By Susan M. Chilvers, Ed.D
Someone once said bullies are often hard to identify. We tend to think of bullying as an act of aggression usually done in a sneaky way and seldom observed or seldom reported. I read an article in Teaching Tolerance magazine that suggests the participants in bullying can be identified by the three B’s – the bully, the bullied and the bystander. The bystander was as the name suggests just an observer, not involved as an aggressor, a defender or a reporter but is as crucial as the bully and bullied and needs to see how important it is to be involved. With this in mind, I think the current focus on bullying following such tragic outcomes as suicide is important and anti-bullying steps need to be taken in all schools. I feel strongly that caring, compassion and accountability are essential in any environment, particularly schools, but I also feel strongly that this cannot be mandated. Creating endless rules to follow, incident reports to be filed by teachers, may reduce some bullying but it will not deal with the underlying problem of why people bully which is usually because they are unhappy people with low self-esteem but more importantly because the environment allows this behavior. Reporting incidents and “cracking down” on the perpetrators may reduce some of the problem but ultimately if the environment is structured to support it, bullying will continue. This is a systemic problem, power is often used not as a force for good but as a weapon by individuals, adults and children, who have poor communication skills, fear of losing control or are just plain unhappy. I am not suggesting that everyone can live in a rosy, Pollyanna world but real personal interaction skills and conflict resolution can only be taught and experienced in small caring groups, not huge institutions. Some children bully each other, some teachers bully children for example telling a bullied child he needs to stand up for him or herself and fight back. If our definition of bullying is a misuse of power, we need to look at that from top to bottom of any institution working with our children. The anti-bullying mandates for N.J. are good in intention but I think represents piles of paper work and reports building a wall between teachers and students when they should be given more time and staff to look at the underlying causes of bullying with students they know well.
In a small school such as ours, it’s much easier to know the children individually and have their input on every level—academic, social and emotional and they are a wealth of information on what they consider to be bullying and how it can be handled.
In schools with huge populations, it’s much harder to individualize but unless students can feel on an everyday level that they count and are being taken care of they will not be able to trust enough to weigh in on bullying situations as a victim or a bystander.