It’s been nine months since South Hadley High School student Phoebe Prince hanged herself after relentless bullying by classmates. While Prince was not the first student to kill herself to escape bullies, her death mobilized the government like none before it. For the first time this August, the United States Department of Education sponsored a two day bullying summit aimed at developing a national strategy to end schoolyard bullying.
Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education Kevin Jennings was keynote speaker at the Aug. 11 to 12 bullying summit. In an interview with Southern California Public Radio, Jennings noted that an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study showed the USA to be in the middle of 40 industrial countries surveyed in terms of bullying severity.
While the bullying summit has given bullying a high profile, Phillip C. Rodkin, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and summit speaker, acknowledged that not much is known about effective anti-bullying practices. Historically, adults “didn’t ask,” he said. “They didn’t want to know.”
As a parent of three school age children, I have seen my share of bullying in public schools. Almost worse than the bullying is the institutionalized resistance to effectively addressing bullying.
One of the biggest problems I have observed is tension between the school’s interest and that of the bullied child and his parents. With school principals often required to report bullying to higher-ups, bullying incidents are prone to recharacterization as “fights.” The government will never know the true scope of America’s bullying problem if it relies on self-reporting by schools.
Socioeconomic and racial factors further muddy the waters when it comes to bullying. When a school or school system is accused of racial disparities based on suspension statistics, the reasons for the disparities cease to matter. The stigma associated with possible racism claims seems to result in efforts to change the suspension pattern rather than address the underlying bullying. Unfortunately, changing the suspension pattern often means not addressing the bullying or suspending the bully’s victim along with the bully. The resulting equalized suspension rates across the socioeconomic or racial divide disguise the nature and severity of the bullying problems.
And then there’s the tendency of schools to hide under the cloak of privacy laws applicable to student records in handling bullying incidents. Principals insist they are unable to address the bullying situation with both families together for privacy reasons. Principals refuse to disclose the consequences imposed on the bully to the bullying victim and the victim’s parents, citing the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act which protects the privacy of student education records. Such refusal places needless and unjustifiable strain on the bullying victim and his family.
Having witnessed disingenuous and self-interested responses to bullying incidents by schools, I was dismayed to see one piece of bullying advice being published by the U.S. government. The U.S. Health Resources Services Administration tip sheet on bullying advises parents specifically to report bullying to schools and not to approach the bully’s parents. This advice flies in the face of my experience, where not only were schools unhelpful in redressing bullying, the parents of children bullying my children did help solve the problems when informed of their children’s behavior.
As a nation suddenly concerned with bullying, we have a lot to learn. But we won’t learn the true scope of the problem or develop effective tools for resolving bullying as long as there’s a stigma on schools with bullying problems that causes them to place their self-interest above the interests of the students.