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Friday, March 22, 2013

Beware the "Bad Guy"

The distinction between news and entertainment is non-existent.  This is an important fact to be cognizant of when we read the news.  Bullying is good copy.  Stories of bullying in schools can be especially good copy.  It is easy to understand good versus evil, good guys against the bad guys.  Bullying stories in the news can be easy to tell and dramatize, thereby mirroring fictional stories.  Audiences love to root for the underdog, the oppressed and root against the bully.  Who is more despised in fiction than the wise guy bully who picks on people who can't defend themselves.  Although these stories grab attention they also reduce and simplify the issue of bullying into good versus evil, bad guys against the good guys.

 This blurring of important distinctions and subtleties is understandable from a marketing perspective, however, it makes more meaningful bullying prevention harder to achieve.  I wish that I could say that coverage of bullying in media is just a sideshow to ignore, but how people think, feel about the issue affects how policy is determined and implemented.  If people feel that bullying is simply about catching the bad guys and making them an example for others, there will be a greater tendency for those in positions of leadership to concede to this mindset in how they respond to this problem.  The sad irony of this situation is that the more bullying is perceived as good versus evil, the greater the tendency will be for schools to "bully their way to bullying prevention."  Strict criminal justice approaches to bullying might therefore please the masses who see the problem in those terms, but ultimately these approaches not only fail to actually prevent or reduce bullying but increase the amount of it.  It becomes increasing important for leaders to lead the learning about what bullying is really all about and not fall prey to demands for simple, popular and ineffective approaches.

Here are some key points on why creating and perpetuating a good guys versus bad guys mindset on bullying is detrimental for effective bullying prevention:

It perpetuates the idea that some people are bullies and therefore the solution to the problem of bullying is to catch the "bad guys" and give them their punishment.

Bullying is best thought of a  verb.  It is an action that every person is capable of doing given certain conditions.  The reasons (as I have tried to explain in previous posts) for bullying are complex and related to the social context.  To think that some kids are just bad kids or inherently evil and then to view them as criminals makes it more difficult for us to understand the real reasons why bullying occurs.

Being seen as a criminal or being bad, is something few if any of us would ever admit to, so when students who bully others are confronted and held accountable, they will deny what they did to avoid this label or identity placed on them.  Parents will also resist this label being place on their child.

It is easier to accept and take responsibility for an action however wrong it is when it is viewed as a mistake, rather than a condemnation  of character.  People will resist and deny (rightfully so) attempts to judge who they are as people, they are more likely to accept responsibility for mistakes when their actions are separated from who they are as people.  It is corny but Mr. Rogers summed it up pretty well: Good people do bad things sometimes.

It perpetuates the tendency to criminalize bullying bring law enforcement into the schools.

Unfortunately because bullying is a persistent problem in schools and many in schools feel at a lost about what to do about it, the temptation to hand over responsibility to a higher or greater authority can be too powerful to resist.  Instead of taking the time to see how discipline alone is ineffective at solving the problem of bullying, school leaders decide that the solutions is using supercharged, high powered discipline-doing more of the same only at more intense level.  Think about it: if bullying can be a mean look, a subtle exclusion, a whisper to a friend about another kid and kids know how to do these things in undetectable ways the presence of law enforcement personnel and higher penalties will probably only increase the cleverness of students not to get caught.  It will also repress bystanders reporting since most kids would rightfully view such heavy handed approaches as being overkill.  Most kids don't see kids who bully as criminals.  They see these kids as popular kids who are going too far or have stepped over the line.  They usually just want these kids to stop; they don't want their lives ruined being labelled as criminal.

It perpetuates the idea that bullying is more widespread and prevalent than it really is, thereby creating an unrealistic atmosphere of fear and dread.  

Bullying is a real problem that affects everybody even those who are not victimized.  When the problem is not accurately portrayed or understood, our solutions are designed to address an illusionary problem.  If the media keeps portraying bullying the way it does, it contradicts the experience of people who are in schools.  Teachers therefore are more apt to dismiss bullying as a problem hyped by the media that schools have to address because it is politically incorrect not to.  When teachers reject the illusionary problem of bullying they unfortunately can ignore the real problem of bullying.

It ultimately decreases the respect and trust that the public has in public education.  

Many schools are wonderful places of caring and respect where kids learn to be responsible citizens while at the same time learning academically.  News stories about these schools are not as appealing as the "good vs. bad" stories when bullying has led to tragic consequences.  If schools are going to become more and more effective in helping kids not just learn not to bully but to become more caring, confident, empowered citizens, we need to learn from the places that have succeeded in doing so.  "Finding the bright spots" and learning from what works is a much better and more effective way of changing than just analyzing what went wrong.  "Finding the bright spots" unfortunately is not good copy and will get less ratings, and attract less readers.

I wrote my book, No Place for Bullying, because I thought that school leaders and everyone else who cares about children, needed to think through the "noise" about bullying.  I wish the problem had a quick fix but it doesn't and looking for the right sheriff to come in and clean up the town may work in the movies and TV but it doesn't in real life.  It is hard however for a more thoughtful approach to compete with the hype and innate appeal to catch the "bad guys".  Some times I wonder who the "bad guys" really are?

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