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It’s time for schools to wake up to bullying
The Keith C. Burris Column
The movie “Bully” follows five young people and their families over the course of a school year. Two of the families lose children to suicide. One mother awaits the fate of her 14-year-old daughter who has been incarcerated after bringing a gun on her school bus — to get bullies off her back.
The film attempts to describe the lives of bullied children and then to show us the depth of our ignorance about this problem.
Guess which group comes off as in the deepest state of denial?
The film takes aim at what might be called the “kids will be kids” myth.
The truth is that much of the bullying that exists in our schools today goes well beyond what most of us saw, or perhaps experienced (either as aggressor or victim), in our own schools years ago. With today’s emphasis on style and cliques, and sexual signaling more exaggerated than it has ever been at this age, and with sexual identity openly displayed, the stakes have become very high.
Moreover, electronic and instant communication have expanded the weaponry available for bullying.
A student’s good name can be destroyed in a day.
And, sadly, his or her self-esteem along with it.
We are living in an uncivil age, and our kids are taking some of the hardest hits in it.
But since there is not much understanding of the problem, and it makes many adults uncomfortable, the bullying epidemic is acknowledged yet not really encountered.
“Bully,” for example, played in most local theaters for about a minute-and-a-half.
The big problem is that we seem to have trouble making a distinction between bullying, harassment, and, to use Mitt Romney’s words, “high jinks.” Or, kids just being kids.
The recent scandal about Romney’s own high school bullying also came and went quickly.
We don’t want to think about this because we have not yet figured out how to think about this.
But we had better learn how to think about it.
There were approximately 4,000 teen suicides in the United States last year. That’s comparable to the number of teens killed in car accidents each year (5,000) — the leading killer of teens. (For comparison, the number of Americans of all ages who die of AIDS each year is approximately 15,000.)
One study says that 15 percent of all teens today consider suicide and 11 percent make a plan. Many teen suicides and suicide attempts, if not most, are linked to bullying.
The significance of the story about Romney taking the lead in pinning down a high school classmate and forcibly cutting his hair is not that it tells us Romney is a bully now. No one who knows him says he is. Quite the opposite. It is that he still doesn’t understand what happened all those years ago. And some of his classmates do. While Romney sees the event as “high jinks” and excessive high spirits, most of his classmates see it, in hindsight, as an assault.
Read the reports of the incident. It was assault.
The proper reaction to that is not a laugh or a shrug, but mortification and repentance.
A wiser Romney might get involved in today’s bullying problem.
Most bullying in our schools today is not teasing or verbal jousting — it is unrelenting harassment; the creation of a climate of fear and control. Violence as a means of control is not occasional, but routine. In the worst of times in recent years at Manchester High School, the bullies have set the tone at the school. These times have been few and far between, but they happened, and they often ended in assaults.
Many kids did not feel like going to school. Especially students who are “smart” or “different.”
Yet administrators did not want to admit that incidents of assault and riot came from something — a culture of bullying and harassment; the enabling of thugs.
The bullying problem is not an exaggerated or manufactured problem, but a very real one — one that is destroying the school experience for many and sometimes even taking the lives of a few.
We can begin by coming clean with ourselves about the extent of the problem in our schools. We can begin by attacking this myth that bullying is just part of growing up. And by demanding that our professional educators get real about it. Our principals, teachers, and coaches have a special obligation: to open their eyes; to keep order; and to reach out to those they know to be marginalized kids. Moreover, they must take care that they handle their own considerable power with sensitivity and restraint, and that they never, ever engage in bullying behavior themselves.
The bully problem is with us and likely to remain so. The first step is to face it. If and when you can, see “Bully.” It is both heartbreaking and uplifting. It will open your eyes.
Keith C. Burris is editorial page editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.