Another look at bullying

Bullying is a hot topic at the moment, appearing in the news media almost daily. Recent tragedies, such as the Ohio school shooting and the Tyler Clementi case, have shone a strong spotlight on the issue, sparking a widespread anti-bullying movement in response. Just this year, Lady Gaga launched her “youth empowerment”-focused Born This Way foundation, an R-rating of the highly anticipated “Bully” documentary caused heated controversy, and the topic of bullying even took stage at SXSWYou’ve heard a lot from Jessie Klein, author of this season’s The Bully Society — and now Aaron Kupchik, author of Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear, offers us another take of this important topic.

The problem of bullying in schools has received a great deal of attention recently, perhaps most vividly illustrated by the Tyler Clementi tragedy. In some ways, public concern represents progress in the struggle for humane conditions for youth, since the public is no longer willing to ignore the humiliation and abuse caused by bullying. But in other ways, public and policy responses to the problem of bullying have been problematic, and possibly created their own set of negative consequences.

Bullying is a problem at the individual level, when one youth asserts power over another, but it is also a group-level phenomenon. Many – possibly most — bullying incidents reflect group-level antagonisms such as sexism, heterosexism, racism, and classism. Yet the policy responses we have seen in recent years ignore these important dimensions of power, and instead assume that bullying can be solved by rooting out the individual culprits and “fixing” them, either through punishment, education, or both. As a result, our response to bullying tacitly encourages group antagonisms and structural inequality as mechanisms that divide youth from each other.

If we are serious about reducing bullying, we also need to look at how schools treat youth more generally.  Recent research suggests that bullying is less likely in schools where students feel strong social bonds to the school and to each other. Bonds like these are stronger in schools with inclusive, democratic social climates; students in these schools feel respected and listened to, they are involved in school decision-making, and they identify as a member of the school community. Yet disturbing trends toward increased policing and unnecessarily harsh punishment of students over the past two decades mean that this democratic, inclusive model is becoming more rare.  Schools now rely on police officers, drug-sniffing dogs, and surveillance cameras for security, while severely punishing students who misbehave. Students’ problems are ignored for the sake of rule enforcement, and students’ complaints fall on deaf ears.  In their efforts to reduce bullying and other misbehaviors, schools themselves have become bullies; they assert their power over children in ways that humiliate them, impair their educational and social futures, and accentuate students’ relative lack of power.  One clear result of these overly harsh security and discipline policies, which are found across the country and in schools across social strata, is that students feel isolated and alienated from schools – exactly the opposite of the type of climate that can reduce bullying.  To the extent that students mimic the behaviors of school officials, it’s possible that the schools may be directly teaching bullying behaviors as well.

Yes, bullying can be devastating, and it is good that the public is no longer willing to tolerate it. But solutions to bullying must go beyond individualized responses and address the school social climate as well. A good first start at this would be dismantling the ineffective and harmful school security and discipline regime that has been built up since the 1990s. [For more information on this, read the Introduction to Dr. Kupchik’s book, Homeroom Security.]

Aaron Kupchik is Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware, and author of Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear (NYU Press 2010).

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