In the Sky Valley, the subject of bullying rose to a fever pitch last week when a young person in the valley attempted suicide, very nearly successfully, and bullying was apparently a factor.
The story clearly hit a nerve. A Facebook page dedicated to the topic got more than 1,200 “likes” in less than a week. Comments left on news stories drastically outnumbered those left on other stories that week. People shared stories of having been bullied, of having children who were bullied, and even of having been bullies themselves.
I reached out to the family of the young person who attempted suicide; they were adamant about keeping the student’s name out of the news for a very good reason. The student will more than likely return to full health, and will have to face the fallout of all the attention without ever having consented to it.
So I promised not to name the student. I have no wish to increase the stress upon that family, and thank God I don’t work for a daily news outlet and therefore have no competitive boss twisting my arm to do it anyway.
But I still thought the topic of bullying merited investigation, so I decided to instead try to learn all I could about what kids in Sky Valley schools today experience of bullying, what the schools are doing, what parents should know, and why this problem remains so difficult to solve.
Almost nothing arouses passion like bullying. When a 10-minute video of an 68-year-old grandmother being bullied ruthlessly on a school bus went viral last June, 30,000 horrified people in 84 countries and all 50 states raised $704,000 to give to her.
After a wave of suicides of gay and lesbian kids, mostly related to bullying, Seattle resident Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller in 2010 started the It Gets Better Project in order to give adults a place to leave encouraging messages to teens. To date, 50,000 people have created videos.
Public conversation about bullying tends to be fraught.
The tone of the comments on the Sultan student’s Facebook page and following news stories about horrifying incidents of bullying reveal what an emotional issue it is.
People who have school-aged grandchildren wrote of the lingering pain of the cruelty they experienced as kids. Adults expressing long-held pain over childhood bullying outnumbered school kids by a considerable margin. And many also expressed startling anger; one woman suggested bullying children be given 30-year prison sentences.
People never forget the pain they went through as kids. The power of those early cuts can and do last lifetimes.
And that’s one of the reasons bullying is so hard to address. It’s hard to think rationally about something that still makes us furious and hurt when we recall it.
Therefore, the strategies people propose tend to be simplistic. More punishment, some demand. Better parenting, others advise. And many insist that the schools are to blame for not doing more to protect kids.
But as emotionally satisfying as those accusations may be, the problem isn’t that simple.
My research on the topic consumed most of my week, and it’s far from the first time I’ve studied up on bullying, and it always comes back to the same thing.
This is a horribly difficult problem to solve.
Kids bully in secret, and they are sneaky. They are hard to catch, and bullying accusations are hard to prove.
There is no bright line between bully and victim. Bullied kids often pick on other kids.
There’s no clear reason for bullying. Once it was thought that bullies have low self-esteem, but new studies show the opposite to be true quite often, as well.
Bullied kids are notoriously horrible at protecting themselves. They often don’t report bullying; they frequently try to appease their tormentors; they become so beaten down that they have no courage left with which to face up to their attackers.
It’s all well and good to blame parents for raising bullies, but there’s no solution inherent in that. Blaming parents doesn’t rescue kids unfortunate enough to have sub-par parents, and lots of parents don’t know their kids are bullies because their kids are never caught.
It’s even difficult to define bullying. Is it bullying when no one makes room for a kid at the lunch table? Is it bullying when overtures of friendship are rejected? Is it bullying to admit aloud to disliking someone? What about making mean comments about theoretical people that bear some resemblance to a kid who was meant to overhear the comments?
Furthermore, there’s always argument about how education professionals ought to spend their day. Should they teach in such a way that kids score high on tests? Or should they devote more time to art, music, P.E., or the crisis du jour such as meth, obesity, or STDs? Should they spend more class time on delivering anti-bullying education?
And we have few answers when it comes to the crux of the matter; getting kids to be nice. There are scant resources for parents who find out their kids are bullies, although there is plenty of reason for concern when one’s kid torments others. Bullies wind up in prison and doing drugs more than the average kid.
We aren’t going to solve this problem until we calmly admit that bringing back corporal punishment, or holding school prayers in the morning, or voting out the school board or putting security cameras in the halls are inadequate strategies that aren’t going to solve the age-old and entrenched problem of bullying.
Nor are we probably going to solve this problem in our kids if we haven’t solved it in adults.
The most cursory glance at the internet makes it clear that a lot of adults don’t exactly grow out of bullying. They just cover their tracks better. But give a fair number of people a way to attack others anonymously and they become positively savage.
If civility isn’t a virtue for adults, it’s going to be tough to teach that virtue to kids with any credibility.
Cautiously, I hypothesize that effort to change the culture of bullying in schools is our best bet. I think of the enormous shift in cultural attitudes about race, gender and sexual identity that have occurred in the last half-century.
In that regard, speaking up loudly to schools about how important it is to us that kids not get bullied is going to help, because without constant pressure, things don’t change. That also means, of course, having civility be a value in the culture of the home. Kids who know their parents find bullying abhorrent are going to be less likely to do it. Kids are capable of enormous empathy and kindness, and emphasizing those values can’t be anything but helpful.
And we quite simply need to learn more about what makes kids tick. We need to figure out more about why kids pick on each other and how to get them to stop. That takes research funding and a willingness to allow that we might not already have all the answers.
Last week, Monroe mom Holly Tiege, who has a kid who deals with some bullying himself, said that, until we do learn more about the dynamics of bullying, kid-on-kid cruelty isn’t going anywhere.
“There is an explanation and it’s worth finding out what it is,” she said. “Until we understand it, we cannot possibly hope to address it and we are fumbling in the dark.”