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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Fidelity to What?

I am currently reading the book, Sticks and Stones by Emily Bazelon.  It is well written and does a good job of integrating specific stories of school bullying with current theory and practice designed to address the problem.  I think that it helpful to have someone who does not work in schools, nor is an "expert" in the field to present a picture of what is going on in schools.  The author raises some important questions about bullying and about how it fits into our culture and society.  I still need to finish it but have skimmed ahead to her review of various methods/solutions for addressing the problem. 

In her introduction she makes the following statement: "Another lesson in the book is that for better or worse adults play a crucial role in bullying stories.  When the narrative spins out of control, it is usually not because of the errors of and wrongdoing of the kids.  They are the originators, the first movers.  But when their private screw-ups turn into public debates, it's often because adults either did too little or too much in response."  Later on in the first story she tells of a girl named Monique, a seventh grade student, she makes the following statement:  'With notable exceptions, the relationships between staff and students were also tainted by a culture of mistrust.  "The teachers curse," one seventh grader told me. "They can be be real rude.  The drama with the kids here is too much and the teachers have come not to care."

I applaud the author for both of these observations and especially for interviewing the students for their perceptions.  However, these quotations from the book only a few pages apart illustrate why bullying seems to be so resistant/immune to all of the treatments currently being used in schools.  The statement that the kids are the originators and that things only get really bad when adults don't respond the correct way assumes that bullying behavior in the school developed in a vacuum.  I would assert that the culture of mistrust and the rude behavior of adults in the school had very much to do with the prevalence of bullying in the school and the failure of the adults to effectively address it.  Schools not only have a blind spot for bullying as I have described in my book and in previous posts, they can inadvertently provide camouflage for bullying.  Bullying thrives when it can't be seen and proved.  If I had to recommend a solution for bullying in this school I would strongly recommend that either/both of the  perceived or real culture of mistrust be addressed first and foremost. 

This is where the real problem of bullying gets too hard too see, becomes threatening to the staff, and simplified to the point of looking for solutions that are distant from the source of the problem. The real problem of bullying in schools is not really bullying it is why schools are resistant to change.  This is where principals are left alone to change a culture that they themselves can't see.  Where they continue to use the same tools that were designed for a different set of problems- tools that ironically are "artifacts' of the same culture that camouflage the bullying.

The author of the book devotes a significant part of it to solutions and guess what two key ones emerge: Olweus and PBIS.  She does not recommend one over the other.  She finds places where these solutions work.  In this sense she provides a service to the reader for showing a degree of hope following some sad stories. 

PBIS and Olweus can work in schools.  They also don't work in schools.  Both programs would agree that the reason why they work or don't work is directly related to the degree of fidelity the school has to the program.  This is where I depart seriously from both programs:  I think that difference between working and not working is not fidelity to program but rather the leadership of the school that can empower all of its members to use any tool to transform its culture and climate.  If you were to look at the key ingredients of that leadership,  you would not find insistence on fidelity to program, but fidelity to a strong set of principles and values that guide how people consistently view and treat each other.  I think you would find a leader who didn't impose any program, but who involved members of the community in learning about the problem and exploring together the best way to meet the needs of the school. 

When a leader believes in the members of the community and sees them as the true agents of change, the members of that community themselves change how they view themselves and then the culture/climate changes.  The funny thing though is that successful schools using any program would probably attribute success to the program and overlook the true factors in that success: fidelity to the values and principles of how people treat each other-values and principles that are incompatible with the "culture of mistrust" described by the author.  Rather than let students become the originators of bullying and then trying to respond the right way, let's have adults become the originators and agents of the values that incompatible with bullying.  When there is fidelity to believing in people and empowering them that is when true change happens.

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