Sunday, October 10, 2010


I returned home from a trip to Ohio yesterday and found a front page story here in the Duluth paper on the role of bullying in four suicides at a small Ohio school. Writing about the bullying issue has suddenly become all the rage this week, and it brings a number of thoughts to mind.

The first is Steven Levitt's and Stephen Dubner's chapter on the shark attacks of 2001 in their super sequel, Superfreakonomics. The authors point out that though the media wrote hundreds more shark attack stories than in the previous or following years, even dubbing 2001 "The Summer of the Shark", there were in fact the same number of shark attacks on humans as always. The media essentially terrified the public about a risk that has always existed but is minimal.

Bullying, like shark attacks, has always been with us. Is it worse now?

When my kids were in school they used to bring "the Peace Lady" into the class rooms to teach about getting along. This was elementary school, and the schools did recognize that there were problems, but the Peace Lady did not stop certain kids from picking on other kids.

Now we have people calling for the government to fix the problem with legislation. Are laws going to make bad people good?

Some idealists believed that the New Age was going to result in everyone being nice. Charles A. Reich's 1970 NYTimes bestseller The Greening of America went to great extremes announcing the coming of a new generation with a new consciousness unlike any of its progenitors. He called it Consciousness III. This new generation of enlightened youth were going to change the world through love and compassion and a new set of values in opposition to the power games that led to Viet Nam. Kids in school would all get along, and be nice. Reich has evidently drunk a little too much of Ken Kesey's kool-aid.

With all the publicity surrounding the pervasiveness of bullying, it is even becoming an election issue. Here in Minnesota this weekend the gubernatorial candidates were asked what they would do about schoolyard bullying. In typical fashion, the Democrat Mark Dayton said we'll pass laws to deal with it. The Republican candidate Tom Emmer said we have too much government and more laws aren't the solution. He said that what we need is "more understanding" which unfortunately does not sound strong enough, or a very easy target to achieve.

In fact, some bullying may be the outcome of having too many laws already. Teachers are handcuffed against taking action when it might result in a lawsuit.

Independent candidate Tom Horner sides with Mark Dayton on this one, stating that we need more laws. But what will these laws look like? Don't we already have laws against hate crimes and invasion of privacy and libel? Where do the lines get drawn, and how will they be enforced? When it boils down to "he said, she said," does a tie go to the victim?

Bullying is a terrible thing. I doubt that anyone who ever went to school could have avoided seeing some measure of it. I saw it in Bridgewater, New Jersey. Kids can be cruel and merciless, even in the "good" schools.

I once had a long discussion with a fellow who murdered someone when he was fifteen. The other kid had been picking on him and picking on him and picking on him. One day he took the kid out. Twenty-five years later he still seethes about this other kid's bullying.

For sure, children must be kept safe in our schools, since for that period of their lives they are wards of the state. Parents are required by law to entrust their children to the supervision of the schools for three-fourths of the year. Will new legislation improve the school district's ability to eliminate this problem? What will that legislation look like? And who will write it? And, like the health care bill that was passed, will our elected officials vote for it without ever reading it, hoping that it will ultimately make a difference?

I'm not very optimistic about this issue.


LEWagner said...

"Bullying", "ganging up", "forming cliques", etc., takes many forms in this world we live in.
Today I, the teacher, took the side of an 8-year-old against the rest of the class, plus the boss.
In my opinion, they were bullying her.
She spent 7 months learning English in a First Grade class in Las Vegas, USA -- "Right from the horse's mouth", so to speak.
She's a little bit of a show-off, naturally, being 8 years old, and everyone was telling her to shut up -- to the point she started to cry. I didn't like that, and I said so.
And we'll see what could happen to me tomorrow, and whom I'll join up with tomorrow in order to try to defend my ownself from bullying and/or perceived bullying.
The game continues.
My council is, "Never give up the ghost."

ENNYMAN said...

Thanks for the comment.
Good luck as you fight the good fight.