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Monday, March 12, 2012

Blending In or Standing Out

A teacher, who just switched jobs going from a large school district to a small private school, approached me after a presentation, where I stressed the need to improve a school’s overall climate as the key element to effective bullying prevention. I guess he had a need to talk and process what he had just heard. Shaking his head, he said, “Looking back on my former school and comparing to my current school, I realize only now that “bullying” was part of the atmosphere of my old school but at the time I didn’t know it.” It is easy to become adjusted and conditioned to even the worst situations especially when we don’t have a frame of reference. This teacher had a new experience where people treated each other with more respect and that reflection combined with what I presented, finally gave him an insight into how bullying can hide in plain sight.

In the recent movie, Contagion, there is a scene that reflects how easy it is for bullying to hide in a school. In this scene, two scientists are looking at computer animation the virus that was infecting the population and spreading exponentially throughout the population. The animation showed the how similar in shape and structure the virus was from the host cells. The virus fit into the cellular structure of the host like a “key slipping into a lock”. One scientist added the comment referring to the virus, “It is figuring us out faster than we can figure it out.” The virus fooled the immune system because it wasn’t a “foreign” cell - it blended into and appeared to be at home in the system.

Bullying unfortunately has found a compatible host in many of our schools. It doesn’t stand out but blends in and over time it becomes just a part of the school. This is why many schools can be perplexed when they find out that bullying is problem. When the research points to the need to change the school’s culture or climate, it is not surprising that many people in the school have no idea of how to do that or why to do it. It is hard for them to see any alternative for how to treat students.

Bullying is very much about control and power and schools are also about control and power. How adults use their power and how they attempt to control students determines to very large extent, whether bullying will stand out in a school or blend in. The more a school’s philosophy is to “do to” instead of “work with” students, the more likely bullying will be able to hide and blend in. In a school, where adults involve students in problem solving and decision making and where responsible behavior is not limited to just following the rules in order to get something or avoid something, bullying will stand out and call attention to itself. When it stands out, I believe our natural immune system (empathy and a basic human inclination toward moral behavior) can take action to restore the system to health and harmony. In my new book, No Place for Bullying, I explore this issue in detail. In my next blog post I will review an inspection checklist that I developed for adults to reflect upon how they use power in a school environment.

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