Thursday, December 22, 2011

Teaching a Culture That Does Not Tolerate Abuse

A recent survey of Wyoming school children reveals more than half of middle-schoolers say they’ve been bullied at school, and a fifth of high school students say they’ve been bullied in the past year.

Everyone decries this problem, and there are programs to reform the bully and help the victims resist the abuse or deal with the mental and physical injuries. We seem to overlook a strategy that could do as much – maybe even more – and that focuses on all the rest of the children. That is to teach our children to speak up when someone is being bullied, to say picking on a classmate is wrong.

Recall the Edmund Burke quotation about the victory of evil when good people do nothing. This is something like that. A bully shouldn’t get the reinforcement of admiration or terror from his or her peers. There may be many motivations to bully, but at least take away the power over others, and the victims know they are not alone. We should be teaching our children from an early age to speak up when they see someone being abused.

It’s not okay to look the other way or remain silent while someone is hammering someone else, in person, via social media, physically, verbally, whatever. That is a lesson we sure could use today by adults in cases of all kinds of abuse. How many people at Penn State looked the other way while young boys were abused by a popular assistant football coach? I heard a professional hockey player on the news say he was sexually abused by a youth coach for several years, and he wondered why so many adults surely suspected something was going on but did nothing.

We don’t want adult bystanders?  Let’s teach the lesson to our children right now, from an early age. This is not just a school project. I know we are asking a lot of them to speak out against bullying. I’m talking about changing the culture of the school yard, so speaking up is the norm, not the courageous act of a solitary child. But let’s promote the idea of the brave individual, too.   

Last year, columnist Dan Savage started the “It Gets Better Project” to tell gay teenagers whose lives are made miserable by bullies that their lives improve later on. I propose that the culture of American high schools is to treat all classmates with tolerance. Now. Not later.

I attended 11th grade in a Montgomery, Ala., high school in 1966, just two years after it was forced to admit African-American students. Things were quiet but tense. My father was in the Air Force, and we all knew we would be leaving in one year. It was easy to let the racial slurs in classroom conversations go by. I regret to this day that I didn’t say something – not because I would have changed anything, but my silence was tacit approval.

In Wyoming, we have the ethos of minding our own business, which is good. But we have the equally important Wyoming value of helping our neighbors.

Of course, part of this culture of speaking up involves teaching our children to know the difference between teasing and flat-out bullying and not to overreact to every comment. But kids should learn when they themselves or anyone else is crossing the line from teasing into cruelty. (Think about the cases of hazing that turn fatal.) Kids and adults who are bullied can turn around and be mean to someone else. Instead of focusing on labeling students “bully” and “victim,” help them all create an environment of mutual respect and concern when someone is being abused.

We should know abuse when we see it – as children and as adults – and say, “Stop.”