Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bullying won't go away by itself

Typically I don't post my newspaper column in this space. But I'm hugely concerned about bullying in our schools, and I want as many people as possible to think seriously about the issue. The precipitating event for this column was a brutal rape at a Tampa Middle School. It was a case of ongoing bullying simply escalating. My judgment is that we don't know but a small percentage of what's going on.


Bullying Won't Go Away By Itself
The Tampa Tribune, May 20, 2009

I didn't end last week's column intending a "part-two" discussion, but today's thoughts are very much connected to my concerns about our community's moral compass.

I'm neither surprised nor impressed by the Hillsborough County School District's sudden interest in bullying. The county's directive has all the trappings of a "Look busy until the excitement dies down" rejoinder.

Something big happens, the story gets splashed all over the news, administrators walk through locker rooms in a show of concern, then everything goes back to normal until the next problem hits the fan.

Here's the sad truth. Bullying, even the extreme example at Walker Middle School in April, in which investigators say four boys assaulted another in a locker room, is endemic to middle and high school culture. Such widespread character pathology can only be addressed via systemic interventions that necessarily involve each one of us.

Like so many examples of social breakdown, we try to pin it all on the schools, as if the parents are free and clear. I'm sorry, but when your children engage in methodical mental harassment, physical abuse, imprisonment and torture, responsibility neither begins nor ends at the principal's office.

I'm concerned that, while the idea of character education is routinely kicked around, moral values are seldom adequately addressed in the long term.

Then there's this elephant in the room I can't help but point out.

There's a resistance to change built around a litany of fundamental falsehoods regarding what it means to be male in this culture.

Expressions such as "boys will be boys," "it's just horseplay," "take it like a man" and "it's time the kid learned to man up" are used by grown-ups, not kids. These mantras reveal much about the adults who influence bullies - albeit without malicious intent - and help make possible the undercurrent of fear that facilitates such acts of oppression.

Simply put, we cannot hope to rid our schools of bullying unless we all begin to do the following:
  • Commit to raising our children with more deliberate care and guidance.
  • Treat all people with kindness and respect, without exception.
  • Quit dodging responsibility for ourselves and our actions.
  • Work to abolish all forms of abuse, oppression, injustice and human trafficking in this community.
  • And give our schools the support they need to do the job we ask.
One more thing I learned teaching exceptional education: There should be no such thing as an unsupervised child. And middle-schoolers are as exceptional as they come.

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