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A Recent ‘Upswing’ in Bullying?

In Canada, there has a been a recent surge over the past few months of public awareness and vigilant stances against bullying, especially in schools. In October, a young man from Ontario killed himself, and part of the reasons for his suicide have been attributed to the consistent bullying he was subjected to, because he was gay. Some knee-jerk reaction legislation was proposed, and the issue has been argued fairly hotly ever since.

I’m not so concerned about the specifics of the legislation the Ontario government was proposing. Each province and overall the federal government goes through this sort of process each time an emotional flashpoint event like this takes place. This process has well-defined stages and there’s no way everyone will agree or even be satisfied with whatever results eventually come of this.

But I am concerned that this stuff still happens. I mean, it’s 2012. We have laws supposed to specifically work against this stuff. Teachers, politicians, and other public service employees are all expected to work to make sure those laws of non-discrimination are followed. We have consistent initiatives in many areas to cut down on things like this. And yet it still happens. 100% preventable, and still it happens.

Just like any other teacher (certainly in Alberta, but I think in most of Canada), I have some background in child development and basic child psychology. I know that it is common for children to move through a stage of aggressive and/or manipulative behaviours as they grow up. However, these events have been occurring across a wide spectrum of ages. The young man I spoke of earlier was revealed to have been bullied consistently in elementary and junior high school.

It makes me wonder where it all comes from. Why the bullying? Why the consistent pattern of it across years?

Is it simple social inertia? In an environment like a school where a significant chunk of students go to the same school/classes for years, it is just something that happened by quirk and keeps happening because it always has? I hope that’s not the case. I would like to believe that even young children are capable of changing as they grow. Just as friendships grow and dissolve, I think that feelings of aggression and dislike wax and wane as well. In addition, if there is that consistent of a pattern, all I ask is that the teacher or the parents, or anyone else in contact with those children, just try really hard to identify the situation and move in to alleviate some of the affected child’s discomfort.

Which brings me to a second possibility, one that disturbs me far more: is it teachers (in school situations) who are not doing their jobs properly? This is a very hard thing to ascertain. It’s true that it can be very very difficult to actually positively identify bullying without extensive student cooperation. If you walk into the hall as a teacher and see one student slamming another into the lockers repeatedly, well, that’s pretty clear-cut. The one guy gets sent to the administration, no question (of course, that’s not necessarily, or even likely to be, a long term fix). However, in the more common situation, where one student is repeatedly the target of slurs, minor events like knocking over all of their books as they walk, or the spreading of untrue rumours, it’s almost impossible to get definitive proof and action without the cooperation of both the victim and multiple other bystanders/witnesses. Unfortunately, in many cases, students are unwilling to do this.

It occurs to me that I’ve wandered away from my question of whether or not the teachers/adults associated are doing a good enough job. I think the answer is an unsatisfying ‘I’m not sure’. I absolutely agree that in many cases, adults’ hands are tied by the reluctance of victims/witnesses to actually cooperate and help identify the problems. However, that makes it our job to provide education on why you should assist others as a victim/witness in that situation. I know many schools have started leadership or student support clubs in order to help cut down on this sort of behaviour, and I think that that sort of thing, plus teacher/parent buy-in, is really how to tackle it from that side.

This brings me to the third possible cause that springs to mind: it’s the education/experience of the bullies themselves in their everyday life that encourages this. Children are exposed to a vast variety of influences from all sorts of sources — parents, teachers, television, books, Internet, games. Not all of these, and in fact a minority of these, are positive. For example, an upward trend recently is the incidence of abusive relationships amongst younger teenagers. Think of how many forms of media students have access to that primarily focus on the events of a dysfunctional or struggling relationship. How many books/movies/shows out there actually show healthy and wholly positive relationship models? Not many. Either one partner is controlling, or there are infidelity issues, or a stereotype of initial hatred leading to attraction and lust is perpetuated. The most prominent example of this in current ‘teen’ consciousness is the ‘Twilight’ series. The characters in this series of books display jealousy, emotional blackmail, suicidal/masochistic tendencies as a strategy to prolong a relationship, physical strength and dominance as an attractant, and the paper-thin justification that some mystical ‘fate’ excuses all wrongs in the course of a relationship. The implication given out by this series (and, to be very fair, many other less-well-known examples of media) is that you are only worth something if you have a relationship, and if you (the inexperienced, naive teenager) somehow ‘feel’ you are ‘fated’ to be together, it doesn’t matter that you feel emotional, psychological, and physical pain in the course of the relationship, it will all ‘turn out’.

Of course, this example can be very much extended to other forms of bullying/abuse. How many forms of media (or even, scarily enough, family life) pass off direct insults or attacks on a person as humour? Many television shows bank on this as an audience draw. The ability to ‘one-up’ another person’s direct insults to yourself is seen as a positive social skill. What a poisonous idea for young children! Without a grasp of the depth of satire that sometimes is shown by the media in this way, they think that it is okay to humiliate a classmate.

A third area this might come from: family life itself. In certain families, there will be things said or done that lead to the implication that other human beings are somehow less valuable and worthy of ridicule. This is particularly prevalent in very conservative/traditionalist families that treat homosexuality as an abomination which ought to be eliminated from society. How do you deal with that child? Anything you say about how LGBTQ communities are the same as everyone else is instantly disregarded because it’s different from what the parents have taught the child.

So, to sum up, I think our modern ‘upswing’ in bullying is probably a result of the increased awareness around it, and can be attributed to three general factors: 1) all children tend to go through a stage in which they act hostile towards outsiders/difference in general; 2) the actual detection and prevention of the most dangerous forms of bullying (mental/psychological) is extremely difficult because of the fear and reluctance of victims/witnesses to help uncover it; and 3) a large number of environmental education factors including books, television, film, and the family itself create the idea that it is okay and acceptable to prey on the weaknesses and differences of others because it is either humourous or targeted at people who are not worth it.

One of the best ways that I think our education system can deal with it is summed up by a link I received from a friend and posted late last year.

– One teachers approach to gender bullying.

A series of CBC News articles related to what I’ve discussed today:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/windsor/story/2011/12/08/wdr-amherstburg-bully-response.html

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/sudbury/story/2011/12/20/sudbury-catholic-schools-bullies.html

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/story/2011/12/04/mom-wants-tougher-rules-for-bullies-after-daughter-commits-suicide.html

http://www.cbc.ca/news/yourcommunity/2011/12/bullied-teens-emotional-online-testimonial.html

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/sudbury/story/2011/10/20/sudbury-bullying.html

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/story/2011/10/18/ottawa-teen-suicide-father.html

If there’s any element to the discussion I missed, feel free to add it in the comments!

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