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Saturday, September 1, 2018

Understanding School Bullying Policies

I know in my last post I assured everyone that I had a Takeaway Technique for you, but I'm putting that off yet again.  It is coming, I promise, but today I'm taking a quick detour to talk about bullying policies.

Oh, high school, how I don't miss you.  Photo Credit.

In the United States where I live, schools' policies about bullying vary between school districts and individual schools.  Private schools especially are likely to have their own school-specific policy, but even in public schools there is no guarantee of consistency from one school to the next.  Most anti-bullying policies sound good on paper, but in practice some are better than others.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are working for a school and have been tasked with writing a school's bullying policy.  Obviously, you don't want bullying to happen at all, but you recognize that it will happen, and what you write determines how it will be handled.  So, how should it be handled?

Ideally, if you are in that position of power, your primary goal will be to minimize bullying and protect the victims.  However, this is very hard to do with a policy.  How do you create a blanket statement for how bullying will be punished fairly?  How do you handle cases that are not clear-cut as far as who the instigator is and who the victim is?  What do you do if the school misjudges who is the aggressor and instead punishes the kid who was only trying to defend himself?  What do you do if the parents of the students involved don't agree with how the school has handled the problem?  And, what happens if your policy seems fair on paper, but eventually an edge case comes up where everyone can see that a bully is behaving egregiously, but according to "the letter of the law," he has done nothing wrong?

Creating a fair and effective bullying policy can get especially murky when the bullying is not physical and occurs in digital spaces that are less visible to teachers and parents.

Violence is incredibly complex (and bullying even more so because it is not always physical), so creating a policy to handle bullying can be daunting.  One solution is to make it vague, giving educators and administrators more leeway in handling specific cases.  This comes at a price, though, because educators and administrators are often already stretched very thin.  This gives them an extra workload, and a high-pressure one at that.  What happens if they make a mistake and mishandle a case?  What happens if the case is handled fairly, but the bully's parents disagree and threaten to sue?  Can the school afford to pay damages?  What will happen to the quality of education if the school has to pay out a massive settlement?

One way to protect against this is to minimize transparency.  The school probably already has a policy to protect the privacy of students' personal information including grades and disciplinary record.  By expanding the confidentiality policy, you can ensure that the victim and the victim's family don't learn of how the situation was addressed at all.  All you have to say is "We are conducting an investigation and will respond appropriately."  The parents will have to take your word that the situation is being addressed sufficiently.

With this kind of policy, the school is protected and the students' well-being is entrusted to the adults who can address the situation on a case-by-case basis.  So, is this policy effective?

Hopefully.  'Cause this is awful.  Photo Credit.

Hopefully, under a policy like this, the teachers and parents will handle any situations well.  Usually the school and its employees have the best of intentions, but when it comes to resolving issues, the policy will protect them but not help them.

If you are the victim, the parent of a victim, or the instructor of the victim, it can seem like the bully has more rights than those who actually need protection.

Suppose a larger boy corners one of your students in a bathroom stall and physically attacks him.  What should your student do?  If he physically defends himself in a school with a zero tolerance policy, he'll face the same punishment as the bully.  The school doesn't have to determine which kid was in the wrong and just suspends both of them for fighting.  Telling students to never fight under any circumstances puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the victim who must choose between enduring the abuse until an adult arrives, or physically defend himself against school rules.  In order to physically defend himself, he not only has to stand up to a bully but also the school itself.

So in this case, should your student put up with physical abuse until an adult intervenes?  The worst bullying tends to happen when adults are not around, so he might endure a lot if he doesn't fight back.  If he goes this route and trusts the system, what if the system doesn't stop the bullying, or even makes it worse?  That can happen if a bully is punished and wants to retaliate against the victim for reporting them.

In this case, the victim and the victim's family most likely won't be allowed to know anything about how the situation was addressed.  They might ask for the bully to be removed from the classroom or otherwise denied access to the victim.  This is extremely unlikely to be allowed.  A far more common solution is to offer to remove the victim from the classroom.

Understandably, this option is not popular with victims.  A kid who has been bullied extensively probably has very poor self esteem and is at least somewhat socially ostracized.  Having that kid sit at their own separate lunch table or stay in the classroom at recess is not going to be good for that student's social or mental well-being.  And if the victim turns down this kind of "help," well then gosh, I guess the bullying wasn't that serious after all!

Adults enforcing the social isolation that the bullies intend to cause is not exactly a solution.  Photo Credit.

Not every school is like this, and not every situation plays out like this.  In fact, this is more of a hypothetical worst-case-scenario.  (Not really, it certainly does get worse.)  But if you encounter a school's bullying policy that seems ineffective, frustrating, or just makes no sense, try thinking of the policy as a tool to protect the school rather than a tool to protect the students.  If it suddenly starts making sense in that light, at least you will have an understanding that will help you in future interactions with the school.