A weekend interview with Jodee Blanco, antibullying activist
Florida was among the first states in the country to adopt an antibullying law. Still, we continue to hear about bullying issues and how schools sometimes struggle to deal with them. Author and activist Jodee Blanco travels the country helping schools deal with bullies and the bullied. She spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about some of the ways that schools and students might break the cycle.
We hear about bullying all the time in schools. It doesn't seem to go away. You've looked at bullying for a long time. What do you think that schools can do, and what role do schools play in ending bullying? Or at least coping with bullying?
Let's start at the beginning. I'm a survivor turned activist. I'm someone who was mercilessly tormented by my peers, from fifth grade through high school, for the same reason so many thousands of other kids are today - simply for being different. And I remember the mistakes my teachers made, the things they did that worked and the things that made things worse.
First of all, it's the definition of bullying. The way we're approaching bullying in this country, it's like the Wild West in the 1800's. Every state has different laws. Every school district within every state addresses bullying differently. And every school within every school district addresses it differently. And so does every classroom. We need one universal definition of what bullying is and isn't, one universal way to approach it, and to systemically implement it by federal mandate in all of the schools. ... Because what happens is, you've got kids who are so sophisticated on how to work the system and how to be bullies that, for example, let's take a zero tolerance school. If you have a child in a zero tolerance school who's a bully, that bully knows that they can use that zero tolerance policy to their own advantage, because they know their victim is unlikely to fight back because the victim knows that if they do fight back -- and I don't mean physically. If they even verbally fight back to defend themselves, they all get into trouble, no questions asked. So I think the first thing we need is a federally mandated definition of bullying.
What would your definition be?
Well, bullying is twofold. There are two kinds of bullied students, and there are also two kinds of bullying. ... As a survivor turned activist, I go into schools nationwide and I share my story with students, teachers and parents in an effort to motivate change. And one of my primary messages to kids, and also to leadership, is that bullying isn't only the mean things you do. It's also the nice things you never do. Never including someone, even if it's not necessarily intentional, can be bullying too. And that everyone always looks at bullying in terms of the overt acts of aggression. But sometimes the most emotionally damaging type of bullying is the omission of compassion.
Are you talking about, like, Valentine's Day is coming up, giving a Valentine card to everyone in your class but one kid?
Precisely. I call it aggressive exclusion. And what's very interesting about this phenomenon is that there are two kinds of bullied students in a school. First you have the overtly bullied student. This is the kid who is cyberbullied, teased, picked on, physically picked on -- bullied in all the obvious, overt ways. Most of the anti-bullying policies and procedures address this child, and they address them maybe not always effectively but with good intention. The child who slips through the cracks, the child for whom none of these policies do squat, is the child that I call the invisible student.
The invisible student is the student who may not necessarily be intentionally excluded, may not necessarily be bullied in all the obvious ways, but this is the kid who's like a ghost in their own skin. They disappear into the woodwork of their school. They sit alone at lunch. No one talks to them between classes. They rarely if ever get invited to parties. And they always get picked last when students are asked to divide into teams. Not because they're necessarily maligned or taunted. They are simply invisible. And the policies and procedures that are in place don't do anything for them. If I hit you, or I call you a slut, you can go to the teacher and say, Jodee did this to me and she needs to be punished. And policies can be followed to facilitate that. But how do you go to a principal and say, I want you to punish this group of kids because they never say hello to me? How do you punish kids for what they don't do?
How do you? That seems like it would be really hard to accomplish.
One of the things I do when I go into schools across the country is I teach schools how to do that. And I do it through a method I call compassionate discipline. Because I believe traditional discipline doesn't work. Suspensions and expulsions by themselves doesn't work. Traditional punishment doesn't work because it only makes an angry child angrier and an insensitive child more insensitive. And if an angry child needs to release all of the extra anger created by whatever the traditional punishment was, this kid isn't going to direct that anger towards the popular kids or his friends, because there's too much of a risk. That kid is going to direct that extra anger toward the outcast or the special ed student, because those are typically the most socially expendable kids at school in the eyes of their peers.
And when that outcast finally snaps, everyone is scratching their heads and saying, Well, the issue is gun control. I can tell you for a plain fact, if a kid is really determined to exact revenge on cruel classmates, and they can't get ahold of guns, they'll use rat poison. They'll use whatever they can get their hands on. So the fundamental thing becomes, I tell teachers and superintendents ... I espouse compassionate discipline. All it is, is finding innovative opportunities to help bullies access their empathy and develop it like a muscle.
For example, if you've got a group of kids who are always teasing their less fortunate classmates, who maybe have to purchase their jeans at Goodwill as opposed to of Abercrombie and Fitch, instead of giving those kids a detention or suspension, have a special field trip for them where they go to a local homeless shelter where they serve food to the homeless. And each of those kids has to interview at least one of those homeless people and ask them about their dreams and aspirations, and how they got derailed, and then these kids of the group have to come up with an idea how they can make the people at the homeless shelter feel valued as human beings. Maybe they put on a little talent show for them or paint a mural for the front hallway of the shelter. And I guarantee you, if you've got a group of popular kids in a school who are insensitive to their less fortunate classmates, if they meet real homeless people who have nothing in this world, the likelihood of them ever teasing the less fortunate students in their school is dramatically diminished. The bottom line is that bullies need to be sensitized, not desensitized by more punishment.
How do you get schools to fit things like this in?
It really is doable. The other thing I teach educators is what you should never say to a bullied child and why, and what you should say and should do. And when you sit down the bully to talk, where you shouldn't sit him down, where you should. How you should approach it. And what you never should say to a bully and why.
Give me an example. What should you never say to a bully?
One of the things you should never say to a bullied child is ignore the bullies and walk away ... because you're encouraging a child to ignore abuse. We don't do that in any other area of society, and we shouldn't do it with bullied kids either. It's also a mixed message. Because we tell victims of bullying, don't be a bystander. If you see someone being bullied, defend them. But then we turn around and say to the same kid, if you're being bullied, just ignore it.
Should we tell them to turn around and punch the kid in the face instead?
No. I tell bullied students there are three solutions. I tell students standing up for your dignity, nonviolently, using your words, is your human right. Vengeance and violence are the wrongs. Number two, I tell bullied students that tattling hurts and telling helps. I explain to them that tattling is when you report an incident of bullying just to get the bully into trouble. And that's wrong. Telling is when you tell an adult about an incident of bullying because you want to help the bully and the victim, because both are hurting and both need support and help. And the third thing that I tell bullied students and I tell their parents, that makes the most difference in the world whether you're overtly bullied or you're an invisible student, is to seek a brand new social outlet completely separate from school. It will give you more confidence. It will give you something to look forward to. Most believe invisible students have a desperate aura about them. They are so desperate for attention that it actually pushes their classmates further away from them. So a new social activity and new friends diminishes that desperation for companionship and oftentimes their classmates will come around. ...
Now as far as what to never tell bullies. If you're an educator and you're sitting down with a bully, the first thing you do is exercise your curiosity. You encourage the bully. 'You're a good kid. This school cares about you. ... We've noticed you've been pretty rough lately with some of your classmates. What's wrong? How can we help?' One of the biggest reasons bullying flourishes, in too many schools in America, is because educators and administrators are so overworked and underfunded that they're too emotionally, physically and mentally exhausted to exercise the curiosity they need to get to the bottom of why the bully is behaving as they are. There's no such thing as a bad kid. Only good kids in bad circumstances. And the more curious educators are about why the bully is behaving as he or she is, the more compassionate they will be naturally. ... Because you will discover that most bullies are acting out, that bullying, the overwhelming acts of bullying in our schools today, are not acts of cruelty. They are actually cries for help.
Florida has adopted its antibullying law, which took three years to do. Is it a model worth replicating? Is it a model that needs to get thrown away?
Here's what I think about Florida's antibullying law, and all the antibullying laws in all the states that have them. ... I applaud the legislatures who worked tirelessly to get these laws on the books. They are absolutely well intentioned. The challenge is in the implementation at the human level at the schools. Part of the problem is that some of these policies are so rigid that they don't allow for the human component to be considered. ... One of the biggest challenges with implementation is, there's a lot of myths about schools. The fact of the matter is, most school administrators are administrators because they love kids. Most educators are in it because they love kids. The problem is often parents. Parents end up making unrealistic demands. They bring their fear and their anger and their own baggage from their own adolescence into the bargain. And they make it very difficult for schools to follow the policies and procedures because they're always at odds for the schools. So one of the biggest challenges is -- the law is great. I read the Florida law. I think it's specific. I think it's concrete. I think it's well intentioned. And again I applaud the men and women who got it on the books. But where you're going to determine how successful it is over time is in the implementation. And that's tricky for every school because the human component is such a huge variable when it comes to bullying.
Sometimes I see, and I think you mentioned this too, that it's easy to use that word and create a stir. Sometimes you're being a bully by calling somebody a bully. You can get that person in trouble, and maybe they didn't do anything, maybe they did. But it's almost become a word you can use to get action. Is there a way to avoid that?
That's why I think it's so important to have a definition. No school has the same definition for bullying. No one district. Like I said before, it's like the Wild West. And I think it's wonderful that each state is trying to mandate its own antibullying policies. But I really do believe -- you know the No Child Left Behind Act? It sets an academic standard on a federally mandated level. I think we need precisely the same thing dealing with bullying. It's got to be a sort of antibullying version of the No Child Left Behind Act with the definition, the expectations, the protocol, policies and procedures being federally mandated.
What if we do nothing and say, 'Hey, I got bullied when I was a kid. I grew up, I'm fine, deal with it'?
That's a really good question. There's a difference between kids being kids and kids being cruel. And if anyone thinks that being bullied is just a right of passage, that 'I survived and so can you,' they are suffering from an unfathomable, incomprehensible and unacceptable ignorance. Bullying damages you for life. I get a lot of people who ask the question you did. ... There's a ghostly population in the U.S. that I've coined the adult survivors of peer abuse. ... They carry the unresolved wounds of their school days into their lives. It affects their work. It affects their marriages. It profoundly affects their parenting. And many of these people wreak havoc on the school system because any time their child gets even mildly bullied they overreact because they're reliving their own unresolved youth.
Every day I receive countless e-mails not just from bullied students and educators but from adult survivors ... They call me wanting advice on how to get past all that negative feedback and their low self esteem and all those voices from school that they can't get out of their mind. So there's my primary message. When I do one of those student presentations ... it's not just joking around. Bullying damages you for life. And I know, because I'm damaged....
The last thing I want to say, because I forgot, is the worst thing you should say to a bully is, 'What's wrong with you?' Because most bullies already feel defective. And again, most acts of bullying are not intentional acts of cruelty. They are cries for help from a wounded child. ... And the last comment I give you is that any antibullying policy or procedure mandated by a state, if it doesn't incorporate compassion for the bullies, it won't have any long term positive effects.