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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

School Bullies? Blame Teachers and Administrators--and Parents.

My first experience with a school bully occurred in the fifth grade when a red haired classmate took an instant dislike to me. At recess he’d wait until I was in a remote corner of the schoolyard, then force me to the ground and sit on my chest. He never held me down for long, since there were always strict (religious habit wearing) Saint Joseph nuns patrolling the yard. But the experience was humiliating.

When I finally worked up enough nerve to tell my father about the incident, he taught me several methods of self defense. He said the next time the bully sat on my chest I should bring my legs up behind him so I could then wrap them around his neck and bend his body back.
“Then you’ll have him trapped, and you can escape,” he said. Together my father and I tried this exercise until I could do it in my sleep.

Lucky for me, the school bullying stopped before I got to use Dad’s Repel-a-Bully trick. Still, I had waited too long before asking for Dad’s help. Years before, I’d been taunted by another bully, an angry kid who was also into “applied pressure” chest sitting. Like the school bully, the neighborhood bully attacked me one day for no apparent reason. He’d chase me down like a rabid German Shepard whenever he saw me in the neighborhood. Telling my parents about him was not an option because boys were expected to handle their own affairs without getting adults involved.

“Just sock him one,” my brother told me once, but I could never do that.

Fighting one bully is hard enough, but in schools today there are often many bullies who gang up and attack one student. Bullied students are attacked for many reasons: Obesity, race, gender, and sexual identity are the most common reasons. In many cases, the kids who bully are aping the attitudes and opinions they hear around the family dinner table. This suggests that bigoted parents can do just as much harm to a kid’s mind as the worst sort of Internet predator.
The epidemic of bullying incidences in the news today suggests that many parents are not doing enough to teach their kids civility, tolerance, and respect for differences.

Fortunately, the Philadelphia School System’s passage of an anti-bullying policy in September put Philadelphia way ahead of the federal government when it comes to addressing the problem. On a statewide level, Senator Bob Casey has even co-sponsored a Safe Schools Independent Act because of the situation. Senator Casey’s bill would require schools getting federal money to have effective bullying prevention programs, as well as codes of conduct that would eliminate or diminish harassment.

But new laws can only do so much. Like some parents who may unknowingly help their kids become bullies, teachers and administrators must also look within and begin to speak up when they witness blatant examples of bullying. In the past, too many teachers have looked the other way.

When 26 Asian students were repeatedly attacked in South Philadelphia High School in 2009, where were the teachers and administrators? The inclination to “not want raise uncomfortable issues” can often have tragic consequences. It’s fortunate that this did not happen at South Philadelphia High School, but it took a U.S. Justice Department investigation to shake up that school’s status quo.

Too many times in the past, teachers and administrators have been reluctant to speak up when students are bullied because they’re lesbian or gay. Some fear addressing the problem because they don’t want to mention the “dreaded” ‘g’ or ‘l’ word. They do not want to anger the religious conservatives who believe that any mention of “gay” or “lesbian” is an attempt by the school system to influence young people’s view of homosexuality.

But this is like saying that mandating a policy of anti-bullying for obese kids is an endorsement of obesity.

As for that bully in the fifth grade, I should mention that a couple of years ago while attending a pharmaceutical convention in CC with a physician friend, I discovered that one of the on- site representatives was none other than my chest sitting tormentor. His red hair was a little faded but his childhood snarl was turned upside down into an unmistakable, handshaking smile.
But all bully stories don’t end so happily.

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