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Monday, February 4, 2013

Bullying and Blood Pressure

There is no greater urgency for change than the protection of our children.  If this is true, why does bullying persist in our schools?  Few would deny that bullying is hurtful and endangers the well being of students.  This is a very difficult question to answer.  Maybe some people thought that bullying persisted in schools because we lacked sufficient laws and regulations.  Maybe some thought that it was a lack of knowledge and awareness of the problem, so training staff, students and parents would be the answer.  All of these answers try to address the problem rationally and all of these answers come up short because real and meaningful change must start in the heart and not the head.

Since change must start in the heart, perhaps the analogy of high blood pressure can shed some light on our current status of bullying prevention in schools.  People with high blood pressure very often don’t know it.  It doesn’t impact how they live their lives.  This is why it is referred to as a silent killer.  It doesn’t announce its danger with symptoms that are immediately felt, unlike other problems that interrupt how we live our lives.  Left unchecked however and it is like a ticking time bomb that can go off unexpectedly and cause untold damage even death.  All the while it was ticking however the person felt everything was fine.

This is very similar to the problem of bullying in schools.  Contrary to popular perception schools are not dysfunctional.  The vast majority of schools operate very smoothly and the people in charge know this even if they don’t say it.   The degree of difficulty in having hundreds of students moving through the school day and building on schedule and in compliance with a range of rules and mandates is greatly underestimated by the general public.  Since the degree of difficulty is underestimated, no wonder the appreciation of the skill and competence of educators is also greatly lacking from the general public.

When people from the outside cry that schools are dysfunctional, failing and need to change, it is not dissimilar from someone telling another person that he/she is unhealthy when that person feels healthy and lives a full life.  How can someone deny his/her own experience based on another’s opinion? 
This is the essence of why bullying is ignored is so many schools:  its existence and the damage it does conflicts with the daily tangible experience of the people in charge.   The proponents of bullying prevention or for that matter any change initiative,  are asking educators to accept theory over experience. This is why is it so easy for educators to think of the problem of bullying as existing elsewhere and not in their school.

Sadly many schools are like people with high blood pressure who later suffer a heart attack.  When a tragedy happens at a school, a school that felt  it was functioning fine, people are surprised, shocked and bewildered.  Change usually happen following that tragic events even if the change doesn’t get at the root cause of the problem-but something different does happen.

What can alert someone to their high blood pressure before suffering the consequences of it?  Obviously that person can have their blood pressure measured on a regular basis even when there is no precipitating need.  Since others have had this problem and regular check ups can detect the silent killer, everyone can benefit from this common knowledge subsequent recommendation of best practice. 

I equate regularly checking blood pressure in even seemingly healthy people as the equivalent of collecting data through surveys, interviews, focus groups to determine the extent of bullying in a school.  The wise person knows that there is reality beyond what he/she can readily perceive that can be checked and measured.

Collecting this data (like checking blood pressure) is a necessary step but it is far from sufficient in addressing the problem.   I have actually heard of districts that have collected data on school climate and bullying and then decided to keep it from the school community.   School leaders have felt that it showed the district in a negative light and would attract criticism.  Before criticizing these leaders, we must first recognize that there are leaders who don’t even want to collect this data at all in the first place.
Maybe for some ignorance is bliss, but it is truly the real the silent killer in our schools.

In subsequent posts I will outline what I think can and should be done to overcome the obstacles to meaningful bullying prevention in schools.  I will try to chart a path that starts in the heart and can lead to real change in the day–to-day experience of school for everyone involved.

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