A Sunlake High School student's suicide, which family members and friends attributed to bullying, is a harsh example of the horrible effects of this mistreatment. It cannot be pawned off as kids being kids or a rite of passage. It can be mean, malicious and life altering or life ending.
There are school district policies in place in every county to address bullying and harassment. These focus on zero-tolerance for the perpetrators and offer a wide range of disciplinary actions depending on the level and the frequency of the behavior. Unfortunately, the current policies of school districts across the state do not address action and prevention. They are policies — not programs — and policies cannot take the place of action.
Bullying will not stop by policy alone. The question is then, what else do we need to be doing to stop this from happening?
The answers could lie less in zero tolerance and more in zero apathy.
Zero tolerance can be harmful to youth because it is based on removing the offenders by suspension or expulsion, as opposed to working toward reforming or teaching offenders appropriate behaviors. Some students resolutely refuse to report incidents for fear of harsher reprisals from the person(s) bullying them. Also, some schools employ bully boxes located in student areas where they may be seen reporting. Reports of bullying incidents being mishandled or being deemed insignificant also thwart disclosure by youth. They may fear being punished as well, as some students may engage in bullying behaviors to lash out or defend themselves against the bullying.
Expecting zero apathy means teaching and modeling empathy and social responsibility to all stakeholders: administrators, educators, youth, parents, community members and community leaders, so that all involved are educated to respond to incidents of bullying. This would include adults being responsible for seeing, believing, responding, and following up on all bullying behavior incidents, no matter how insignificant they appear. Zero apathy practices would make it intolerable to look the other way. Indifference and silence are as much collaborators in a bullying situation as is a group of immobile bystanders.
A natural correlation would include the current solid policy in conjunction with sound prevention. This program could include such ideas as:
• Providing bystanders with strategies for intervention, such as ways to get help and to interrupt the events that are taking place in front of them. The effects of witnessing these violent episodes or fearing that they might be next should not be minimized.
• Teaching respectful behavior early in development at the elementary school level. Research has shown that violence is a learned behavior, which is often learned when a child is very young. Young children can be taught nonviolence just as well. They can learn constructive ways to solve problems, deal with frustration and handle anger. Children who learn these skills early in life are far less likely to grow up to be violent or to be victims of violence.
• Understanding that bullies, left uneducated, can often take the sense of entitlement to repress from their youth into their adult lives. The literature has clearly shown the link from childhood bullying behavior to adolescent sexual harassment and adult domestic violence (Stein, 1995). Professionally trained staff from sexual assault and domestic violence agencies across the state and country are ready and available to partner with schools, to assist with developing effective programs, clubs and strategies to assist with prevention efforts. Using free assets of this type can help relieve the burden of already overtaxed school resources.
• Engaging in conversations as to why these events happen to begin with. We must connect with schools, parents and community leaders about the issues raised by these perpetrations — issues involving gender, sexuality, race, culture, values and views of masculinity — and to find avenues for expression of knowledge and ignorance of these topics.
Many schools are taking the initiative to work on campaigns and programs to deter these behaviors and many are doing an excellent job. There are just as many schools that struggle under the weight of already burgeoning workloads and need assistance to carry out a program. In their effort to create a safe climate in our schools, the state lawmakers handed down an unfunded mandate and created a law (The Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act) to make things better. The conversation ended there, but not the issue.
School districts do not work in a vacuum. They are not alone in being impacted by bullying. It affects our entire community, especially when lives are lost. It is time for the communities the school districts serve to be called to action to help with this crisis. This is a conversation that should not have ended with a law and a policy. It is a relevant conversation to have now.
Jacqueline Macholeth is the primary prevention educator at Sunrise Domestic and Sexual Violence Center.