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Monday, April 29, 2013

Identity Crisis

When it comes to bullying prevention schools are having an identity crisis.  The people who work in schools think that they are doing a good job and in many ways they are right.  How you judge the job they do depends upon what you think there job is and what criteria you set to judge success.  If you walk into a school almost any school, you will see hundreds of kids behaving in an orderly fashion and pretty much doing as they are told.  This appears on the surface to the adults who “run” the schools as the most tangible sign that things are working. 
As I have written previously, bullying is seldom a blatant or visible occurrence to the eyes of the adults who are in charge.   Think about it-the need for bullying prevention came from outside the school.  Take away the outside forces and pressures to do something about bullying and it is doubtful that most schools on their own would initiate bullying prevention programs or direct any type of effort towards reducing or preventing bullying.

No wonder that many educators when they are honest with you have trouble believing that there really is a bullying problem in school.  I found that administrators only started to attending professional development on bullying after laws were passed about it-they went to make sure they were in compliance not because it was a priority based on their own experience. 

So the outside world handed schools the problem of bullying and said to them, “Stop it-it is the law and it is your job to enforce the law.”   Bullying was happening before laws were passed but now that bullying is officially recognized as a “problem” schools have to do something different-different from before the laws were passed.   These laws do not require schools to change in substantive way or even suggest what needs to be changed.  These laws basically say “stay as you are” but just make sure that the law against bullying is enforced. What they have to do differently is implement and enforce the law.  Many people who work in schools probably think that they have a pretty good handle on bullying so all they really have to do is be in compliance with the law and then all will be well.

Bullying by default is a legal issue in schools.  Schools need to enforce the law and assume a policing role.  Just like the police their focus is on the rule breakers and to make sure they follow the procedures and protocols that come with enforcing the law the right way.  This approach has very little to do with actually preventing or reducing bullying.  Bullying is a complex manifestation of imbalances of power in social relationships that exist in a school.  It is not a distinct observable act like breaking the speed limit, defacing property or even like defying a teacher. 

Bullying has not and will not go away as an issue now-it is good copy for the media.  Bullying is not a phony problem either but it is a problem that easily operates within the legal system-that is it is easy to commit and hard to prove.  When some schools finally collect data and the data reveals a “real problem”,  schools have no other way of addressing it.  They just continue to use the default approach of treating it as a legal issue and increase its level of policing - mirroring the criminal justice system.  No wonder that many educators are so ready to hand over the responsibility for enforcing the law to the actual police.  Maybe in their minds, the reason they seem to make little progress with bullying is because they have less authority than the “real police” do.

Bullying however is really a moral issue-it is about how we all interact with each other and how we treat each other.  It involves everyone and requires everyone to act in a caring, responsible way in situations that are not clearly defined by rules or laws.   Bullying will only diminish in an environment where all the people in that environment treat each other with respect and caring-where each person is valued and cared for-a strong community.   This means that schools need to change or grow towards greater community with social norms of caring and respect.  They cannot remain status quo with just the absence of a negative or forbidden behavior.
Schools are not used to being asked to “grow” or change.  They are just asked to comply and make sure the negative doesn’t happen.  There is little provided to them on how to change or grow.  The whole idea of embracing bullying as a moral issue is a strange role for a school and the adults in the school.  Most would say that getting kids to grow in a moral sense is not in their job description-it is the parents job.  The parents need to make their kids moral enough to follow the rules and the school only has the responsibility to make sure that they do. 

Schools however are where kids live and breathe for at least 6 hours a day-it is the social environment where bullying either happens or doesn’t.  Kids need to learn to make moral choices in the arena where they happen.  They cannot get a booster shot of morality at home and then come to school and act moral.  Even though they may not admit it, most kids do look to adults to help them grow morally.  They are watching us, listening to us and in most cases waiting for us to provide them with the modeling and the opportunities to talk about what being moral is.  When we pretend that it is not our role to do that (they should get it at home), we are basically saying to them-figure it out on your own and when you make a mistake we are here to nab you.  What is probably even worse is that when schools fail to embrace bullying as a moral issue and accept responsibility for helping and guiding kids, they  are devaluing the moral aspect of life and misleading kids to think that morality is just following the rules. 

By embracing bullying as a moral issue and tying it to the core moral issue of helping kids learn, schools can become revitalized.  Helping the “whole student” learn and grow can become more than a job or maintaining the status quo and become instead become a heroic endeavor.

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