It should not lie with the victims who are told to avoid bullies or walk away. It should not lie with parents who are told to follow up to ensure that something was done about a bullying behavior that was reported. It lies with those who are in charge. The adults, the role models, the ones who make and enforce the rules.
Bullying needs to be taken seriously. It should no longer be given a free ticket to pervade our society simply because of the misguided belief of “that’s the way it is” and “kids will be kids.” Kids can be better. Kids deserve to be better. They just need to be shown how. Like anything, they need to be shown through consistent role modeling and through consistent training. Put an end to bullying. Challenge your community to start unlearning poor behavior and begin molding respectful human beings.
Here are some links to great videos about ideas on how and why we should stop bullying now:
Shaunda Kennedy Wenger teaches science at Logan River Academy in Northern Utah and was recently accepted on to the Teaching Artist Roster for the Utah Division of Arts and Museums. She is also an author. While her children’s novels are set in a school environment where bullies or animosities between student characters exist, resolution and the power for self-affirmation lie within the characters who find their own voice without playing the role of a victim. Learn more about Shaunda and her books at www.shaundawenger.blogspot.com.