Cutting-Edge Leadership

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Religious Bullying in Schools: Bullying in the Name of God

Do school-sponsored religious education programs increase bad student behavior?

I have written about workplace bullying and bullying in schools. The incidents that I’ve heard and written about have not involved bullying toward specific groups of people, such as ethnic minorities or gay or lesbian individuals (although we know that this occurs with greater frequency), but persons from all walks of life who are singled out as targets of bullies.

However, a friend told me about a form of bullying that I was completely unaware of, and programs, sponsored by some public schools, that actually promote a form of bullying: religious bullying.

I was amazed to find out about school-sponsored programs in some states (e.g., Indiana, Kansas, Ohio, Virginia) that allow release time for students to attend off-site evangelical Christian education. Termed Weekday Religious Education (WRE), these programs are presumably only offered to Christian students, who study the bible and, according to one account, allow students to develop a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

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My friend was concerned because her son was one of the few non-Christian students in his class who did not attend (along with a Jewish and a Hindu student). The problem was that through his non-attendance, my friend’s son and the others were singled out and subjected to bullying by the other students. One told him, “you’re going to hell if you don’t believe in Jesus.” These programs take place during the school day, so non-attenders are singled out when the majority of the students return to the classroom (and it takes away from the school’s academic program!).

My daughter experienced something similar from an evangelical Christian student at her public school, but it was a bit milder because there was no school-supported program, such as Weekday Religious Education, that would give implicit “approval” to Christian values.

The roots of discrimination and prejudice involve psychological processes, such as in-group/out-group biases (the “we-they” feeling), and social dominance, whereby one group (the in-group) is considered superior to outgroup members. WRE programs, particularly in communities where the vast majority of students are Christian, by their very nature, increase the potential for discrimination and bullying. This is an important issue because if programs such as these are allowed to exist they increase the potential for school bullying (I personally think that WRE programs, despite the Supreme Court ruling that allows WRE if it is held off of the school site, still implicitly violates separation of church and state).

One might imagine that a similar situation could arise from a school-sponsored sex education that discusses only heterosexuality (or worse, treats homosexuality as an aberration), would increase the potential for discrimination and bullying against gay students, or students of gay parents.

What are your thoughts?

 

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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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