Published Online: April 23, 2008

First Person

Reframing Bullying in Middle Schools

The following article is dedicated to Dillon who was tragically killed in a car accident last summer.

"Loser" and "Fag" are scribbled on binders littering a classroom. A huddle of "popular" girls glare at the classmate they’ve chosen as outsider of the week. A broad-shouldered 9th grade boy shoves his scrawny, bespectacled friend of yesterday into the stretch of lockers.

Bullying. We know it when we see it. Though we bemoan such behavior, it’s almost as if we expect it from adolescents. Even educators rarely do anything about it. And when such incidents are publicized by the finger-wagging, tongue-clicking media, they implicitly blame the kids. ”Watch out America!” the headlines warn. Adolescents are brutish, evil, aggressive, and immoral.

Or are they?

Perhaps it is time we stopped pointing fingers at adolescents and look instead at the culture that has produced rampant cruelty in many public middle and high schools. Many of our schools are anonymous and uncaring. The average California middle school has over 1000 students, and many exceed 2,000. Classrooms are overcrowded, teachers overworked and underprepared, and buildings are falling apart. Bars on the windows filter the sunlight, metal detectors block the doors, and security guards watch over everything, their walkie-talkies crackling. More time is spent on discipline than on teaching. Those who make a mistake are tossed out, the result of one-strike, zero-tolerance policies intended to make schools safer. When schools operate like prisons, why are we surprised that kids behave like convicts?

We live in an era of educational accountability, when it seems like all that matters to political leaders is test scores and the catch phrase, "No Child Left Behind." But it just may be that our obsession with deciles and percentiles is getting in the way of the larger, more important goal of education—raising healthy, productive citizens.

Adolescents will not grow up to be caring and compassionate adults of their own volition. Kids are not good or bad. Kids make good or bad decisions. The trick is to teach our children to treat each other with respect. We can do that by infusing decency and compassion into everything we do.

Lessons from Bullying

We don’t have to accept bullying as a part of growing up. When the Los Angeles middle school where I work experienced a series of bullying incidents, my colleagues and I decided against simply suspending those responsible. Instead, we decided to take steps to change the school culture. We embraced the problem as a teachable moment. We facilitated a structured, student-centered discussion about their experiences with bullying. We did not view this lesson as an unrelated interruption in the academic schedule. Teaching tolerance, we decided, was as much a part of our mission as algebra or social studies.

We knew we had been successful when Dillon, the coolest boy in the 8th grade, turned to Freddy, a socially awkward, stuttering peer, and said, "When I first got to this school, I was fat and wore thick glasses. All the kids were mean to me, and I used to sit alone at lunch everyday." Dillon went on to explain that Freddy suggested they sit together, and it changed his entire middle school experience. Then, in front of incredulous teachers and fellow students, Dillon began to sob. And the room full of middle schoolers we so readily assume are insensitive, sat in a silent, respectful trance.

Later that morning, I witnessed students surround Dillon in support. Some sat next to him. Some stroked his hand or wiped his tears. Some were the very same students involved in the bullying incidents that spurred these conversations in the first place. Brutish or tender—we get the behavior we expect. It’s all in the messages we send, the attitudes we display, and the expectations we communicate. This scene is not pie-in-the-sky idealism. In fact, it’s pragmatic. It’s what you get when you teach kids, deliberately and explicitly, to care.

Later that morning, I witnessed students surround Dillon in support. Some sat next to him. Some stroked his hand or wiped his tears. Some were the very same students involved in the bullying incidents that spurred these conversations in the first place. Brutish or tender—we get the behavior we expect. It’s all in the messages we send, the attitudes we display, and the expectations we communicate. This scene is not pie-in-the-sky idealism. In fact, it’s pragmatic. It’s what you get when you teach kids, deliberately and explicitly, to care.

It’s time we reexamine our national priorities. We are focusing on test scores at the expense of meeting the needs of the whole child. Bullying is just a symptom of a sick school culture. Reading and math are important, no doubt about it. But it’s also possible to teach kids to consider the common good, to act ethically, and to work with their fellow students to make the school community safe and healthy for all. Griping about bullying adolescents is not enough. It’s time for the adults to grow up and act.

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