Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bullying in Schools

Because I once home schooled my children, I have been forced into many a debate over the importance of public school as a necessary means of socialization. If you choose not to send your children to Kindergarten, the overwhelming belief system in our culture is that you are depriving them of something necessary as this is the arena where they will learn how to interact with others, to make friends, to socialize. Even my own students, many of whom have opted out of the mainstream public school because they find the social "scene" there intolerable, are convinced that attending school at the age of 5 was somehow integral to their social development. If you don't go to school, they say, than you will be a "social retard".

I've always found this argument mind boggling, and can only assume that my own experience in public school must have been somehow dramatically different than everyone else, otherwise, how could anyone possibly equate public school with "positive socialization"? In my experience, school was where you learned if you were a loser or not. It was where you found out you were too poor to ever be cool. It as where the "gay" kids got tortured and harassed. It was where the kid that played the flute got tossed down the hill everyday. It was where the German girl who smelled funny got taunted relentlessly every time she stepped onto the school bus and no one would let her sit down. It was where anyone who didn't fit in was taught, day in and day out, about humiliation. And it was where we all learned that negative personality traits, such as cruelty, selfishness, ego centrism, a propensity for violence, and homophobia were what made a person popular and powerful. The more vile you were, the more you were revered by your classmates. Positive socialization?!!! Are you kidding me?!!!

With the indictment of nine teenagers, following the suicide of the fifteen year old student Phoebe Prince , perhaps it is safe to say that the long accepted culture of bullying and oppressive social behaviors in our public schools is finally going to be overhauled. Maybe, now that teenagers and administrators are being held legally responsible for allowing or participating in student abuse, schools will finally become the places of "positive socialization" I have long heard about, but so rarely seen. However, I have my doubts.

Ideally, every child would be taught positive social behaviors at home. They would be taught to treat others with respect. They would be taught compassion. They would be taught to respect others regardless of sexual orientation, skin color, or religious beliefs. This way, our schools would be filled with children who, though imperfect as we all are, at least come prepared with a metaphorical tool belt for navigating the often overwhelming environment of too many kids forced to be together day after day, without enough adult supervision to keep them behaving at their personal best.

Schools are expected to somehow not only teach kids how to read and write, add and subtract and multiply, but how to be nice people as well. They are expected to control the behaviors of students -- students that can often number in the thousands. Looking back, I don't know what the adults in my schools could have done to make us be nicer to each other. Some of it could have been stopped. The stuff on the bus got out of hand everyday, and the bus driver never did anything. But most of it went on below the radar, and even if a teacher had intervened, what difference would that have made in the long run? Who was hated and who was not had been decided by some unspoken consensus and no adult could change that anymore than they could keep us from smoking in the bathrooms.

Our public schools are microcosms of the communities in which they reside -- very often mirroring the value systems, behaviors, and social paradigms that exist outside the school walls. While anti-bullying legislation is critical, and the fight to make our public schools safe for all children should never be given up, anyone who blindly believes that when they send their kid to school in the morning they are providing their child with a positive social experience is living in denial. My own children no longer home school, and one attends a public school. I am grateful for what his school is able to offer him, however, not for a moment do I fool myself into thinking that my son is in an environment of his peers designed to make him a kind and loving person. That's my job.


  1. I too home schooled my kids partly because of this issue. I get so offended by the ignorant use of the "social retard" comments that I hear people use on the radio or in circles where people do not know I home schooled. I took a lot of flack from my public school teacher in-laws as well.
    One of the main issues with my experience in schools, (especially elementary and middle school) was the dominance of the children. They so outnumbered adults that there was no way to even monitor their behavior let alone modify it. By their very nature, children are immature and just do not know any better. They can often form a mob mentality lead by some comment made in an absolute state of ignorance and social mania. And because children are also forming their permanent perception of reality at this vulnerable age, it is not a great idea to let the kids lead on this one.
    I think the idea on this is that one has to develop a thick skin early so as to be prepared for the constant onslaught of criticism and abuse to come. I hope the holes in this particular argument are self evident, but just a quick reflection on Psychology 101 can remind us that early abuse does not necessarily prepare one for abuse and make one better able to deal with it but seems to form a template or pattern in which one tends to repeat and draw towards more abuse as known and comfortable ground.
    I hope you are right about the changes that we may see after this sad story of Phoebe Prince. Even though I sacrificed my career and quite a bit of social standing I am really glad I home schooled my kids up until 8th grade and I can honestly say that NO ONE will ever call my kids "retards". Not only because they are both really socially savvy, but also because they will never be in an environment where that is tolerated.
    Thanks Gianna

  2. Thank you for such an insightful response. I think that part of what we have both experienced as parents who chose to home school is the knee jerk reaction of those who feel personally threatened by the idea that you are choosing to pull your child out of the very place they are choosing to insert their own child. In a sense then, by choosing an alternative path for your child you are, by default, insinuating that what they are choosing is wrong or damaging. Of course, this is not the case. All families have different circumstances to contend with, and what works for one kid or family, doesn't necessarily work for another.

    Therein lies the key. Children are all different, and sometimes need different environments in which they can thrive. For convenience sake, we continue to shove them all into the same mold, but as a parent, if you realize your kid does not fit, and that mold may be causing them undue suffering, for crying out loud, get them out of there!

  3. Where I think you are right about the amount of bullying that takes place in our public schools is accurate, I also have found that a majority of the bullies come from parents who are also bullies. So to say that it's because of our public school system, I think, is unfair. I also feel it's used as an excuse so we, as parents, don't have to take the responsibility for teaching our children tolerance and humanity.
    I have a child in public school, with a tribe of children who respect and look out for one another. This stems from parenting. I know that this is an unusual situation. We parents have worked very hard to create a safe and fun learning environment for our kids, with support from the public school administration.
    Certainly there are experiences that SEEM beyond our control at times, they are however, NOT. Communication, involvement and discussion are a necessary part of helping our children, teachers and schools. Without that, of course you are going to feel like you are sending your children out to the wolves. That's why, in my experience, INVOLVEMENT, not avoidance is crucial.

  4. Thank you for making such a valid point. Believe me, as a public school teacher I know very well how much gets blamed on the teachers -- often unfairly so. Amongst ourselves we often repeat the public sentiment, "Of course, it's always the teacher's fault."

    Public school teachers are all too often expected to teach not only subject matter, but to take on the role of "parent" as well. Sadly, so many of our children are not receiving the care they deserve at home, and this has disastrous effects in the classroom, and in the school yard. Of course it is the parent's job to teach compassion, kindness, and tolerance. Clearly, many are failing to do so.

    Please, stay involved. It is parents like you that help make our schools safe places for children to be.