The Unfair Bullying Lawsuit Against NYC

It is being sued for doing precisely what the anti-bullying law mandates.

Posted Aug 28, 2013

NYC anti-bullying policies aren't working
Let me make it perfectly clear: no one has more compassion for victims of bullying than I do. I have devoted my professional life to helping them because I know much they suffer, I know how to help them, and I want to help as many as I can.

I live in Staten Island, and for fourteen years, between 1988 and 2002, I worked full time as a school psychologist for the New York City Dept. of Education. Using basic psychological principles, I helped hundreds of victims of bullying while under their employ, and in the process perfected my approach. A couple of years after Columbine made bullying a worldwide concern, I left my job so I could devote myself to promoting the true solution to bullying more widely.

News has just emerged that my previous employer is being sued by the family of a 12 year-old boy, Joel Morales, who tragically committed suicide in May 2012 because he could no longer tolerate the

Bullying Lawsuit Against NYC Dept. of Education
terrible bullying to which he was subjected. My heart goes out to Ms. Babilonia (Joel's mother) and her family. Nothing is more painful for a parent than losing a child. May we all be spared such suffering. She lost her precious boy needlessly. Had he gotten effective help in school, he would still be alive.

So why am I defending the New York City Dept. of Education? Is it because it's an organization that is beyond reproach? Of course not. No organization is perfect. In fact, in my last couple of years working for the Dept. of Ed., I repeatedly informed my higher-ups that I would love to teach NYC schools how to deal with bullying more effectively, and that I could do so even without neglecting my regular duties as a “testing machine”–the nick-name we school psychologists have given ourselves, reflecting the nature of our jobs. But they weren’t interested. So I ended up leaving and have never regretted it.

Joel Morales
Why, you may ask again, am I defending the Dept. of Education? It's because it doesn’t deserve the lawsuit. Thanks to the media, we have learned a lot about the torment Joel experienced, and how hurt and angry his family is. On the other hand, there is scarce information available in the media presenting the side of the Dept. of Ed. because it is restricted from publicly discussing the case. Nevertheless, it is clear that Joel’s schools did what they were required to do when bullying complaints are brought to their attention. You can be sure that once the trial begins, the Dept. of Education will reveal all of the steps that the schools took. But what they did just didn’t work. In fact, it made the hostilities towards Joel escalate.

It has been repeated ad nauseum that "bullying continues because schools do nothing to make it stop." This belief was first formulated by Prof. Dan Olweus, the creator the modern field of bullying psychology, subsequently repeated by virtually all bullying researchers, and in turn promulgated by the mass media. All you need is to read the comments to articles about these tragic bullying-related suicides and you will see how many readers accuse the schools of "having done nothing to make the bullying stop." When school administrators do address these accusations, they virtually always insist that they did get involved to stop the bullying. But no one believes them because of the dogma that bullying wouldn’t happen if the schools were only to take it seriously.

Truth is, there is hardly a school in the country that doesn’t take bullying seriously. How can they not? The laws require them to. School administrators aren’t stupid. They are informed about government regulations. They follow the educational news. They know they can get sued if they don’t follow anti-bullying policies. Unfortunately, as too many bullying victims and their families have discovered, the hostilities toward the victimized child almost always escalate once the school authorities get involved following anti-bullying regulations. If you read the details carefully, you will notice that many, if not most, bullying-related suicides or acts of serious violence occur after the authorites get involved. As the New York Daily News article says:

"Babilonia [Joel’s sister] complained multiple times per week to Department of Education personnel,” but the teasing continued unabated, the suit says. School officials eventually held a meeting with the bullies’ parents, but it backfired on Joel. After the meeting, the kids snuck into Joel’s building at the Jefferson Houses and pelted him with pipes and sticks, the suit says.

Please note that the lawsuit does not claim that the Dept. of Education failed to address the numerous bullying complaints. It only says that the “teasing continued unabated.”

Why did the meeting with the parents of the bullies backfire? The reason is very simple. If I get you in trouble with the authorities, are you going to like and respect me more? Of course not! You are going to want to beat the crap out of me. As they say in the inner cities, "Snitches get stitches." And how about your parents–will they blindly accept my accusations? Not likely. They probably love you and will want to take your side against me.

This is not rocket science. Watch the movie, Odd Girl Out, based on the true story of Alexa Vega, a high school student who attempted suicide because she was being bullied. Her mother tells her that she will go talk to her bullies’ parents. Alexa urges her not to. But mom ignores her wishes and talks to the ringleader’s parents. And the bullying only gets worse. Then her mother tells Alexa she will go to the school principal. Again, Alexa urges her not to. But again mom doesn’t listen, and the bullying only gets worse.

Another newspaper says, "Ms Babilonia’s lawyer Tedd Kessler said of the meeting: ‘It didn’t alleviate the situation at all.’"

How surprising.

We've been taught to think of bullying as uni-directional: that it is perpetrated by one side, the bully, against the victim. However, if both sides are angry with each other, each one feels like they are the victim and the other is the bully. One of the meanest things we can do to people is get the authorities involved against them. Imagine that I have a problem with you, and instead of dealing with you directly, I try to get you in trouble with the authorities. You now feel victimized by me, and rightfully so. And when we feel victimized we want revenge. When we act out of revenge, what we do to them is usually much worse than what they did to us.

Another article reveals that after Joel was pelted by pipes and sticks–an obvious act of revenge by his bullies–his mother called the police on them. The police is another organization that we are instructed by the bullying experts to involve in bullying. While the police are expected to be a powerful weapon against bullying, there are few things that can make people despise you as much as calling the police on them. That's when they realy wish you were dead. If you're not sure about this, try this simple experiment: the next time your neighbors play their music too loud, call the police on them. And let them know you did it.

The belief promoted by Prof. Olweus and the experts who follow in his footsteps–that bullying would disappear if schools refused to tolerate it–has no basis in reality. His own Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, thanks to millions of dollars in sophisticated public relations activities, has convinced the world that it is the gold standard in bullying prevention. Almost all of the other popular bullying prevention programs, and all school anti-bullying laws, are based on his teachings.

How effective is the gold standard Olweus program? Research has shown unequivocally that it rarely achieves more than a minor reduction in bullying and sometimes results in an increase. The most comprehensive study ever done in the U.S. on his program, financed by The Highmark Foundation of Pennsylvania to the tune of $19 million ($9 million for implementation and $10 million for publicity–part of a larger $100 million 5 year contract) found that after two years of intensive implementation with fidelity, achieved a meager 12% reduction in the number of children who report being bullied twice or more per month. The study didn’t even mention the results for the kids who are bullied every day, like poor Joel Morales. These are the kids who are truly suffering and need the help. For all we know, the number of such kids grew during the study. But giving the Olweus program the benefit of the doubt and assuming that it achieves a 12% across-the-board reduction in bullying, it still failed to help 88% of bullied kids! So even if Joel’s schools would have had this “gold standard” program created by the world’s most highly revered bullying expert, it is almost certain that Joel would still have committed suicide.

The results of other highly respected programs are no better than those of the Olweus program and often even worse. So how can we hold schools legally responsible for a bullied kid’s suicide when the instructions they are required to follow don’t work?

People naively believe that if schools get punished severely by having to pay multi-million dollar fines in bullying lawsuits, then the schools will finally start getting rid of bullying. How exactly will they do this? By using programs and policies that have been proven by research and experience to be, at best, only minimally effective? The only thing publicizing these lawsuits reliably does is increase the number of lawsuits. The buyllying epidemic is often said to be growing, but it is not growing nearly as quickly as the epidemic of bullying lawsuits. However, the public doesn’t mind seeing the schools pay millions of dollars to bullied kids or their families because they don’t realize it’s their own money that’s being spent. We, the taxpayers, foot the bill. And if the school districts end up going bankrupt because of bullying lawsuits, please don’t say I haven’t warned you

Does this mean that Joel was doomed to die? Of course not! Had he been provided effective help, his torture at the hands of bullies would have ceased almost immediately. And the correct help doesn’t cost any additional money. The school personnel that are in the position to solve the problem of bullying are already on the payroll. But they are not being taught to do what works. On the contrary, they are being forced by law to do what doesn’t.

If the schools fail to make bullying stop, please don't blame the schools for failing to comply with anti-bullying laws. It's not the schools that don't work, it's the laws that can't work. The schools didn't ask for these unenforceable laws. We, the public, did. 

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Transparency Declaration: I declare that I do have a financial interest in a company that offers products and services that may be related to the content of my writings.

Author's Policies Regarding Comments: 1. I rarely respond to comments because I simply don't have the time. If I don't respond to your comment, please don't take it personally. 2. Psychology Today has a strict policy about nasty comments. I believe in free speech and rarely censor comments, no matter how nasty. Every nasty comment by adults––especially by ardent anti-bullying advocates––illustrates how irrational it is to expect kids to stop engaging in bullying.

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