Talking About Bullying Is Not Enough

Bully Movie ImageThe movie, Bully, is a powerful exposé of the pain inflicted by bullying. It chronicles the insidious degradation that children and families experience when students misuse personal power to attack their peers and educators fail to marshal their power to stop the bullying. The movie is also a reminder that we don’t have many answers when it comes to solving this problem. As a researcher and a prevention educator in the field of bullying, the point must be made that this movie offers all of us the opportunity to begin a dialogue about this problem, but by itself, this movie will not change anything.

The controversy surrounding the MPAA rating of Bully highlighted the fact that many people believe that showing this video to youth under the age of 18 will change the behaviors of those who engage in bullying. It is important to realize that single event programs are not an antidote to bullying. They heighten awareness and sensitivity for a short time, and perhaps even temporarily motivate children to change their behaviors, but in the long run, one-time presentations do not work. They are a good springboard for conversation, but they will not solve the problem of bullying in our schools.

As an educator, one of the most difficult moments to watch in the movie is an attempt by an educator to get a victim to reconcile with his tormentor. It was a perfect example of the failure to understand bullying. Bullying is the systematic and systemic abuse of power. In order to reduce bullying, we need systemic change that alters the power dynamics. Whereas most efforts to reduce bullying have focused on the bullies and their targets, and on changing them, systemic change is about changing the context in which bullying occurs. It means shifting power away from those who misuse it and increasing the power of those who can protect those who are targeted.

An example will illustrate what I mean. I recently attended a presentation at a conference for educators where a teacher told the story of one of her chronically bullied, seventh grade students. The boy struggled with a mild form of autism and was unsuccessful at effectively responding to peer aggression. The most difficult moments of his day were during passing time between classes. The teacher asked the students in “Jordan’s” (a pseudonym) class if they would help by donating four minutes a day to be his escort from class to class. She framed the request as an opportunity to be heroic in a quiet way because the success of the effort was dependent on the bullies not figuring out what was going on. Jordan would never be alone in the hallways which would shift power away from the bullies. For an entire year, Jordan moved safely from class to class because a systemic approach to altering the social dynamics prevented those who might have aggressed against him from doing so. There were additional benefits as well. Jordan’s social skills improved significantly, and many of his escorts came to know him and genuinely like him in a way that never would have occurred were it not for the “four minutes a day” program.

Watching Bully has made me reflect on another movie about bullying, A Few Good Men, a story where two Marines are implicated in the murder of a fellow Marine who is deemed to be a liability to the Corp because he isn’t as strong or as capable as his peers. In an exchange between the two convicted Marines following the verdict, one Marine comments that instead of killing the victim, they should have protected him. Although they were following orders, their duty as Marines was to protect, not attack, the weak. Not only had they committed murder, but they had violated their code of honor.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could create a new norm in schools that made it ‘cool’ to protect those who struggle with peer abuse? No one wants to be thought of as weak, and no one wants the pity of their peers, so this wouldn’t be a system where stronger kids ‘defend’ weaker kids as the aggression is taking place. It would be a proactive and systemic approach where bystanders with moderate to high amounts of social power and influence would gently and invisibly create invisible social barriers between bullies and their targets. It would be a way of enhancing the prosocial use of power without putting bystanders at risk of becoming the next victim. The “four minutes a day program” (Bernard, 2010) is a wonderful example of this sort of ‘power shifting.’

While changing the power dynamics among students can be a helpful strategy, adults must play a major role in supporting these kinds of shifts. Students cannot do this by themselves, nor should they be expected to. Dealing with bullying in our schools is the responsibility of us adults. To that end, we must be more diligent and creative, and we must become very proactive. If we wait until we have a full blown, egregious bullying problem before we act, we may find ourselves facing lawsuits that violate the Dignity for All Students Act.

Bullying is a subset of aggression, and aggression is defined as behavior that intends to and does inflict harm on another. Bullying is aggression that is repeated and exploits a power imbalance. Through my own research, I have come to understand several points:

  • Youth, adults, and researchers all don’t agree on the same definition of bullying.

    The meaning of many student social interactions is ambiguous.

    Applying a definition of bullying to student interactions is very challenging.

    Labeling an interaction as bullying is subjective and requires interpretation, which means that two or three people may see the same thing differently.

    Conflict is not the same as bullying, but conflict can become aggression, and aggression can take on the characteristics of bullying. There is a continuum of aggressive behaviors and when aggression is repeated or misuses power, it’s bullying.

  • If we educators are going to get a handle on bullying, we need an approach that allows intervention in problematic student social interactions long before the situation is clearly bullying. By then, it’s too late and too much damage has already occurred. If the only policy approach we have regarding bullying is to make it a code of conduct violation, we have missed many opportunities to support youth in positive behavior change. It’s like waiting until a student has a string of F’s before we do academic intervention and put support in place to make sure that the student succeeds academically. At the end of this article are two references which describe such a systemic approach to social conflict and bullying prevention.

    I would advocate that middle and high school students have the opportunity to watch and discuss Bully, but not before parents and educators have designed a systematic process for responding to and remediating situations that involve bullying. The most devastating situation for a target of bullying is to go to an adult and ask for help, and be let down. When we do that, we have only made the target more vulnerable, and as the Marine in A Few Good Men observed, we have failed to carry out our duty.

    Allen, K. P. (2009). Dealing with bullying and conflict through a collaborative intervention process. School Social Work Journal, 33(2), 70-85.

    Allen, K. P. (2010). A bullying intervention system: Reducing risk and creating support for aggressive youth. Preventing School Failure, 54(3), 199-209.

    Bernard, E. C. (2010). Four minutes a day. Villanova, PA: Teacher Voice Publishing.

    Katy Allen

    Author: Katy Allen

    Katy Allen is a 2012 PhD graduate of the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester. She currently focuses her own research on how students and school staff members understand bullying in a high school context. She has been helping educators to reduce bullying and aggression in schools since 1995, when she first launched her company Impact Training & Evaluation, Inc.

    One thought on “Talking About Bullying Is Not Enough”

    1. I saw Bully in Pittsford on Sunday afternoon.  I waited outside the door as the audience left the theater to see who had come. Happily, it was a diverse group – kids with parents, some teens with friends, women, and quite a few men.  I had heard some of the worst parts already on the radio (for example, the school administrator Katie mentions who was clueless – but aware of the video and so probably doing what she thought was best).  It’s powerful and can be a dialogue starter.  I’m hoping Human Development can show it in our film-series next year.

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