Bullying in our schools: a symptom of a larger problem

Bullying was the topic of Justin Oakley’s online radio program “Just Let Me Teach,” which is broadcast, live, every Wednesday evening at 9:00 PM EDT on IndianaTalks, an online talk radio network. Notwithstanding the number of teen suicides, in recent years, bullying is an issue that must be taken seriously by every school district in the nation. It is a sad reality that some students who suffer from bullying choose to take the lives of other people as well as their own.

No school principal or classroom teacher in these troubled times can afford to ignore even rumors that bullying is taking place in their corridors, playgrounds, and classrooms or that bullies are following their prey home or are stalking their targets through social media.

Brittany Mason, one of the guests on “Just Let Me Teach” shared her own experiences that ultimately led her to choose to be home schooled as it seemed the only way to escape the harassment. Of particular interest in Ms. Mason’s account is the fact that her school principal reportedly suggested to Ms. Mason’s parent that she could be making the whole thing up.

What school principals, classroom teachers and parents must realize is that a student’s complaint about bullying is a cry for help and attention whether or not the child is telling the truth.  If we truly believe that every child is important, how can we turn our backs on young people who are not only suffering but may be in real danger?

Schools need to be aggressive in developing programs to provide comfort and counseling to the victim while thoroughly investigating and adjudicating the bullies themselves. Many imaginative programs have been developed in schools to educate students and faculties about this serious issue and principals and school administrators should be diligent in their search for a program suited to their particular school or community. We all know what they say about an “ounce of prevention.”

What we rarely discuss is the fact that bullying, like so many of the problems in education, is a symptom of a larger problem. The power of the peer group, relative to the influence of parents and families, may be stronger than it has ever been and social media has changed the game for parents and also teachers. It is difficult enough for parents to stay in touch with what is happening in their child’s life whether at school or when they are off with their friends. For all but the savviest parents, following their children through the labyrinth that is social media must seem as difficult as it is intimidating.

The absolute best chance parents and teachers have to compete with the power and influence of the peer group is for parents and teachers to partner up. Such partnerships strengthen the ephemeral connections that keep students linked to the community that is comprised of family and school making it that much more difficult our children to slip off, unnoticed into the Netherlands of today’s sophisticated web of subcultures.

It is relatively easy for schools to become impersonal places where students feel no connection to many of their classmates, particularly those who are different. We have always known that human beings can have irrational fear and hatred for things that they do not understand or for people with whom they cannot relate. We also know how powerful jealousy can be in influencing the lives of children.

Bullying is a symptom that some children have lost their sense of connection to the community that school can offer and are, themselves, struggling to find positive attention and affirmation. We need to work diligently to restore that sense of community. The best place to start is by pulling parents into active partnership with their children’s teachers and their schools. There are many other things we can do to strengthen that community and that will also have a positive impact on the quality of education we are able to provide.

In my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, the action strategies that are offered are not independent actions intended to address this problem or respond to that. The plan is a coordinated strategy to address both the educational system and process as integral, interdependent whole. A big part of what we hope such a plan will accomplish, particularly during the elementary period of a child’s time in school is to elevate the level of intimacy and sense of family that embraces the child and makes them feel connected to teachers, parents and classmates.

We know very well, or at least we should, that the level of control and influence we have over the lives of our children during adolescence is determined almost totally by the quality of our relationships with them when they are small. Everything we do at school should be part of a well-conceived, comprehensive plan of action that is designed not only to teach young children but also to nurture them.

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