Even before there was a state law, my school took on bullying. We treated it as harassment, holding out the spectre of serious legal consequences if cruelty continued or for any retaliation. I argued, then as now, that school is a civil right, and anyone interfering with that is stealing someone’s rights.
I understand that some schools may have needed anti-bullying legislation to make them address these issues. I am lucky to work in a middle school whose staff recognize their responsibility to educate the whole child by addressing these situations swiftly and seriously.
My concern with “anti-bullying” law is the impression it gives, that we can prevent bad things. The law’s actual intent is to obligate schools to intervene– a reactive stance– while also pressing us to build programs that discourage bullying. While I agree that cruelty cannot be tolerated, I also feel that it cannot be prevented 100% of the time. And, that should not be our goal.
This is your intervention…
I was a bully when I was growing up. Not most of the time or even much of the time, but sometimes. There were times when I targeted people less powerful than me. There were times when I said the one thing I knew would hurt most, to my sister or my best friend. We all have bad days, defensive impulses, flashes of temper. But, I learned more from that sick feeling– that pit in my stomach– than I could have learned in any assembly or 180 lectures. I learned more from having to make it up to someone, from apologizing, from looking my friend in the eye, whether I found relief there or just more hurt and anger.
I learned that this was not how I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be perceived as a bully; I didn’t want to ruin someone’s day. I also learned that the simple effort of trying to make someone feel better could chip through their pain and fear. In short, I learned strategies to prevent bullying. And, I learned ways to recover after I had been victimized myself. This is the best intervention, and the most effective program to discourage bullying.
For better or worse, humans are experiential learners. We cannot prevent kids from ever suffering, but we must teach them how to deal with it. We have to tell them it’s not right: it’s not OK if someone is mean to them, it’s unacceptable to be cruel, and the best thing to do if they see bullying happening is to do something. Do anything to help, whether it’s standing up to the bully, walking away, getting help from an adult, or even reaching out to that person later and letting them know they’re not alone.
In this life, bad things will happen. We cannot prevent them all, but the question is: how will you react? The lesson needs to be: intervene.