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NEWS & IDEAS

Handling Bullying in Schools

MAKERS Dena Simmons

 
As a child growing up in the Bronx, violence was my neighbor. I saw it on the news, heard it through the walls of my apartment building, and felt it when gunshots exploded outside of my window. The violence that surrounded me made me so anxious and scared that I vomited each night in third grade. I hid my vomiting from my mother; she did not need one more thing about which to worry. When I returned to the Bronx as a teacher after the luxury of attending boarding school and college in New England, I was reacquainted with the violence I had escaped. The distance from the Bronx, however, allowed me to understand my life and experiences more clearly. I realized there were more forms of violence besides the stabbings, fighting, beatings, and killings. After having access to resources and privilege, I understood, for the first time, the institutional violence often endured by marginalized people and communities. I re-discovered how physically ill all forms of violence—covert and overt—made me feel. I learned that my calling was to fight against injustice, to advocate for the voiceless, and to work from the heart.
 
Thus, feeling sick after witnessing my first fight between students during my first year of teaching did not surprise me. Suddenly, I was in third grade again, knots in my stomach and overcome by disgust and nausea. I was repulsed by how capable our students were at being vicious and violent to each other. Our students, their friends, and parents crowded the school entrance mob-style, rooting for their fighter, throwing unfair punches, or simply watching. Fights and other forms of violence happened so frequently where I taught that they did not faze my school’s administrators; their nonchalant attitude and inconsistent and ineffective interventions inadvertently condoned violent acts.  Violent acts between students were seen as simply what happens in middle school and were accepted as kids’ being kids.  Worse, my teacher colleagues and I were unprepared to identify and to respond effectively to aggressive behavior and bullying among students. Oftentimes, we sent student offenders to school administrators, who were equally unprepared to prevent and reduce the violence. Nothing ever changed. Nothing at all.
 
Lee Hirsh’s recent documentary, Bully, illuminates just that—how unprepared teachers and other adults in the school building are to handle bullying and violent situations appropriately and effectively. Despite this fact, the majority of bullying occurs in schools. Clearly, we need efficacious and prepared educators and administrators. We need evidence-based, school-wide, on-going interventions that prevent and reduce bullying and enhance school climate. School safety and order are necessary components to the healthy development and academic achievement of youth. School climate also affects learning and school connectedness.  School connectedness—whether students feel that adults and other students care about them as people and learners— is an important protective factor in the lives of children, keeping students away from behaviors such as drinking, substance abuse, violence, and risky sexual behavior.  In sum, bullying and other aggressive behaviors negatively impacts children’s psychosocial well-being, school connectedness, and academic achievement. Yet, bullying has not been an integral part of most educational reform efforts or professional preparation.
 
Hirsch’s film, while horrific, exposes only a fraction of the sickening and violent culture of bullying among students; there is so much more that Hirsh did not capture on camera, as many acts of bullying go unnoticed and happen outside of adult supervision. Unfortunately, when instances of bullying in schools go unreported or are neglected, it inadvertently condones bullying. Additionally, many teachers have myths and misconceptions regarding bullying and what it constitutes. For bullying prevention efforts to be successful, a shift in teachers’ attitudes, perceptions, and knowledge of bullying must occur.  Essentially, teachers play a critical role in preventing and reducing the prevalence and incidence of bullying at schools, but they cannot be expected to serve this role if they are not prepared to identify, prevent, reduce, and respond to bullying, and help ensure safe, supportive learning environments for students.
 
Bully is a powerful documentary, which inspires dialogue. As such, it is a step in the right direction. However, watching the film is a single event that sustains our attention briefly. We watch it; we reflect; and then, we move on with our lives.  For a shift to happen, we need more than a film. At home, we need involved parents and guardians who teach children how to be kind and how to solve conflicts peacefully. In education, we need sustained school-wide bullying prevention interventions that address the role of students, teachers, administrators, parents, and the school community in tackling bullying. We need a shift in teacher preparation programs that include, as key components, training teachers to manage classrooms effectively, to be culturally responsive educators, and to create classrooms that promote pro-social behaviors and inspire the acceptance of diversity. We need capable school leadership who support teachers and who effectively enhance school climate and student school connectedness.  In sum, we need trained and prepared adults who can effectively prevent violence at school. Children need to grow and learn in a safe, peaceful, and loving environment. I stand firm in my belief in the importance of nurturing the socio-emotional health and development of students along with academic skills. Violence should never be anyone’s neighbor.