Many people are familiar with the more physically aggressive and verbally threating forms of bullying that can take place far too often in our schools. But other less-easily-identifiable forms of bullying, including a “social media” type, can produce very severe and painful emotional scars on young people. These types of bullying acts are further problematic because the young victims will often find it very difficult to ask for help, in part due to their inability to articulate what is happening to them.
First, some full disclosure and an explanation. I have spent close to 40 years of my life working in some capacity with school children, I love them, and loved every moment of my professional life. But truth be told, in many situations young people were not as sensitive and compassionate with their fellow students, or school staff members, as they could have been. This was not necessarily a sign of a moral defect, but rather it had more to do with the challenges of “growing-up” psychology. They were struggling with trying to figure out the adult world, while at the same time understanding who they were in that world. High school principals, in particular, are fully aware that unsanctioned student “cliques” (groups) are standard social organizations in the school’s everyday life; and sometimes these cliques can take their exclusionary practices to the level of hurtful meanness.
Educators must be sensitive to the power of these unofficial “social behaviors” in schools and how they can often stress out young people, even to the point of them thinking and possibly acting in very destructive ways toward themselves and others. The first step is for educators and parents to not dismiss the emotional concerns (i.e., isolation, exclusion, being made fun of…) expressed by young people. “Not having to pay bills” (I heard this from a lot of parents) does not mean that a young person is living a worry-free and a bliss-filled life. Adults only need to honestly look back at their own childhood days and review all of the anxiety, hurt, disappointments and feelings of rejection they may have experienced; those feelings were real and painful.
Principals must analyze and take serious strategic action against all forms of bullying. Particularly, since Mr. Trump has made “bullying” a national policy. And don’t think for a moment that school students are unaware of our nation’s current bullying environment. Imagine what the schoolmates of Mexican, Latino or Muslim students are thinking (or those Mexican, Latino and Muslim students themselves) when they constantly hear: “We need to ‘ban’ or build a wall to keep ‘those people’ out of our country!”
Attention and protection must be given to that student who is: teased for not having the latest “whatever;” that student standing alone in the school playground; the student sitting alone in the lunchroom (and “alone” could be a student sitting at a table full of students who are interacting with each other and not them); students who are poor; those who emigrated from another country. The children who don’t fit the limited societal definitions of “masculinity” and “femininity.” Black, Latino or Asian students. Students with same-sex parents. Those students living with severe/chronic physical disabilities and illnesses. The students who don’t fall into our very narrowly assigned racial categories. Students who are “cafeteria-shamed” because they receive a “free lunch” (which technically all students in some way receive since all public school lunches, free or paid, are subsidized by the government!), a practitioner of a non-Christian religious faith, LGBTQ students. And a concern for me, Black and Latino students (especially boys) who are teased about “talking (thinking?) white,” “acting/being smart” or wanting to be high-academic achievers.
Superintendents, principals, assistant principals and teachers all have a role in ending all forms of behavioral or verbal bullying, no matter who is the perpetrator, or how “subtle,” covertly and clandestinely it is delivered. Unfortunately (and some of my education friends might not like this), some bullying acts inflicted on students can sometimes be delivered by educators, in both our school administrators and teacher ranks.
Parents, your job (and don’t fall off in middle & high school!) is to have conversations, not one- or two-word Q & A sessions about what is going on with your child’s school life. And then reach out to the school if you hear something that sounds “not right.” School administrators, you are obligated to take those calls, and to take them seriously. As a principal, I was able to successfully intervene in some very dangerous situations (e.g., students contemplating suicide, potential “runaways,” victims of abuse, alcohol/drug addiction problems, etc.) because of a parent call, or a parent calling on behalf of their child’s friend or schoolmate.
K-12 schools can be the most wonderful life-changing-enhancing places in a young person’s life. Or a school can be “pure hell” if there are no adults who will advocate for that child’s physical and emotional well-being. #bethatadult!
Michael A. Johnson has served as a public schoolteacher, Science Skills Center director, principal and a school district superintendent. He also served as an adjunct professor of Science Education in the School of Education at St. John’s University. He recently completed a book on school leadership: “Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership…” http://reporttotheprincipalsoffice.net/