Early each morning, before the school bell rings, thousands of children release large amounts of kinetic energy on playgrounds across the Central Valley. Students stream through the gates to run, jump and fly around in groups of two, three and four. The air is filled with laughter and shrieking. Yet, off to the side, just out of sight of the adults, the scene is quite different. Fear and silence lay heavy in the air as a sixth grader picks on an isolated third grader under the watchful eyes of the bully’s companions.
Bullying at school has been around as long as school itself. Until recently, many people dismissed such behavior as simply an inevitable part of growing up with the attitude of “children will be children.” But, school shootings such as Columbine, Red Lake and Tacoma have brought to light the consequences of bullying. The majority of school shooters felt bullied and acted to exact revenge.
While lethal violence is virtually non-existent in elementary schools, hundreds of children are victimized each day across the Central Valley. School is supposed to be the safest place for children. But, for many students, school is a place of ridicule, ostracism, intimidation, extortion and assault. These students are at greater risk of school failure, physical illness, depression and suicide. As for bullies, they are more likely to engage in delinquency as adolescents and crime as adults.
Bullying is a serious and increasingly common problem. Quite often, adults will stand by and do nothing under the guise that children need to learn to toughen up and stand up for themselves. This is seen as essential training for adulthood since there may not be someone to intervene on your behalf. Of course, this approach most likely means verbal and/or physical confrontation leading to an escalation of violence. Not only is this an ineffective means to resolve problems, it can have tragic consequences, as we saw with the death of Michael Anthony Mobley, a seventh grader, who was killed only a few feet away from Ahwahnee Middle School by a eighth-grade student.
Other adults believe that children need to learn how to resolve conflict and work things out by themselves or with help from peers. These well-meaning adults think these skills will come in handy as children grow into adults since they may not have someone to intervene on their behalf. Conflict resolution and peer mediation programs are designed to provide students with needed skills, but they operate under the assumption of equals resolving their differences. While these programs have been effective dealing with a variety of student issues, they have no real effect on bullying.
Bullying is not like other types of conflict because it is repeated behavior aimed at hurting someone. The victim has done nothing to provoke the bully. Bullies tend to be persons who are impulsive and easily angered. They are often defiant and aggressive towards adults. And they have a need to dominate and subdue others. Often, bullies are among the most popular and socially connected students in school and they carefully pick victims. Bullies look for students who are quiet and sensitive. Victims could be cautious and shy. Some are insecure with few friends. Others have difficulties in school such as reading and writing problems or ADHD behavior. Bullying is planned behavior that involves a tremendous imbalance of power.
The imbalance of power means that adults need to train students to protect each other and be willing to actively intervene. Schools need to reduce the opportunities and rewards for bullying. This requires everyone—students, parents, staff and teachers—to create a community where members are their sister’s and brother’s keeper. No longer should those being bullied be ashamed and fearful, other children remain silent and adults complicit. Instead, those being bullied need to understand it is not their fault; this means telling their friends, parents and teachers. Other children need to stand up for their schoolmates; this means confronting the bully in a group or going to get an adult who will intervene to stop the bullying. Adults need to act quickly and unequivocally; this means stepping in and stopping behavior, and consistently applying consequences.
Bullying is not an inescapable part of childhood, it is not inevitable. Bullying happens when children are silent and adults are complicit. Students do not need to be bullied. Adults need to set the tone and model desired behavior. Schools can be safe places when children and adults act intentional to care for each other.
Scott Key is a professor in the School of Education at Fresno Pacific University. Before coming to FPU, he was at the University of Illinois and a member of the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago.