Power, Context, Modeling, and Bullying

Karen Klein is an older woman who works as a school bus monitor in a local suburban school district. A ten minute video of middle school students taunting and bullying her has gone viral, once again putting the subject of bullying in the news. Understandably, this has unleashed an outpouring of anger against the youths who engaged in this horrific behavior, and while this anger is justified, the threatened violence against these youths is not.

At its core, bullying is always about the abuse of power, and often that power is embedded in context. These young teens were performing for a camera in a setting where their social power and savvy was greater than the monitor’s power to effectively deflect or influence their behavior. She was at a disadvantage because they had more power than she did and they misused that power in terribly abusive and despicable ways. The dynamics of interactions in groups are different from one-on-one situations. If we recall the Stanford Prison Experiment or the events of Abu Ghraib, we can see that good people sometimes do bad things. Context has a great influence on human behavior, and when power is heavily skewed towards one group there is the potential for abuse. While this misuse of power is inexcusable, it is predictable.

These young teens surely need to be held accountable, but punishment is not the sole answer. If rules and punishment were truly effective shapers of human behavior, our jails would be empty. We cannot legislate and punish our way out of the problem of bullying. This is a societal problem that extends beyond the school yard, and the threats of violence against those who bullied Karen Klein support this conclusion.

One of the messages that accompanies harsh, punitive consequences is that having power is useful because one can use it to get what one wants. In other words, if adults who determine and deliver consequences use excessively harsh measures, then kids’ positive attitudes towards the use of power is actually reinforced. In cases like this the message that the bully gets is not that one should treat fellow human beings with respect, but that one must become better at not getting caught.

Situations like this are opportunities for learning. The actions of these middle schoolers have done serious damage to their families, their peers, their school, their community, and to Karen Klein and her family. Relationships have been fractured, and because bullying is a relationship problem, there are opportunities for reparation and restitution. The goals should be to help these youth see that what they did was unconscionable, to support them in making amends, and to help them develop empathy and compassion. If, however, the punishment is more about vengeance than learning, we may miss an opportunity for transformative growth. At age 13, children are works-in-progress.

One of the questions that arises in bullying situations is the role of bystanders and why they don’t intervene. Some people seem to think that bystanders who don’t intervene in support of the target should also be punished. While research has shown that bullying generally stops when bystanders intervene, it is important to remember that many bystanders are terrified of becoming the next victim. Also, bullies often have high status and possess more social savvy than the average student. Being faced with the prospect of confronting a group of powerful peers is a daunting prospect for many students. Rather than putting the onus on acts of courage by single individuals who may not have adequate skills or sufficient social standing, our efforts should be directed towards building the skills of groups of students who can collectively assert themselves when their peers bully.

Besides restructuring contexts, helping youth learn compassion, and building the skills of bystanders, we need to change the norms that support the misuse of power against those who cannot defend themselves. Schools need our help developing norms where acts of aggression against someone who is different or perceived to be ‘less than’ are considered acts of aggression to all. Many schools, and certainly most school buses, lack a sense of community where members see themselves connected to and responsible for each other. Changing these norms is not something that schools can do alone. It requires support from parents, families, neighborhoods, and the local community, because schools are a microcosm of society.

Lastly, those of us who sit behind computers or cell phones and use these tools to threaten these students and their families are contributing to a culture that supports the misuse of power. We decry the way youth misuse texting or Facebook and the way ‘anonymity’ facilitates the destructive use of these tools, yet many adults are using these same tools to enact violence against Karen Klein’s tormentors. The imbalance of power afforded by these tools and the hateful way that people are using them is turning the bullies into victims, and the message is that having power and using it to hurt others is acceptable.

Bullying is not just a problem in schools; it’s a problem in society. When youth bully, blame is most often levied on the individuals or their parents, but the problem is much bigger. The outpouring of support for Karen Klein is laudable, but the threats of violence towards the boys who bullied her are not. When adults engage in the very behaviors for which we punish students, there is a terrible disconnect and a great deal of hypocrisy. If we are going to combat the kind of bullying that takes place in schools and on school buses, we need to start by looking at our own behavior. Young people learn what we live.

Additional commentary and stories that include comments from Katy Allen, PhD:

Democrat and Chronicle – Karen Klein saga: Kids behave badly because they disregard consequences
WROC-TV – Battling Bullies Special: Part 1
YNN Buffalo – Bus Monitor Incident Sparks Bullying Conversations

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.

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