Imagine that you are a parent, and that your child comes home from school and tells you that she is being tormented by a group of other girls. They call her names, they exclude her from group activities, and they write nasty notes and leave them in her desk or locker. She cries, and says she doesn’t ever want to go back to school. Your immediate response will probably be a combination of sympathy and rage that will leave you wanting first to reassure your child that she is wonderful and valuable, and then to call the parents of the other girls, the principal of the school and anyone else who may be responsible for hurting someone dear to you. You may be irrational and fuming, or you may be calm and methodical; either way, you will want apologies, punishment, and a reassurance that it will not happen again. You will want justice, and for your child to feel safe and happy in a place that you send her five days a week. You may also, in the darkest part of your soul, want the persecutors to feel the pain they have inflicted, and to understand the harm they have caused.
Now imagine that you have a child who, while far from perfect, is a generally decent human being, kind to babies, animals and grandparents, and doing well at school. Imagine that you receive a call from an irate parent claiming that your child has been bullying their son or daughter, and that he has behaved maliciously and cruelly. Although your child not only pleads innocent, but has actual proof that he did not do the things of which he is accused, there is no possibility that the issue will be resolved objectively, based on this evidence. A rational resolution is impossible because “bullying” has become in our schools what witchcraft was in Salem; if a child cries “bullying,” the complainant must generally be pacified, and the accused punished. There is no hanging in these cases, merely the requirement that a possibly innocent child be labelled and punished in order to satisfy his accuser.
This crime and punishment is codified, in our school district, by a “discipline rubric” which categorizes behavior with specified consequences for a first, second or third infraction. Included on the first level of this rubric are “eye rolling, intimidating stare, leering, shunning,” and ” gossiping.” I will force myself to move on without editorial comment, except to say this: remember yourself as a child, and consider whether or not you engaged in any of these “first-tier” behaviors. I can tell you that if eye rolling had been a punishable offense in my elementary school, I would have been punished daily with “loss of social lunch and all recesses for two days.”
In the same way that male teachers are vulnerable to ruin when a female student invents an accusation of inappropriate behavior, all children are at risk of being tarnished and diminished by any accusation that they have bullied another, particularly in a system that classifies normal (if regrettable) human behavior as punishable bullying. In the rush to protect putative victims, I have seen relatively little interest in weighing facts or (horror of horrors) taking a hard look at the character or conduct of the alleged victim. The original goal of school “anti-bullying” rules was a noble one: to protect vulnerable children from the cruelty or violence of their peers. It now seems, however, that merely invoking the “B” word is enough to erase all rational thought and to create an environment in which a child crying “wolf” is able to trigger the same regulatory response as a child genuinely in harm’s way. It is easy for a busy principal to listen to an emotional accusation, consult a rubric and impose a punishment. It is much harder, and more time-consuming to hear all sides of a story, apply common sense, and respond in a way that does real justice.
Having been teased as a child, I am keenly aware of the pain and psychic damage that can be done by even the most negligent name-calling or the most careless remark about one’s looks, brains or social skills. I believe that it is never acceptable for a student to be teased or bullied because of her appearance, skin color, ethnicity, handicaps, sexual orientation, social status, religion or family situation. It is our job as parents, to raise children who clearly understand that such behavior is abhorrent, that it does not meet community standards for compassion and decency, and that it will be punished at home as it is in school. There is no wiggle room there; and if I received a call saying that my son had used a racial or ethnic slur, and there was some objective indication that he had actually done such a thing, I would be on my way to school at barrier-breaking speed to read him the riot act.
On the other hand, there are gray areas which require not the blind and fearful application of rules, but careful consideration of the variables involved. There are children who are obnoxious and provocative, and who, in some cases, are encouraged by their parents to believe that they are special snowflakes who do not have to learn or follow the rules of social interaction followed by their peers. It is the perogative of parents to encourage and indulge their child in the belief that he is a genius compared to his classmates, or that it is adorable to follow people around and repeat whatever they say all day, but those parents should understand that there are consequences for engaging in behavior calculated to irritate and repel. I am, again, not referring to kids who have a medical condition which prevents them from understanding and following standard social cues; I am speaking of children who choose not merely to march quietly to a different drummer, but to create constant social friction and classroom drama. If Sam were being teased because he was small, or fat, or had an emotional impairment, I would have to restrain myself from stalking the responsible children and poisoning their Luncheables. If Sam told me he was being teased for “no reason,” I would push him hard for possible causes – was he bugging people who clearly didn’t want to hang out with him? Was he telling other kids how they should draw their pumpkins more like his? Was he hanging over someone else’s desk during a math quiz and talking about how he had finished in three minutes? It would be tough, but I hope that I’d be able to explain that certain behaviors have drawn fire through the ages, and that while they certainly don’t justify physical violence, they might legitimately deserve a little eye rolling or a mean look.
There are also, frankly, children who lie. Every child who uses accusations of bullying to level the social playing field requires an institutional response, and given the decreasing budgets and increased demands on the time and energy of educators, it’s a lot to ask of them to launch a full investigation every time a complaint is made. Sometimes, it’s just easier to figure “something must have happened,” and punish the accused. No one wants to believe their child is lying, and no school administrator wants to be in the position of refereeing a fight between two children, parents or families. The problem is, that every time a principal “caves” for the sake of expediency, there are consequences including teaching one child that lying pays, teaching another that it doesn’t help to be honest, and cheapening the whole idea of real bullying.
We would all like our children to be kind, inclusive, and generous of spirit. Most folks are not born that way; it takes years of patient, consistent and sometimes difficult work to teach a child when it is appropriate to “let it all hang out” and when it is necessary to do something you might not want to do because it is right. There are people I do not particularly enjoy, and I understand the necessity of being courteous, friendly and inclusive regardless of my own impulse to stick my tongue out and tell them what I really think about their endless bragging. I was not born with this kind of control, and during elementary and middle school, most kids are still fine-tuning the ability to act not from gut instinct, but based on an objective standard of acceptable conduct.
In the current system, a second grader may be punished under the “Discipline Rubric” for telling another child that she would rather eat lunch with someone else. While it’s debatable whether or not we should be teaching children to override all of their own personal preferences in favor of the needs of other people (particularly in the case of girls, who tend to develop the “disease to please” with no outside help), I would definitely argue against penalizing a very young child for doing what comes naturally. It is a teachable moment, to be sure; there is much to be taught about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, and acting accordingly. There does, however, have to be a high level of discernment and empathy on the part of the teacher or administrator handling the situation. When this keen, personal observation is replaced by an inflexible set of rules, the important lesson about treading gently with the feelings of others may be entirely obscured by a red haze of crime and punishment. To what extent can we, or should we legislate the inherent personal preferences of our children? It’s clearly not okay to hit or call names, but is it okay to choose to play a game only with your own friends? Is it actually beneficial to an excluded child if other children are forced to include him?
This same rubric has also, to my certain knowledge, been used as the basis for suspending students involved in a physical fight which they did not initiate, and in which they were demonstrably defending themselves. As a pacifist of longstanding, I don’t believe that anybody should use physical force against another, but it defies logic to instruct children to allow themselves to be hit, kicked or slammed into lockers because, if they raise a hand in self-defense, they are “participating,” and therefore “involved in bullying.” I cannot wrap my brain around any way in which fighting back in the interests of self-preservation is analagous to a campaign of belittlement or harassment intended to put down another person.
Clearly, we are going through a period in which the faintest whiff of bullying is a red flag, with experts available at a moment’s notice to address parents, teachers and students about the continuum of insensitive and harmful behavior, and the damage done if those behaviors are not extinguished quickly. The attention to bullying is a good thing for a broad spectrum of real victims, including those who might previously have gone unprotected. The objective codification of right and wrong makes it easy to correct the taunting of an effeminate boy or a girl with a speech impediment without the necessity of complaint and possible retribution; if an adult in the building is aware of such behavior, most modern rules allow them to discipline offenders based on what they observed. This is, in my opinion, a good thing.
The problem, and it is a big one, comes when the victim is not so clearly innocent, and/or the alleged “bully” has acted out of mere immaturity, in self-defense, or not at all. We cannot wrap our children in foam rubber and protect them from all harm, and to do so would handicap them as they find their way in the world. We can show them all we know of kindness, and instruct them in the habit of imagining themselves in the skin of another human being. What we must not do is allow all awkward, unpleasant social interaction to be classified as “bullying.” We should expect the shining of a bright light on all muddled cases before rushing to judge and punish, rather than a knee-jerk administration of discipline. Taking this easy way out saves time and avoids pesky law suits, but if the goal of education at home and in school is to raise good citizens, why are we teaching our children that it makes no difference what really happens, and that they must conduct themselves in such a way that there is no possibility that an accusation of bullying could be made. Do we really want to teach our children that they must never respond to provocation, that they must pull their punches after being struck, and that they must never show any attachment to or preference for their natural circle of friends, lest they should be accused of bullying? The fear of irrational and random accusation didn’t do much for the town of Salem, and it’s no better in the halls of our schools.