IN MY OPINION
'Stop Bullying,' but first start thinking What's your opinion? By Rudolph Sharpe, Special to the Sunday News
The Cartoon Network recently launched its "Stop Bullying: Raise the Flag" campaign in Philadelphia. Sen. Bob Casey, who has reintroduced the Safe Schools Improvement Act in Congress, was on hand to kick off the initiative.
The bill aims to amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to prevent bullying and harassment of students. Casey explained that the bill would emphasize bullying prevention, track bullying incidents for accurate statistics, and implement a "no tolerance" policy for any school that receives federal dollars.
I commend Casey and the Cartoon Network for shining a spotlight on bullying in our schools. However, I've noticed in my role as head of school for middle school students that not all parents are confident that they know exactly what bullying behavior is. Concerned parents call me to ask what scenario constitutes bullying and at what point an adult needs to intervene.
I'm not a fan of attaching the label "bully" to people, especially young adolescents who are one thing one day and another the next, so I use the expression "bullying behavior."
As I see it, bullying behavior is not the typical disagreement among adolescents -- those day-to-day arguments that occur in everyone's life. As adults, we probably have developed ways to address differences of opinion without resorting to name-calling, eye-rolling, hair-flipping and the like. But young adolescents haven't developed that filter; reactions using body language may be the only arsenal they have to address a difference of opinion among their peers.
Words that are hurtful or even downright mean slip out in a one-time emotional exchange between or among young men and women; at that particular moment, they mean to be hurtful, primarily because their choice of strategies is relatively limited.
When two young people get into an isolated argument, and both are equally invested emotionally in the argument, and the purpose of the argument is not to establish power over another but to express displeasure at another's actions or speech, then I don't see that as bullying. That is just their attempt to navigate troubled waters as best they can. I also think that, unless there is some kind of harm involved, adults should step back and let the participants find ways to manage the situation. After all, they're going to need those skills in abundance as they move into and through adulthood.
Of course, we must demonstrate those skills for these young adolescents through our own behavior -- how we treat each other, how we speak to those with whom we may not agree, how we handle differences of opinion among family members. Young people learn a whole lot more from what they see than from what they are told.
From what I've observed after more than 40 years of dealing with young adolescents, I believe that bullying behavior is characterized by an intentional, consistent attempt to harm, either physically or psychologically, a peer who is vulnerable to that harm. It almost always involves the desire to demonstrate one's superiority by blatantly and maliciously making someone else feel inferior.
There is always a difference in status, and the powerful participant struggles daily to maintain that power through intimidation.
In a true bullying situation, two actions ought to take place. First, a teacher or other trusted adult must take to task the person exhibiting the bullying behavior. Second, the recipient of that behavior should be encouraged to develop strategies that will empower him/her to react constructively to that bullying behavior -- a huge undertaking for an awkward adolescent.
To merely punish without educating seems counterproductive, and to say that there is "zero tolerance" for bullying leads to the possibility that all unkind or argumentative behavior is considered bullying. When everything is bullying, then, in fact, nothing is.
Bullying must be recognized for what it is and be treated with the seriousness that it deserves. But, at the same time, I believe that the misapplication and indiscriminate use of the term mask the nature of true bullying behavior and make our treatment of it much less effective. In addition, by attempting to mitigate every adolescent argument, well-meaning adults prevent young people from developing the negotiation skills that have become increasingly important in our fast-paced, overstressed, media-driven society.
Rudolph Sharpe, Ph.D., is the head of middle school at Lancaster Country Day School.
Please see BULLYING, page 4
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