Massachusetts Law On Bullying: Time For Action – Part 2 of 3

In my previous post on this subject, I wrote of how an 11 year-old boy in Springfield, Massachusetts, Charles Joseph Walker-Hoover, killed himself last week after suffering repeated taunts and bullying at the hands of fellow students at the New Charter Leadership School in Springfield, Massachusetts. According to the boy’s mother, Sirdeaner L. Walker, Carl had reported to her that students regularly beat, taunted and threatened him because they believed he was gay – even though, according to Carl’s mother, he was not gay. In what regrettably no longer comes as a shock, several of the students who threatened and bullied Carl were not just boys, but girls also. It’s been reported that shortly before young Walker committed suicide, a female classmate threatened to kill him because he acted too feminine. Probably suspecting she wasn’t feminine enough, she directed her aggression at him. So much for the old saying, “Girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice.” Don’t buy it: Girls can be just as violent and just as vicious as any boy.

Investigations have been launched, and the expected denial by school officials of any wrongdoing, (in the form of negligence in the failure of school officials to aggressively respond to prior complaints by Carl’s mother), are all taking shape. People will wring their hands, shake their heads, and say “What a pity.” The media will report the story, and it will be over. Then what? What is to be done about this problem, to minimize the odds it will happen again? Why is it that we as adults feel entitled to be protected from assault and battery, violence and abuse, but when it happens in a schoolyard, it’s too often dismissed as “child’s play?” I’ve always suspected that as adults, we don’t want to aggressively address this problem with strong legislation providing criminal penalties for children, because there’s something about ourselves in this violent behavior, that we don’t like to see, or perhaps admit. There are more anti-bullying educational programs in our schools today than there were in previous generations, as there are more awareness programs about inappropriate sexual contact, and that is good. But we must now act to prevent an equally damaging type of abuse.

A new approach is required to effectively deal with this problem. First, in public and private schools seeking licensure by the state, there ought to exist mandatory educational programs not only about why bullying is bad, but how students should group together to stand up and protect students who are victims of bullying. It’s all well and good to teach students how to spot bullying, but then what? If students aren’t taught how to combat it, “recognizing” it is largely pointless: Reporting it afterward to teachers, while desirable, isn’t an effective response, for three reasons: 1) At that point, the bullying has already taken place; the victim of the bullying has already been harmed. 2) Teachers simply can’t be everywhere at all times, noticing every threatening gesture or assault that might take place; 3) Instruction on only “recognition” of bullying, doesn’t empower students to help stand up and help bullying victims when they are being assaulted. In fact, it almost makes the observer a secondary ‘victim’ – because he or she doesn’t know how to intercede.

It is in the nature of bullying that a perpetrator picks on a weaker person, who usually stands alone. If other students learn how to spot bullying but don’t know how to respond, what good is that – especially to the victim? The Boston Globe editorialized on this very point in its April 22 2009 edition, and it is apropos to quote here: Students need to be taught how to “form a critical mass of students who are willing to come to the aid of a targeted student and stand against their peers.” This is key. Bullies target weaker, isolated or unpopular students. If only one student stands up to a bully to defend a victim, that bully will probably dole out the same aggression to the rescuer. But no bully is going to stand up to an organized group of students who stand up to defend a victim. An important, added benefit of such group action, beyond the victim being aided, is that the rescuers will walk away with increased self confidence and self esteem, which they can carry with them as they move forward in life to face the certain challenges that lay ahead of them. Everyone benefits, and substantially.

How do we achieve this in our schools? I’ll address this in my next post