Bully Meets World

Programs and therapies can help prevent bullying, but they don't address the root causes of schoolyard domination.

“Ms. Molly, I want you to be my sister so you can stand up for me against bullies.”

The girl who said this to me was in 4th grade and almost my height, with a penchant for giving her teachers lung-collapsing bear hugs. My after-school drama class had just started, which is often the exact time when kids want to unload some pressing issue on me, seeming to either not understand or not care that I’m busy. I told her that I didn’t need to be her sister, but that I’d stand up for her against bullies because I am her teacher. She made two victorious fists and said, “Yes!” to herself.

Her request struck me, because it seemed like it had one foot in a fictional narrative and one foot in reality. This girl marches to the beat of her own drummer, and I know she was picked on last year, but this year she seems a thousand times more confident and has several close friends. She is a star in my drama class and everyone seems to like her style there. I’ve seen my students have issues with other kids, but it also feels like when they talk to me about bullying, sometimes the words that come out of their mouths aren’t their own.

Bullies are real but they are also mythical. In the hallways at my school, cartoons of how to stop a bully feature tall goons winding up fists at little twerpy kids, an educator’s reimagining of the bully Moe from Calvin and Hobbes. The images couldn’t have less to do with what bullying at my school--and any school I’ve worked at, or attended as a child--looks like. As I observe the national concerned conversation about bullying, it usually feels like adults grasping at straws about this mystical Kid Problem. We must solve this phenomenon! But it is inevitable and it has always happened! Boys will be boys! Mean girls! Hold administrators accountable! Children are cruel! Also, The Internet!

In her new book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, Slate journalist Emily Bazelon sets out to demystify this “phenomenon.” She manages to address both bullying and the new hot scourge of “cyberbullying” without falling prey to the alarm, judgement, or condescension that often accompanies such discussions. Bazelon dismantles the opposing notions that bullying is either an “epidemic” or the natural condition of childhood, placing it in a historical, social, and cultural context. And by speaking with actual kids, both “victims” and “bullies”Bazelon conveys respect for the emotional intelligence of children and endows them with an agency that is necessary to fully understand the complexities of bullying.

Bullying was not always the “epidemic” it’s seen as today. Bazelon argues Columbine was the moment when bullying became a social problem and not just a normal part of growing up. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold weren’t actually bullied, as debunked in Dave Cullen’s Columbine, but the narrative that emerged of outcasts seeking revenge was so powerful that it set parents and educators into a collective panic. In historicizing the bullying panic, Bazelon doesn’t paint bullying as a scapegoat, but she does convincingly argue that it is only one factor that can lead to violence, and that more complicated causes such as depression and other mental illness may be much more to blame.

The complexity of bullying is a major theme of Sticks and Stones. Within the umbrella threat of bullying Bazelon identifies subgenres, like gender-policing, slut-shaming, general Mean Girl-ness, and cyberbullying. Bazelon also articulates a distinction between bullying and another form of aggressive behavior amongst kids: drama. Drama, she argues, is a battle that takes place between relative equals and usually willing participants-- for example, two girls arguing on Facebook over who is hotter. Bullying, on the other hand, needs to satisfy 3 criteria, as defined by social scientist and prominent bullying theorist Dan Olweus: there aggression must be physical or verbal, it must repeat over a period of time, and there must be a power discrepancy. While drama has its own set of problems, it's important to distinguish it from bullying as its subjects have more agency and comparable social status. The power discrepancy is what makes bullying especially devastating.

I appreciate the distinction between “drama” and “bullying,” because it creates a spectrum of violence and power. Bazelon consistently challenges and complicates the cultural identity of the bully as All Powerful (Moe), blurring the line between victims of violence and perpetrators of violence, which helps break away from the cliché portrait of teen social dynamics, where the popular kids and the nerds are clearly delineated by the presence or absence of suspenders. It’s not that simple. In high school, I was harassed most by my fellow band and theater nerds, and the popular kids either ignored me or were nice to me. And the boys I teach who most want to be cool were the ones in whom I sense the most pain. Bazelon portrays the nuances and surprises of school social dynamics in a way that is valuable to understanding the subtleties of social violence.

How, then, do we address this violence, once we have demystified it? The answer in schools across the country has been largely punitive. The 2011 documentary Bully singles out teachers and administrators who tolerate a culture of bullying in their school buildings, strongly suggesting that schools should impose harsher consequences on the bullies themselves. Bazelon argues for a more preventive approach. She explores several programs meant to preemptively address bullying, including one designed by the aforementioned bullying scholar Dan Olweus. These approaches emphasize adults consistently addressing negative behavior at every level.

“Teachers and other adults should be involved in students’ lives, set firm limits, mete out nonhostile punishments when rules are broken, and serve both as authoritative and positive role models,” Bazelon writes of The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, which has been implemented in over 8,000 schools and over 40 states.

Bazelon also explores PBIS, or Positive Behavioral and Intervention Supports, a behavior management system that I have experience with. I learned PBIS when I was working with nonverbal children with autism and developmental delays, for whom traditional punishment structures can be ineffective. PBIS basically incentivizes positive behavior, rather than punishing negative behavior. Here's how it worked with my old 4th graders with cognitive delays: If one boy acted out in the morning and I punished him by giving him detention in the afternoon, he would be unable to make the connection between the punishment and the behavior. But if he finished his work in the morning and I immediately rewarded him with 5 minutes of free time, he understood that his behavior yielded something positive for him. This method works for all types of kids and I use it with my current general ed. students too, by rewarding good behavior--an act of kindness, compromising with a partner--with more freedom and responsibility rather than emphasizing punishment. It is not only more effective, but far more humanizing and less cruel than traditional punitive methods of discipline for kids. As Bazelon shows through focusing on a formerly violent and chaotic middle school that used PBIS to radically transform its environment, incentives for positive behavior and kindness are effective ways to manage bullying within a school through prevention.

But while Sticks and Stones ultimately offers specific and practical suggestions to a children’s issue and simultaneously treats it with the gravity of a broader social issue, it doesn’t zoom out as much as I’d hoped. Ultiamtely, bullying is presented as a problem that exists in the world of schools, and the Internet extensions of those communities. But if we agree bullying is a form of violence--violence that exists among children, that they usually grow out of and grow stronger from--why can’t we approach this violence from a structural perspective? The reforms Bazelon suggests are already proven to be effective in the schools where they’re implemented. But they are just that-- reforms.

At the end of the day, everyone still exists in the culture of patriarchal violence that facilitates the domination of those considered weak, different, or unacceptable. Imagine a school with an incredible culture of mutual respect and appreciation, where a boy could wear a dress and a girl could date a girl, where no one gets made fun of for being fat or ugly or having used clothes. When the bell rings and the kids leave the building, what do they see? They re-enter a world with no tolerance for gender non-conformity, with crushing restrictions for how females and males are to look and behave, where their family’s low-income leaves them paralyzed and powerless. I believe such idyllic schools can and do exist, as my own students treat each other exceptionally (most of the time). But last year, when one of my students called her friend a “fucking Mexican,” those girls went home to a TV set where the men in vying for power in this country speak about Mexican immigrants as if they are less than human. Was the girl really being a bully, or was she acting reasonably in a landscape of evidence that she was, in fact, superior?

Or take “slut-shaming,” a concept Bazelon explains through the story of Massachusetts teenager Phoebe Prince, whom Bazelon reported on thoroughly for Slate. When Prince committed suicide in 2010, the sensational media narrative that emerged following her death was that of “bullycide,” an innocent immigrant girl (Prince was Irish) bullied to death by her classmates. In fact, Bazelon argues, Phoebe actually had a higher social status than was being reported; she hung around with older high school boys and slept with two of them, disrupting the boys’ relationships with their longtime (sometimes on and off) girlfriends, which led those girlfriends and their friends to retaliate by calling Prince a slut and a whore. The culture of policing of women’s bodies gave other students ammunition to attack Prince. Therapy and intervention could have helped Prince survive high school, but it doesn’t change the plight of every other young girl in the United States, whose bodies remain subject to the judgement, hatred, and control of male-dominated social structures.

It may seem abstract, but incorporating a structural criticism of violence and domination opens up more options for real change. Bullying prevention in middle school is the equivalent of a band-aid on one bleeding limb of a body beaten by hegemonic power. Bazelon makes the case for long-term, cumulative programs that begin in Kindergarten, but even then, the kids have had five years of internalized gender expectations and social conditioning under their belt.

Patriarchal power, of course, is inextricably linked to other structures of domination, but in looking to children, there is an opportunity to actually confront the ways that power is perpetuated and maintained. By the time a child is born, gender structures are already imposed on them, guiding how that child is expected to behave. By the time they are 2 or 3, especially if they are in preschool, they have been cultivated to adhere to strict social expectations of girlhood or boyhood. They are exposed to media that reinforces those expectations and segregates them from one another. As a genderqueer kid, I knew something was wrong with me by the time I started forming conscious memories, and the other kids did too. By 3 years old, boys know that they are supposed to be aggressive and athletic. Girls know they are supposed to be beautiful. And here they remain trapped even as they grow older.

And if we remain trapped, Bazelon’s call for “character and empathy” can only go so far. As bell hooks writes of patriarchal thinking, it socializes all of us to “embrace an ethics of domination which says the powerful have the right to rule over the powerless and can use any means to subordinate them.” Violence, hooks argues, is a means of social control, manifested in many different forms: “war, male violence against women, adult violence against children, teenage violence, racial violence, etc.” And bullying. Bazelon calls for parents, educators, and young people to cultivate kindness and self-esteem. That may go a great deal to reducing school-age violence, but the marginalized child with high self-esteem is still running the wrong way on a moving walkway. If most of us survive bullying and grow stronger from it, as Bazelon argues, it is because we have learned to manage within the restrictions imposed upon us. As a kid I stopped being bullied for being genderqueer when I grew my hair out and started wearing girl t-shirts.

Dismantling sexist gender expectations on all fronts may feel like a monumental task, but for educators to take on the project would deal a substantial blow at an institutional, and perhaps cultural, level. Schools have reached a point where a racial slur is not tolerated from anyone, but phrases like “you throw like a girl” and “man up” and “act like a lady” are sanctioned by teachers and students. In my experience, teachers care deeply about their students, and can adjust their own cultural beliefs in order to support them. The costly and intensive anti-bullying programs Bazelon offers as solutions prove that educators are invested in improving the lives of their kids. But as long as bullying is talked about as a problem of how to socialize our schoolchildren, as opposed to a project of addressing the oppressive ways we socialize all children in all aspects of their lives, the violence will continue. As their teacher, I can stand up for my kids against the bullies, but it will be a never-ending whack-a-mole game unless I stand against the conditions that create the bullies.