I think what has crossed my mind since the Virginia Tech tragedy has been the lack of serious consequences for bullying and harrassment in many schools today. Instead of taking a stand against the kind of callous treatment that has become commonplace in many children, we consistently downplay the kinds of abuse that happens in our schoolhouses. “That’s just the nature of middle school,” we’ll say. “Everyone goes through those experiences…you just have to learn to let it roll off your back.” “Boys will be boys.”
Even more damaging is our tendency to dismiss the pleas of students that are on the receiving end of classmate abuse. “I can remember being treated horribly as a kid,” remembered one of my colleagues, “Yet I was made to feel stupid every time that I reported what was happening to me. No one ever believed what I was saying, and that made me feel powerless.” Absent the most damning evidence—threats caught by teachers or admitted to by the accused—administrators often feel that their hands are tied when it comes to consequences.
This creates conditions where students spend years feeling like outcasts without protection or support—which can lead to some seriously disaffected youth. What makes things even more difficult is that bullying has taken on a hidden underbelly, migrating with our children online. Chat forums, instant messaging and texting—often hidden from the careful gaze of parents and educators—have become the new locker rooms and bus stops: Places of torment for a new generation.
And the actions of Cho Seung-Hui bring to light the abuse faced by an often overlooked population of our schools and communities: Asian males. Frequent stereotyping for generations has set many of our students up for bullying that goes underreported by families from a culture that values modesty. The tension that builds was best described by Raleigh resident Vin Nguyen in Sunday’s edition of the News and Observer:
“Cho was stuck between two worlds, the one perpetuated by the media of Asians being socially awkward and that of the “model minority,” where anything less then academic success is seen as a failure.”
When will we create conditions in our schools where bullying of any kind is handled with a zero tolerance policy? What are the barriers to such a policy? Why don’t administrators, teachers and students take a stand against those who are abusive in their communities?
Perhaps a better question: What kinds of actions would schools interested in creating “bully-free zones” take? Are the most responsible steps those that involve building a positive sense of community in our classrooms and across our grade levels? How is that best done in a competitive school environment driven by high stakes testing and constant pressure for academic improvement?