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Bullying Q & A: How to break the cycle

When Minnesota educators gather at RiverCentre Thursday to kick off the annual two-day conference colloquially referred to as the MEAs, they will hear for the 10th year in a row from Walter Roberts Jr., a nationally recognized expert on bullying and a professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University Mankato.

Education Minnesota has lined up a number of other panels on school climate, sexual orientation and gender identify issues and cultural competency, so Roberts’ won’t be a lone voice.

Walter Roberts
Walter Roberts

Still, it has to rankle — not that Roberts would ever say as much — that in this, his 10th year of ringing an alarm bell, the tragic results of unchecked bullying have never been more visible.

The good news is that he has lots of tools to hand to the teachers in attendance. The bad news: It sounds as if the people who really need to hear his message work a couple of miles up the street at the state Capitol.

Roberts took a little time off of polishing his presentation last week to preview it for MinnPost. An edited version of that conversation follows:

MinnPost: What do you plan to tell teachers Thursday?

Walter Roberts Jr.: The basic message is that adults have to recognize their part in helping to break this cycle of aggression that is ongoing in our schools. Part of what I have focused on the last couple of years is the fact that we need to call this behavior what it is: a cycle of aggression directed toward kids who are vulnerable inside school settings.

The reality is that this is a problem that extends far beyond schools. This is a problem that extends into the home, it extends into the greater community, it extends into society. Unfortunately — and I really want to stress this — unfortunately, because schools are the catch basin for where kids collect for a large part of the day, schools end up having to deal with the problem.

MP: What’s the resistance on the part of schools and others to calling it bullying? Why do our lawmakers and our schools like to soft-pedal this one?

WR: I’m beginning to wonder if the state of Minnesota has the will to truly address the issue. I understand the reluctance on the part of policymakers to interfere with local control of schools and school policymaking. Yet it’s clear that what we have been doing is not necessarily working. 

I have a real problem when kids begin to harm themselves and harm others in relationship to bullying behaviors. I have a real moral and a professional question as to, what is it that we don’t understand? What is it that we adults don’t get? What is it that we don’t understand about kids feeling so frustrated that they feel as if their only answers are to harm themselves or harm other kids, in an effort to protect themselves? 

It’s a very complicated issue, and it becomes more complicated whenever adults drag their feet and refuse to respond adequately when the kids are sending us these very, very strong messages that they need help.

MP: Do you find the same resistance on the part of the classroom teacher? 

WR: Classroom teachers are faced with tremendous responsibilities on so many different fronts that the issue of bullying and dealing with aggressive behaviors among kids gets pushed to the bottom of the priority pile. And I understand that. Teachers are overburdened, they’re overtaxed in terms of the responsibilities that they have. Classes are overcrowded.

Part of the issue is educators in general oftentimes don’t understand the important role that they play in helping to break up the cycle of violence. Again, let’s call it what it is: a cycle of violence between an aggressor and a target. I think they don’t understand the importance of breaking that cycle. 

It’s particularly problematic when there are mixed messages coming from a school district in terms of how involved teachers should be with regard to the way that some students are treated. 

MP: What’s the single most valuable tool you can hand an educator?

WR: Presence, awareness of how kids interact, a willingness to stop misbehaviors when they’re seen. Breaking this cycle oftentimes is just a matter of being watchful, whether it’s kids on the playground, whether it’s the awareness of interactions among kids in the classroom.

Oftentimes an adult literally has to say to kids, “That behavior is not acceptable, we don’t do that here, this is a safe environment and we’re not going to tolerate that kind of behavior.” 

Here’s what typically happens. A school district or a school will do something, hold a workshop, bring in a speaker. They’ll do something to make teachers more aware, or they’ll do something to sensitize kids about their behavior. A one-shot kind of thing, and after it’s over, everybody goes back to the same old behaviors or the same old way of dealing with the issues.

It’s not enough. It has to be constant. It has to be a culture. There literally has to be a culture of civility and an environment of safety within schools so everyone feels safe. So teachers can speak up whenever they know that there’s a problem that needs to be addressed. Kids need to feel safe, too, bringing issues to significant adults in the building.

This is clearly something that we have to address in terms of kids learning how to be civil with one another, and learn how to manage and solve their own problems. We can’t follow kids around 24-7, and that’s not what our job is.

But we do have a responsibility to help kids make good, solid, sound decisions about what is appropriate and inappropriate. What are the limits of a child’s ability to interact with another individual without crossing that line of aggression?

MP: Relational aggression seems to live right there on the genome, and can start so early: “You’re in the club, you can’t be in the club anymore.”

WR: Part of the problem we’re having today is the incivility that is being role-modeled in greater society. Kids are exposed constantly to models of incivility and misbehavior by virtue of what we call reality television. The message kids get is, “If you’re stronger, if you’re louder, if you’re meaner, if you’re crueler, then you win, you get your way.”

So what do they do? They take those behaviors and they bring them into the school environment. They bring them into their interactions with their peers, because school’s become a testing ground, a Petri dish, of behavioral experimentation among kids. That’s a natural aspect of normal developmental behavior among kids. 

I’ll be real honest with you. I am concerned that we’re losing traction on our ability to address some of these issues. I’m going to be specific to Minnesota in this instance: The longer we dawdle, the longer we make excuses to not intervene and act effectively on many of these issues, the more it just encourages the behaviors to snowball and gain strength. 

MP: Would legislation either at the state or the federal level assist schools?

WR: It’s a start. Policymakers, by virtue of their failure to be proactive send a message. It sends a message to parents, to school boards, to kids, that basically everybody’s kind of on their own.

Minnesota is truly struggling, looking for some direction. Right now, the loudest voices are directed toward no policy. We really have to take a hard look at what other states are doing, and which states are having greater success dealing with the issue.

Policy, in and of itself, is nothing more than words on a piece of paper. The real solution is practice.

MP: One of the things we know about schools that do really well academically with high poverty concentrations is that they have very strong, distinctive cultures.  And a lot of them are charters, but some form those cultures do it in reaction to an internal crisis. 

I’ve read, for instance, about a Greater Chicago Area school that had a spate of suicides that turned into a galvanizing event that not only, I think, helped to resolve the issue at root there, but turned into a real strong achievement-oriented culture.

WR: Here’s what came to mind when you said that. Some schools have greater success because the ratio of adults to kids is at more manageable levels. The children feel as if they matter, because the adults in the school know them, know about their issues. They speak to them at a human level. The kids don’t get the message that the only reason that they’re there is to take tests. 

A part of that is creating a culture of humaneness, of civility within the school. That creates a higher sense of safety for the kids. You can’t foster creativity where people don’t feel safe. We know that where kids don’t feel safe they don’t perform as well academically. 

We’ve known this for quite some time. It’s just because of high profile instances where kids have harmed themselves or others that we really have begun to say, “Gee, maybe we need to do something.” The anecdotal evidence has been in front of our faces all along. 

The reality is that our kids have the same problems here that they have in other places, and we are not addressing it appropriately. We’ve got to get a handle on it.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/17/2011 - 10:21 am.

    “You’re in the club, you can’t be in the club anymore.”

    Boy, we’ve come a long way from kids getting pushed into their lockers, or chased home haven’t we?

    What that statement says to me, is that the new definition of “bullying” is the lack of *acceptance*, which is not much of a surprise since this current push is just the latest tactic to *force* the normalization of homosexuality.

    What of those that sincerely believe that homosexuality is a harmful, dangerous lifestyle that runs counter to their moral values…isn’t this set of workshops part a tactical plan to bully them?

    And as I wrote earlier, isn’t it sad that with our largest districts failing >40% of their students there isn’t even ONE workshop on the “achievement gap”?

    I guess the only hope our black and native students have is to claim they’re gay.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/17/2011 - 03:25 pm.

    That would be impressive Danie, if all groups were failing at a consistent rate; but that’s not the case.

    I did read the guide; my observation is right on target. “Helping all students achieve” sounds like the kind of specious pap we see on pamphlets in support of excess levy referendums.

    Given the grave state of our country’s public school system as reflected in the thousands of kids that hit the streets functionally illiterate, I think we’re well past the effectiveness of such amphigory.

    IMO, it’s obvious the union is deliberately avoiding a meaningful discussion of the problem, because the solution will almost certainly entail aspects that negatively effect it’s control over the system.

  3. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 10/17/2011 - 03:57 pm.

    A little girl in our school district broke her foot recently. While she waited on crutches at a school bus transfer station, a little boy who apparently thought he was being funny, kicked one of the crutches out from under her. She fell over and her parents were forced to take her back to the doctor’s office to see if the bones in her foot were still aligned properly as the doctor had set them.
    No teachers or principals were anywhere near to see the incident. Neither were the bus drivers. Luckily, an off-duty police woman was picking up her child from the transfer site and witnessed the incident. She reported it to the police officer who is the liaison to the school district. The little boy was confronted and transferred to another school district.
    My point is, this is what most bullying at school looks like. It has nothing to do with homosexuality. Changing the curriculum of the school to make it more inclusive of gay students won’t make a whit of difference.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/17/2011 - 04:18 pm.

    “Changing the curriculum of the school to make it more inclusive of gay students won’t make a whit of difference.”

    That’s true if the goal was really controlling “bullying”, Rosalind; but it’s not.

    Gay rights groups started this effort more than ten years ago under the guise of “safe schools”. They’ve gotten all the mileage that can be had by mincing words.

    The end game here is inculcation of accepting alternative, and in many people’s opinion patently unhealthy, lifestyles. Meanwhile, the academic walls are crumbling from right under our kids feet.

  5. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/17/2011 - 04:41 pm.

    When I was in second grade, two fifth grade boys chased me home from school, saying that they were going to kill me and feed me to their dogs. I told my mother, who called the school principal.

    The next day, the principal called me out of class, took me to the doorway of the fifth grade classroom so I could point out the boys. He then called them into his office, where he gave them hell.

    Then he did something that was undoubtedly intended to instill some empathy. “How would you feel if you some big eighth graders chased you home, threatening to kill you?”

    The boys had no answer.

    If the bullies are from normal homes, empathy lessons may be all that is necessary. However, as I found when I worked with street kids, if the bully comes from an abusive home, his response might be, “I have show that I’m tougher than everyone else so that no one can ever hurt me again.”

  6. Submitted by Ann Lanoue on 10/17/2011 - 07:21 pm.

    It is important that we work with youth bullys so they do not turn into adult bullys and have a direct impact on the people that work for them. Bullying at the adult level can lead to depression and even worse in the victim. It will also lead to a brain drain on out workplaces.

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/17/2011 - 07:21 pm.

    Mr. Swift’s fixation on whether one is gay or not is interesting, even bizarre, but not at all helpful because he’s setting up a straw man to knock down, and in the process missing the point.

    Hopefully, we HAVE come a long way from kids getting pushed into hallway lockers or chased home, but obviously there are too many instances where however far we’ve come isn’t far enough. For a change, there’s even something that I agree with Mr. Swift on – the pablum of “helping all students achieve,” though I don’t associate it with school levies, merely too-vague wishes for positive self-esteem. Even if the discussion is focused exclusively on a child’s sexual orientation, there’s a difference between “tolerance” and “advocacy” that Mr. Swift fails to understand. Or, if he does understand it, he ignores it to make his homophobic point.

    I’ve not seen the program for the MEAs, and have no plans to attend, so his point about “no attention” being paid to the achievement gap versus Danie Watson’s assertion that it’s getting plenty of attention is simply “he said, she said” from my perspective.

    What my years in classrooms and hallways at a public high school showed me about bullying was that it takes many different forms, and its victims are not – by a long shot – limited to those whose sexual orientation causes Mr. Swift’s heart rate to go up. Kids get bullied for a host of reasons, from being too scholastically-inclined to “looking funny” to being too small to being too big to being the wrong color or ethnic group or simply wearing something out of the mainstream fashion sense. Sexual orientation is, frankly, late to the party on the list of things for kids to bully and be bullied about. Those who want to be bullies simply look for opportunities to do so, and they’ll take whatever ones seem most convenient. Adolescents are famous – and understandably so – for shouting their individuality from the rooftop while simultaneously engaging in the sort of groupthink conformity we usually associate with political and / or religious zealots.

    My personal solution as a teacher was to confront the bully at every opportunity. Not with threats, which usually can’t be enforced, but with the message that it wasn’t OK with me for the bully to continue that behavior. “Larry, don’t say those mean things to Tom” worked much better to control that behavior – at least in the school building – than “Larry, if you don’t stop attacking Tom, I’m going to have you suspended.” Larry and I both knew that he wasn’t going to be suspended for the kinds of snide comments that he was accustomed to making, or that unobtrusive shove, or in some other way making Tom’s day at school quite a bit less than it might otherwise be. Sometimes, I had to confront Larry several times, but the message was essentially the same every time, and it didn’t usually take very long for Larry to change his behavior – at least while he was at school.

    As we all know, however, plenty of things go on in an adolescent’s life outside the school, and it’s obviously far more difficult for school personnel to address events and attitudes over which they really have no direct control or influence. In the meantime, Mr. Swift is not above engaging in a certain amount of amphigory himself, since the issue under discussion isn’t primarily a “union” vs. … something else… one.

  8. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/18/2011 - 07:06 am.

    What really amazes me is that of all social institutions, school is the place where bullying is the most deleterious and yet also the most accepted. Make a (half-justified) snide remark to your obnoxious coworker and see yourself sued out of your livelihood. Pound the humanity out of a marginalized kid for his entire childhood, and you too could be elected class president.

    What a country.

  9. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/18/2011 - 10:16 am.

    You know Ray, if you were to take your PC blinders off, I’m guessing you might find yourself in agreement with me on more than specious verbage.

    You say “Kids get bullied for a host of reasons..”, and you’re absolutely right! In fact, it is obese kids that are bullied most often, but try and find anyone putting a focus on them…you can’t, because no one has found a way to use their particular issue for a political reason ala homosexuality.

    You say I’m fixated, but I’m merely addressing the fixation that is rampant in our schools.

    Doubt me? Try this little experiment; go to one of the five workshops the MEA has set up to address gay students’ issues, and suggest that *all* bullying is wrong, and that efforts to remove it from the schools should not be focused on one group.

    See what happens and report back.

  10. Submitted by Charisse Rudolph on 10/18/2011 - 03:09 pm.

    There are skills that we all need to know to so we can put an end to Bullying. In my new book Words Hit Hard as a Fist With 18 Tips on How to STOP being Bullied, I teach kids how to “take the bull by the horns.” I share information on how to communicate offensively instead of defensively, about boundaries and how to draw the line. how to gain teen-esteem, I give advice on acceptance and tolerance, as well as information about 24 teen challenges, resources and I share a hotline for quick advice. You can get it at Balboa Press, a Division of Hay House or Amazon. http://www.theleadershiplady.com

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