I saw the documentary Bully yesterday. It is a powerful film that should be required viewing for every K-12 educator and all students preparing to be K-12 educators. It is also important for students and their parents as well as other community members to see. We hear a lot about bullying these days. We know that some young people have committed suicide because they feel so hopeless and helpless in the face of relentless torment at the hands of their classmates. When school systems and the adults that are supposed to protect young people in schools and in their communities and homes fail, this is the tragic result. The simple truth is that, despite the recent attention to bullying in schools and the best intentions of educators and advocates, far too many young people are not safe when they walk through the front doors of their local school. Going to school for some young people is like going into a war zone every day. Riding the bus, going into the locker room, walking down the hallways, eating lunch, walking home, sitting in the classroom all can be like running a torturous gauntlet, trying to be invisible, trying to escape the attention of bullies and their followers. Young people are bullied for lots of reasons, but it all boils down to one common denominator: being perceived as different and vulnerable. That could mean being a child with a disability, a child whose gender identity or expression doesn’t fit the norm, a child who is perceived to be or is gay or lesbian, a child who speaks a language other than English, a child who is not Christian, a fat child, a child whose physical appearance sets them apart in any way. The trigger for bullying could be anything and falling from the grace of “normality” as dictated by the in-group in schools can happen overnight yet bullying can go on for years. One of the painful truths is that though two-thirds of adults in schools are aware of bullying, only one third of students believe that adults do anything to stop it. The GLSEN Climate survey tells us that: • Perceived sexual orientation and physical appearance are two of the most common reasons for bullying. • Eight out of 10 LGBT students in schools experience harassment or hear anti-LGBT name-calling frequently or often in schools • Sixty-two percent of LGBT students who were bullied did not report it to adults, believing it would do no good • Over half of LGBT students could not name six supportive adults in their school These are appalling statistics that should bring a sense of shame and outrage to all of us, not just for LGBT students, but for all students who are bullied. It is painful to watch the young people in Bully who are fighting to survive. It is frustrating to watch the adults who are clueless or who blame the bullied, treat bullying as an inevitable rite of passage or as just kids being kids. In the film, the parents of bullied children, some of whom have lost their children to suicide, and the young people themselves tell harrowing stories of violence and abuse at the hands of classmates. We actually witness some of these acts of violence in the film. We also witness the inept attempts of educators to respond to bullying. It is easy to feel outrage when witnessing educators ask bullied students to shake hands and make up with their bullies or who in one breath admit their awareness of the problem, but in the next proclaim their helplessness to stop it. It is easy to feel anger at educators whose “solutions” to the problem of bullying are so completely anemic in relationship to the damage and pain we see in the faces of the students who are bullied. Feeling outrage at these educators, however, is too easy. It lets the viewer off the hook. It gives us a scapegoat on which to vent our anger, but does nothing to take our piece of the responsibility for what is happening in schools. Yes, educators are a key part of making schools safe for every student, but they must be supported with skills and policies. They need to be empowered by school systems that take a comprehensive approach to changing school and community climate at every level so that all students are safe. Individual educators cannot change the school climate when parents and community members are not fully committed to the change too. It takes school administrators and school boards with the guts to stand up, even in the face of community opposition, and provide the leadership that will make change. The bottom line is for each of us to think about is this: What am I doing to make my community and the schools in my community places where every student who walks through the door is, at the very least, safe from physical and psychological assault. What am I doing to make sure that all students are respected and feel a part of their schools and community no matter who they are. What kind of nation do we live in where some of our children cannot go to school and be safe? What kind of people are we that, though we know that some children are not safe, we do nothing to take our part of the responsibility to address the problem?
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