Saturday, July 9, 2011
5th Annual Girl Bullying Conference
I had the privilege of attending this year's bullying conference last week. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but when I got there, it was clear these people had some great information and ideas. There are a number of different aspects for bullying, especially girl bullying, or relational aggression as it is called now (I just remember it as torture for most of 6th and 7th grade). You have to consider who is doing the bullying. These days, it isn't a big, scary-looking, mean boy with tattoos who smokes cigarettes as the John Hughes movies would have us believe. Instead, it is the popular girl, the smart girl, the girl who charms adults and knows how to torture her victims without ever raising suspicions. Who is the target? Could be anyone. Anyone who crosses the bully, has something she wants, or just has the pure dumb luck to be in the right place at the right time. The important thing to remember is the victim has done absolutely nothing to deserve this behavior. All too often we here "well, she is a weird girl. No wonder the other girls don't want to sit with her". This is called blaming the victim and is reprehensible on so many levels.
Another problem many schools face is where does the bullying occur? Well, as we all remember, it takes place int he hallways, the locker rooms, the school bus, etc. Barbara Coloroso said at the conference the bathrooms in a school were the single most dangerous place for a victim to enter. They are completely unsupervised space where the bully has total control. But the scarier and even less controlled than the bathrooms is the great land of cyber infinity. With all the social media we have at our fingertips, girls have taken bullying to a level we cannot fathom. If a girl moves because the bullying in her school is so bad, the rumors, lies, and torment only take a few keystrokes to follow her. Kids create Facebook pages about the perceived sexual activities of their targets. They text them. They video the target getting pushed, threatened, attacked, and then post it for everyone to see. This inescapable nature of cyberbullying has created a situation so dire kids are killing themselves. So what can we, as parents, adults, and educators, do about it?
Well, Barbara Coloroso will tell you conflict resolution isn't going to accomplish anything. Bullying isn't a fight, it isn't a conflict, so sitting down the bully and the target won't change a blessed thing. In fact, in this scenario, very often the bully will seem sincere, sorry, and beg forgiveness, while the victim will be angry and confrontational. The moderator may seem perplexed by this aggression and start to blame the victim, but would you want to agree to be friends with your torturer?! She went on to say people like Dr. Phil, who think the bully wouldn't hurt their victim if only they knew the pain they were causing, are so wrong they have left the reservation. Can we really think the bullies don't know the pain they are causing? Not only do they know how much they are hurting their victim, they enjoy it. They get pleasure from the pain. So telling them about the pain they inflict won't help the situation. It might make it worse, but it certainly isn't going to stop it. So what the heck can we do?
Well, first we have to recognize what the bullying has done to separate themselves from the victim enough to cause this pain with complete disregard. They have stopped seeing the victim as a person, and instead they see them as an "it". The victim is subhuman to them. So we must start early to create empathy among our students. They must feel for the people around them, including their victim. Now, I don't pretend to know how to do this, but if you have any suggestions, I am all ears. I have some ideas, of course, but I don't think there is any one formula or tactic that will work for every scenario. This is like a puzzle that can't be done the same way twice.
But the one thing so many presenters at the conference said is we can't be reactionary with bullying... we have to be preventative. How do we make our students care about each other so much they wouldn't bully? How do we create a sense of community where students protect one another instead of hurt one another? Once presenter created a year-long calender that focused on bringing girls together with various projects and community service efforts. They called it Chick Chat. It included some fun chick movies (and some serious ones), bake sales, clothing drives for battered women, and so much more. Each month was a theme like Breast Cancer for October, Family, Friendships, Relationships, etc. Each week there was an activity or meeting and they tried to include outside speakers for every theme. The presenter explained their girls weren't required to come, but bit by bit they trickled in until a community was born.
Punishment is important when bullying occurs, but there needs to be more than just punishment. I remember a student who damaged space in her dorm once, nothing too damaging, but enough to make a lot more work for the women in charge of housekeeping. Why did she do this? She didn't have empathy for them. She assumed it was their job to clean up after her, and their hard work didn't matter to her. The perfect "punishment"/exercise in empathy? Make her work with them for a couple of days, doing the same work they do. I personally think this made more of a difference with that young woman than any detention or suspension ever would have. Perspective is powerful tool.
Barbara Coloroso also write a book called Extraordinary Evil: A Short Walk to Genocide, a book that explains bullying behavior we see so often in schools across the world is very similar to the behavior and aggression the perpetrators of genocide display. They make their victim an "it", thereby negating any need for empathy or caring of their victim's pain. In Rwanda, the Tutsi were called cockroaches. In Germany, the Jews were called rats. Make your victim into something inhuman, and you can justify your actions and absolve your guilt. I have taught a unit about the 1994 Rwandan Genocide to students for a few years now, and the hardest thing I find is to make them truly understand the fear and pain these people experienced. It is so foreign and distant form their own lives, they have trouble imagining it. Sure, they understand genocide is awful, but they don't understand how awful. But every kid understands the reaction they felt to being bullied- the stomach clenching, sweat producing fear of seeing your attacker from a distance knowing what is about to happen. By connecting those emotions to the worst product of human nature, genocide, we can create empathy in our students. I have found this book to be an invaluable tool, and think any history teacher would count this as a valuable tool in their classrooms.
So we have a seemingly insurmountable problem that plagues our children. We have tried everything, and no solution is flawless. But if this conference has taught me anything, it is that our kids are too important to lose to bullying. We need to find a way to create empathy in our children. We need to never blame the victim and be savvy to the ways of the bully, including the charm, manipulation, and deceit they use when the adults are around. And most importantly, we need to create a community where they want to protect one another, not harm one another. It is a tough mountain to scale, but not impossible.