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School Bullying: A Tragic Cost of Undemocratic Schools

Antibullying laws will work only when students make the laws.

Let's say you are 15 years old, or 13, or 11, and for some reason--a reason over which you have no control--you have been singled out by your schoolmates as an object for scorn and humiliation. Every day at school, for you, is another day in hell. You are called "whore," "bitch," "slut;" or "fag," "pussy," "scum;" or worse. People deliberately bump into you and knock your books out of your hands in the hallway. Nobody sits with you at lunch, or, if they do, those people are harassed until they stop sitting with you. These bullies are not the brutish looking comic-strip bullies, whom nobody likes and who steal other kids' lunch money. No, these bullies are among the popular kids--the athletes, cheerleaders, preppies. They are popular not just with most of the other kids but also with the teachers, school administrators, and adults in the larger community.

The law requires that you attend school, regardless of how you feel about it and how you are treated. You are not one of the privileged minority whose parents have the means to send them to a private alternative school or to convince the school board that they can educate them adequately at home. You have no choice.

What do you do? If you are like most of the hundreds of thousands of picked-on kids who suffer like this every day you somehow suck it up. You harden yourself and somehow survive it. You may be the only person who will ever know the full extent of your suffering. You may think about killing yourself; you may even fantasize some violent revenge against the whole school, as the whole school seems to be your enemy. If you are like most kids such thoughts remain in the realm of fantasy. But every once in a while, in a particularly vulnerable person, the despair or rage or both erupt into violence, either against the self or against the whole school, and only then does school bullying become an issue to the larger community.

Here's how Helen Smith, in her book The Scarred Heart, tells one such story, that of the suicide of 13-year-old April Michelle Himes of Richland, Washington: "Kids at school called her fat, threw things at her and pushed her around. They ridiculed her with rumors that she stuffed tissues in her bra. She attempted suicide and her parents admitted her to an inpatient mental hospital program and sought counseling but said it didn't help. After missing fifty-three out of the required one hundred and eighty days of school, she was told that she would have to return to school or appear before a truancy board which could then send her to a juvenile detention center. She decided the better alternative was to go into her bedroom and hang herself with a belt. ... In times past, she could have just dropped out of school, but now kids like her are trapped by compulsory education."

In my home state of Massachusetts we've heard a lot about school bullying and suicide. A few years ago, headlines were made when 11-year-old Charles Joseph Walker-Hoover hanged himself rather than face another day of bullying at the supposedly "good" charter school he attended in Springfield. Then Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old immigrant from Ireland, hanged herself after months of bullying by students at the public school she attended in the affluent community of South Hadley.

The outrage that followed Prince's suicide, coming so soon after Walker-Hoover's, forced the hands of the Massachusetts legislature. They passed, unanimously, an anti-bullying bill that was then immediately signed into law by the governor. The whole state felt that something had to be done, so that Charles's and Phoebe's deaths would not have been in vain. So they created a law.

I'm not surprised by the legislators' unanimous votes for this bill, nor by the governor's well-publicized signing of it. Given the emotional climate, they probably saw no other choice. Anyone who voted against it would have been seen as unsympathetic to the grieving parents and as soft on bullying. But this new law has not solved the bullying problem.

Why Anti-Bullying Legislation Will Not Solve the Bullying Problem

The anti-bullying law requires that every school employee--including cafeteria workers, janitors, and bus drivers as well as teachers and administrators--report any bullying incident that they see to the principal, who is then required to investigate the incident and take appropriate disciplinary action. In addition, the law requires that every student in Massachusetts, from kindergarten through 12th grade, in every school, participate every year in an "anti-bullying curriculum." On the surface, these may look like good things, but you don't have to scratch very deeply to see the problems.

The first problem with the reporting requirement is that very often--maybe most often--the staff member will have no way to know whether a particular act represents good-natured teasing or real bullying. This is especially true in large schools, where individual staff members don't know everyone. Teasing among friends is a normal, healthy part of adolescence, especially for boys. The best of friends may repeatedly call one another names that sound horrid to outsiders. For many boys, this is their way of hugging.

A cafeteria worker hears a kid calling another kid "loser" a couple of times and then, by law, has to report it and the principal has to investigate it. This is going to keep the principal very busy and will cause a lot of perfectly good, normal, compassionate kids to get into trouble. It'll be like the no tolerance policy on weapons, which has led kids to get suspended for such infractions as bringing a nail clipper to school; or like the no-tolerance policy on sexual harassment, which caused a third-grade boy to be suspended for kissing a little girl on the cheek. It is one more form of top-down control over the behavior of kids in school; one more requirement that makes school feel even more restrictive and prison-like.

Another problem with the reporting requirement is that it will lead the bullies to hide their bullying from adults even more effectively than they already do. The modern-day bullies that have driven kids to suicide are, by all reports, already very good at hiding their transgressions and looking innocent to adults. This is why teachers and principals so often fail to believe the victims, or the victims' parents, when they are told about harassment. They don't see it. In their view the accused are among the best kids in the school, so they jump to the conclusion that the complaint must represent a psychological problem on the part of the complainer, and then they recommend therapy. The law is not going to solve this problem. It's still going to be one kid's word against the words of a whole group of other kids; and the latter will often be the smoother talkers.

A third problem with the reporting requirement is that it will cause the "us versus them" gulf between students and staff at schools to become even wider than it is today. Kids will feel that they have to behave even more differently when a staff member is around than is already the case. Because staff members must bring them up for even minor infractions of the new speech code, staff will appear even more than now to be the enemy. So, students' reports to teachers and principals about harassments will be seen as tattling to the enemy, even more so than it already is; and students who have the gall to make such reports will be singled out for further abuse, even more than they already are.

What about the other part of the law, the part that requires students to participate every year in an anti-bullying curriculum? A new course, a new curriculum, a new set of tests--these have become the knee-jerk reactions of our culture to every problem that we perceive among kids. In fact, many anti-bullying school programs and courses have been tried over the past twenty years, in other countries as well as in the United States, and many outcome studies have been conducted to see if they work. So far, no program has proven itself to be very effective.

Two major reviews of such outcome research have been published, and both concluded that there is little if any evidence that any of the programs tried so far produce meaningful positive gains [1]. At best, such programs may produce slight decreases in bullying, and at worst they may produce slight increases in bullying. The same has been found for top-down programs aimed at modifying other aspects of adolescents' behavior. For example, the much-touted D.A.R.E. program designed to make kids immune to the temptations of drugs has been shown time and again to be ineffective, and three years ago it was included, in an article published by the American Psychological Society, in a list of interventions that are more likely to cause harm than good.[2]

The Root Cause of School Bullying

Bullying occurs regularly when people who have no political power and are ruled in top-down fashion by others are required by law or economic necessity to remain in that setting. It occurs regularly, for example, in prisons. Those who are bullied can't escape, and they have no legislative or judicial power to confront the bullies. They may report bullying to the prison guards and warden, but the guards and warden may not know whom to believe and may have greater vested interest in hiding bullying than in publicizing it and dealing with it openly. Recently I read the acclaimed book by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntau, Will the Boat Sink the Water?, about peasant life in modern day China. The peasants are not allowed to move off the land and they are governed, top down, by petty bureaucrats. The peasants have no political power and no due process of law, and so the bullies, who can best intimidate others, rise to the top. Should we be surprised to discover that at least some of our schoolchildren respond to forced confinement and dictatorial governance in the same manner as prisoners and Chinese peasants?

In our culture's fondest image of schools, the teachers and principals are infinitely kind, nurturing, and wise adults who know what's best for kids and can solve their problems. But really, of course, teachers and principals are human beings, with all the foibles of human beings everywhere. Most are indeed kind people, but they are far from all knowing or all wise; and nobody, truly nobody, is above self-interest. As a nation we decided long ago that there is no such thing as a benign dictatorship. To have a moral society the people who are governed must do the governing. That's our foundational principle as a nation, and if our children are to be educated for democracy, wouldn't it be nice if our schools, where children spend so much of their lives, were living embodiments of democracy?

There is only one way to get rid of the bullying and the general sense of unfairness that pervades our schools, and that is to restructure radically the way the schools are governed. If our children are required to be in school, then they must be granted a real voice in the way the school is run. If they are not granted such a voice, then school is prison and we can expect students to react in many of the same ways that prisoners everywhere react.

I've been involved for many years with a school where the students and staff together, on a one-person-one-vote basis, make all of the school rules and where the rules are enforced through a judicial system in which students of all ages serve as jurors. This school, like any other, has students who are potential bullies (for who is not potentially a bully?), but its democratic governance is remarkably effective at nipping incipient bullying before it becomes hurtful.

Because the students have power, they feel ownership of the school and have a vested interest in keeping it peaceful. Their legal power promotes an attitude of responsibility, which leads them to use not just the schools' legislative and judicial systems but also the full force of peer pressure and friendly persuasion to promote peace and justice. There is no "us versus them" distinction between staff and students at this school. They work together to create a community in which people can feel free and unafraid. I'm not talking about a fantasy school. I'm talking about a real school that has existed for over 40 years and has been replicated many times throughout the world.


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[1] K. W. Merrell et al. (2008), How effective are school bullying intervention programs? A meta-analysis of intervention research. School Psychology Quarterly, 23, 26-42; and J. D. Smith et al. (2004), The effectiveness of whole-school antibullying programs: A synthesis of evaluation research. School Psychology Review, 33, 547-560.
[2] Lilienfeld, S. O. (2007). Psychological treatments that cause harm. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 53-70.

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