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Bullying in Schools: Not a Simple Answer

In a society where it has become normative for adults to drop messages on social media platforms that defame, project violence towards, and dehumanize strangers, why are we surprised that our schools are full of children doing the same? I have been reading a lot of comments recently after the news of the death of a nonbinary student in Oklahoma who, according to recent reports, took their own life after a bullying incident that resulted in a head injury for the student. These comments blame the educators, the building administrators, and the school district for not cracking down on bullying in their hallways. They claim negligence at best and malfeasance at worst.  

I will not defend the school district or educators in this post. Honestly, I do not know if they were proactive in addressing the bullying, and I do not know the policies and procedures they have in place to navigate bullying. I also do not know the educators who walked alongside this young student and whether or not they exhibited empathy, compassion, and strength for this vulnerable student. 

What I do know, though, is that as a society we cannot be surprised when our students are othering each other when what they see in social media, print media, and television are adults who feel that it is appropriate to deny another person their humanity based on disagreements on politics, beliefs, skin color, ethnicity, birth origin, sexual identity, gender, etc. Our adolescents are trying to figure out what it means to be adults, trying to navigate the complexity of identity formation, and they are learning from the adults they see every day. 

Educators are convenient scapegoats for societal sins. Sometimes they deserve criticism, but the majority of the time, educators are trying their best to raise a generation of new thinkers, leaders, innovators, and helpers. They are trying to equip the next generation with emotional regulation, empathy, and compassion–knowing that without these core skills we will live in an ever-increasingly violent society. 

If we truly care about decreasing the amount of bullying in our schools, we need to be proactive in building cultures inside and outside of our school systems that promote connection, empathy, self-compassion, and vulnerability. In other words, we need to build cultures that value humans, support humans, and push humans to be their best selves. 

We cannot fall prey to attacks on schools that diminish a school’s ability to build such a culture. Removing social and emotional learning from our classrooms will only serve to handicap educators in their efforts. Banning books that allow students to see themselves, their families, or their friends through a different lens will only engrain more entrenched beliefs about the other. Calling educators groomers or vessels of indoctrination will only create fear for educators that prevents them from building relationships with students, supporting students in their normal developmental questions, and ensuring that no student feels alone in a school system. 

One more thing, punishing developing humans for copying the behavior of the adults they are modeling is shortsighted. Psychological and developmental research showcase that, in adolescence, humans are trying to figure out who they are by trying on new identities. They figure out what identities to try on by looking at the possible versions from the adults they see. Schools can and should set boundaries for them in this discovery process. They should be corrected when they veer off course, but if a child uses adult language to dehumanize another child, we should not classify that child as a “bully” or a “bad kid.” Instead, we need to dig deeper into who they are trying to be in that moment and help them see that the identity they’re trying on is not working for them.  

I know that this is not a “four-step approach to ending bullying in schools.” What I am asking us to consider as a society is culture change, and there is perhaps no harder work than culture change. Such a shift will require from each of us deep reflection on how our actions or reactions are modeling new identities for the next generation, and we will need to shift our perspectives on what it means to truly be proactive in building cultures where bullying does not happen because humans value one another.  

However, I think that the hard work is worth it if it means that no more students devalue their intelligence out of fear of “looking smart,” no more young men deny their emotions out of fear of “looking weak,” no more young women wake up every day self-loathing their own appearance because it doesn’t fit some idealized (and impossible) standard of beauty, no more nonbinary students spend hours wishing they could disappear instead of having to explain the difference between their external self and in their internal self. For the next generation and beyond, the work is worth it, and we must get off our judgment seats and do the hard work ourselves. 


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