With school shootings and teen suicide constantly in our awareness, asking “why?” is a trail that almost always leads to bullying.
As a result, the effort to combat bullying in schools has been substantial. Schools across the U.S. have enacted zero tolerance policies with consequences for even the slightest infraction.
These punishments are designed to deter students from treating each other poorly. It kind of makes sense. Kids sometimes change their behavior to avoid unwanted consequences. But punishment doesn’t change someone’s mindset. Worse, anti-bullying programs are hiding a dark secret, invisible even to those who create the programs.
Anti-bullying programs are founded on the principal of “see something, say something.” Students are encouraged to report anyone who makes them feel bad. These programs work somewhat like the witch hunts hundreds of years ago. You know, where people were tortured, imprisoned, and killed without a chance to defend themselves.
Anti-bullying campaigns work the same way. There’s no mediated conversation between the accused and accuser. Punishments – including suspensions – are dished out without due process. When administrators can’t figure out who started it, everyone with a finger pointed in their face gets punished.
In order for these “see something, say something” anti-bullying programs to work, administrators must take students at their word. This conditions students to be tattle-tales, reporting every minor word and gesture that makes them feel uncomfortable. Kids today are growing up like fragile, porcelain dolls, unable to withstand the reality that not everyone is going to like them. And we’re not giving them the skills to develop self-worth, either. Instead, we’re training them to abdicate responsibility while they hide behind administrators, snickering because they can get their enemies in trouble without getting their hands dirty.
Zero tolerance doesn’t change a hostile school culture
Zero tolerance programs require no evidence before punishing students. But how can there even be evidence that someone’s been bullied? Often, incidents take place in a split-second and go unnoticed to those even just a few feet away. Most notably, It’s the administrators that have the hardest time recognizing evidence of bullying. A hostile school culture that is obvious to students isn’t so obvious to administrators who think it’s normal.
For example, in January of this year (2018), a student from Lebanon High School in Tennessee created an anti-bullying video in response to a classmate’s suicide the previous October. She describes her school culture as an “emotional prison” that smashes creativity and doesn’t punish perpetrators of abuse because, as administrators say, “kids will be kids.” She was suspended for two days for “trying to incite violence.”
The principal publicly diminished her experience by saying, “I can appreciate her perspective of the video. Of course, she’s 16, and her perspective is going to be different from mine.” In other words, her perspective is invalid; she’s not really experiencing oppression and abuse. The principal’s response perfectly demonstrates the school culture she rails against in her video.
Bullying is an infinite cycle of reaction
Zero tolerance programs have one agenda: bullies must be punished. But the kid who just spit in someone’s face is the same kid who got beat up three days ago for being gay. The kid who called someone fat five minutes ago is the same kid the star football player forced to push a penny across the bathroom floor with his nose. And the girl who pulled another student to the ground by her hair is the same student whose art project was vandalized last week. If those incidents continue, one of those students might become the next school shooter.
Bullying is an infinite cycle where students are reacting to circumstances in their life, sometimes from school and sometimes from home. You’ll find nearly everyone to be a “bully” depending on where you drop in on the cycle.
The dark secret: administrators don’t know how to prevent bullying
These zero tolerance anti-bullying campaigns are being implemented in school because administrators have no idea how to prevent bullying. All they know how to do is punish students they catch acting out. To prevent bullying, you have to transform the entire school culture from the inside out. And nobody knows how to do that better than Erahm Christopher and JC Pohl – two filmmakers who have been bringing a life-changing presentation to schools for over twelve years.
Teen Truth isn’t your average school assembly. It’s not a motivational speech. It’s an interactive conversation that empowers students to handle social-emotional issues and to be the difference on campus and in their lives. Their presentation covers issues many students face in their private lives that causes them to act out.
Bullying, drugs, self-esteem, and family communication are all topics of conversation. The program features student stories about overcoming adversity, self-acceptance, coping with sexual differences, handling social media drama, and what leadership really means.
Based on the hugs and tears during these presentations – including hugs between students who don’t even know each other – I’d say it’s far more effective at bringing students together than a witch hunt. What do you think?