A Problem of Power: Ending Bullying in Schools

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People cannot stop talking about bullying.

There are endless stories on repeat throughout the major media, and in the past few years, every state in the country has passed laws or policies that are aimed at tackling bullying.

Virtually every school in the country has a “Respect Week” or programming during October, National Bullying Prevention Month.

And these conversations are important. They come from a deep and serious concern for our young people who are hurting.

But they are also grossly ill-conceived.

Part of the trouble with tackling bullying is that there is no “one size fits all” approach, and there never can be one. And so long as we treat bullying as if it’s some general problem that requires general solutions like “respect campaigns,” we ensure that the problem of bullying will persist in our communities.

After all, at its root, bullying behavior is about power.

Far too often, young people tear each other down and target one another for sustained violence, harassment, or neglect in order to feel more powerful, particularly when the person exhibiting bullying behavior is feeling powerless.

Amanda Levitt of Fat Body Politics describes it perfectly:

If we actually started calling bullying what it is and address it as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, fat phobia, and classism, it would actually give children a better way to deal with the very same power dynamics they will face as adults, while also giving adults more responsibility to challenge the intolerance that is rooted within our society overall.

Identity-Based Bullying

In essence, it’s time we change how we talk about bullying.

In my own work, I use the term Identity-Based Bullying to get at the root of the bullying problem.

Though there are, of course, exceptions, the majority of bullying in American schools cannot simply be explained away with “kids will be kids” or as “adolescent cruelty.”

 It is reflective of the very same problems of power, oppression, and privilege that we see in wider society, only it’s played out in language and behavior that students can better understand.

After all, the patterns we see in bullying behavior reflect many of the issues of oppression and marginalization we see in wider society.

In Gender, Bullying, and Harassment, Elizabeth J. Meyer lays out the impacts of sexual harassment and body policing that young girls experience in school as one method of bullying.

The incredible researchers at GLSEN make it clear that LGBTQ+ students on the whole feel unsafe in school and are harassed and assaulted at alarming rates.

In their chapter “Fat Youth as Common Targets for Bullying” in The Fat Studies Reader, Jacqueline Weinstock and Michelle Kreibiel explain not only how common weight-based bullying actually is, but also how socially accepted it is within school climates.

In one school, students may be targeted for their race, in another for their physical or cognitive ability. In a third, they may be targeted for their religious expression or native language. Still in another, the bullying might relate to gender expression in more subtle ways, with boys who are less athletic teased for their interests and girls who choose not to shave their legs tormented for their bodily expression.

The point, though, is that tackling bullying simply with “respect” and “kindness,” while well-intentioned, simply misses the mark.

Punitive Measures Don’t Work

The most common outcome of the recent wave of anti-bullying legislation, though, has not been funding for trainings or curriculum that teaches students how to intervene when bullying is taking place around them or that gives teachers tools for building more inclusive classroom environments.

More than anything else, these laws hand down harsher consequences to punish bullies.

What these approaches fail to address, though, is that bullying cannot be solved with punitive consequences.

First and foremost, punitive measures, though sometimes warranted, do nothing to prevent further bullying if for no other reason than pre-frontal lobe development in young brains.

If the part of the brain that helps us reason “If I take X action, Y will be my consequence” isn’t fully functioning, then consequence-oriented policy isn’t going to solve the problem of bullying.

Beyond simple biology, though, there are socio-emotional arguments to discourage “zero tolerance” punitive approaches to bullying.

Most students who exhibit bullying behavior are struggling and have been bullied themselves. In fact, among middle school students, the majority of students have participated in bullying behavior at some time.

Norris M. Haynes, Christine Emmons, and Michael Ben-Avie of the Yale University’s Child Study Center even note that excessive punitive measures end up telling students who actually need more support that they are not wanted or welcome in the school community.

This is all to say that if we want to end the problem of bullying, we have to think differently about what solutions look like.

In short, we have to transform the culture and climate of our schools.

Building Cultures of Civility and Inclusion

If we want to end the problem of bullying, we have to do two things: appeal to the rest of the adolescent brain, the part that relies on culture and habit; and address the specific nature of the bullying in our school environments by championing inclusion.

Educational researcher Sheri Bauman of the University of Arizona uses the term climates of civility to describe the challenge we face in tackling bullying.

If we want to end the problem, we cannot simply pass some laws and wash our hands. We have to do the tough work of changing culture and climate.

Fortunately, there are a few simple things that students, educators, and families can do to build cultures of civility and inclusion that prevent bullying.

1. Recognize That Every School Is Diverse

The first step to tackling the problem of bullying is acknowledging the diversity that exists in our schools.

So often, the conversation about diversity is boiled down to simply race and class (with maybe some gender or sexual orientation discussed marginally).

While these are vitally important aspects of student identity, they are simply part of the portrait of diversity in our communities.

Sometimes I will have schools in, say, rural South Dakota say to me, “We’re not diverse, so we’re not sure how the conversation about identity-based bullying applies to us.”

It leaves me baffled.

Not diverse?

What about student ability? Citizenship experience? Weight and body image? Student interest? Religion? Gender expression? Sexual orientation? Race? Class and wealth?

The other side of the coin of comprehending bullying behavior is understanding the diversity that exists in each and every school.

To paraphrase Gary Howard, “Diversity is not a choice. It’s a demographic reality.”

2. Treat Bullying as a Problem of Power

To tackle bullying is to tackle the specific nature of bullying in any given school community.

To do that requires that we understand who is being targeted and what the bullying looks like.

More often than not, this is an exercise in understanding power.

Students without social power are those far more likely to be targeted by others for bullying behavior, whether that’s the social power of the school yard (i.e.: geeks vs. jocks) or the wider social power of identity privilege, power, and oppression.

When we understand who is being targeted, why they are more likely to be targeted in our specific community, and what this bullying looks like, we can begin to solve the problem.

3. Empathize

Empathy is vitally important.

We need to teach our young people how to empathize with others and how to stick up for one another, but we also need to model it.

Supporting those who have been targeted by bullying behavior is obvious (though sometimes it goes undone).

Far less popular, though, is empathy for those who’ve exhibited the bullying behavior.

This is not to say that students shouldn’t face consequences for their actions, but if we don’t get to the bottom of why students are bullying, we won’t solve the problem.

And more often than not, it’s because a student is hurting.

4. Engage the Whole Community

Far too often, schools treat bullying as something “in-house.”

Parent engagement is an afterthought, and the “support staff” of custodial workers, office workers, or security staff is all but ignored.

Training students to be UPstanders instead of bystanders is rare, and teachers aren’t often given the time to design school-wide interventions to tackle the problem.

Shifting culture and climate, though, means bringing everyone on board.

Offer families constructive ways to participate in the conversation. Take the time to train students and discuss bullying prevention in advisory. Offer all staff members opportunities to design and implement proactive and preventive solutions.

Because as the old saying goes, “It takes a village.”

5. Be Proactive, Not Reactive

So long as our approaches to bullying remain reactive, we will never mitigate the problem. We have to create the kinds of environments where students don’t bully.

Doing so responds to the part of the student brain from which they are more likely working, the part that relies on environmental cues and habits, in building critical mass for change.

Nearly every aspect of student experience and achievement can be tied back to inclusiveness.

When students feel safe and included in school, they show up for class. When students feel fully supported in their identity, they engage socially. When students are taught from an early age what it looks like to build inclusive environments, they are more likely to stand up for their peers. When students feel safe and included in school, they achieve at higher levels.

Simply put, we cannot punish bullying into oblivion.

We can, however, create environments where we value respect, empathy, care, and (at a minimum) civility.  And when those things are valued, bullying simply isn’t tolerated.

Ain’t No Easy Answers

When I’m approached by a principal, counselor, student, or parent to offer bullying prevention training or consulting, the client generally falls into one of two categories.

Half want easy answers. They want a simple, ten-step solution to the problem.

I can’t help these folks much.

But the other half?

They understand that bullying is complex and nuanced.

They understand that we cannot just lump people into categories of “bully, bystander, and victim.”

They understand that punitive measures don’t work.

These are the folks who understand the work it takes to shift culture and climate and are committed to that painstaking transformation.

These are the folks who are most likely to realize powerful change in their community.

And this is the group that I hope you fall in.

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