Schools are increasingly under pressure to do something (anything!) about bullying. Some schools, such as the one my children attend, require all students to sign an anti-bullying pledge on their first day of school. Others hold lectures and assign books aimed at educating kids about bullying. But rarely are the parents of bullies ever the target of this outreach, which is one reason bullying continues to be a problem.
The media often focus on the results of bullying, reporting on cases like 13-year-old Daniel Fitzpatrick, who killed himself last month after allegedly being bullied by classmates. Or 13-year-old Emilie Olsen, who took her own life in 2014 after years of torment and despite her father’s constant pleas to school administrators to put a stop to the bullying. Emilie’s parents are now suing the school district as well as some of the students who bullied their daughter.
Most parents have experience with bullying. I do. Sadly, my son was bullied when he was only in first grade. My son’s experience probably wasn’t all that unique, although even his teacher admitted that his bully showed an oddly sophisticated talent for cruelty for such a young child. (It turns out this boy had significant problems at home and, not surprisingly, he continues to have behavioral problems.)
When my son finally told me what was happening, I immediately approached his teacher. Expecting sympathy and swift action, she instead impassively said she’d have the school counselor come in to talk to the whole class about bullying. “The whole class?” I objected. “But this is a particular boy — why dilute the messages when we know the identity of the child involved?” She said that bullying is better handled in this manner.
I then went to the school principal, who coolly explained that privacy rules prevented him from letting me know if the parents of the bully had been told. Predictably, these milquetoast gestures did nothing to alleviate the situation and my son had a tough year.
Some positive things did come out of our experience. It gave me an opportunity to have lots of conversations about what it means to be a good person. Now three years later, we work hard to avoid the bully, and my son has developed into a very sensitive young man who is quickly aware of how other people are treated, and he will always stick up for those left out or sidelined. He also naturally gravitates toward other kind kids — the underdogs, the smart kids, the sweet and more sensitive kids, and the ones who are close to their parents.
This experience also made me rather cynical when it comes to school-based anti-bullying efforts. While well meaning, they are simply a labor-intensive show to demonstrate something’s being done when there’s really nothing much at all being done to actually discourage bad behavior.
If the schools really wanted results, they’d spend less time talking to the kids and more time talking to the parents of kids known to bully. In our case, the bully’s parents weren’t particularly nice people either and clearly weren’t teaching the Golden Rule at home. It’s no surprise that that child’s behavior reflected what he saw in his own home.
To create an effective anti-bullying program, schools need to make parents aware immediately of their kids’ behavior and to make them understand that serious consequences will follow if the problems continue. Tougher school policies should also be put in place that will impact parents — things like a zero-tolerance policy that involves suspensions and possible expulsion. After all, nothing will motivate parents more than the idea that they’ll have to miss a week of work because their kid misbehaves in school.
Schools can and should do more to prevent ongoing bullying at school. But ultimately, parents — not the school — need to take the lead in teaching kindness, compassion, and manners. More of the same anti-bullying campaigns may please administrators, but they aren’t helping those who are still confronting bullies in school each day.
— Julie Gunlock is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.