Most of the time, 6th graders arrive in middle school feeling lost and scared, and it takes some time before the bullies and troublemakers have the nerve to separate themselves out from the pack. But last fall at our Los Angeles middle school, trouble was brewing almost from the start.
Students might have been conducting themselves properly in classrooms, but on the yard there was a movement afoot. A group of about 30 boys and girls, organized by a ringleader, initiated a “gang” of their own, with recruited members being “jumped in” during nutrition and lunch breaks. I found out about this around the third week of school when eight or nine students in a class I co-teach gathered around my desk to inform me that they’d had to meet with the deans to discuss the consequences that would follow any continued action. That was our first discussion about bullying.
As the year progressed, many of these initial troublemakers decided it was in their best interests to settle down on the yard. However, a significant number of students, mine included, continued to bully or were victims of bullies. Aware that bullying peaks during middle school, I chose bullying as our theme when it came time to develop a persuasive unit for my students. First, students completed a quick survey or “anticipation guide” so I could tap into their opinions. Then we talked about bullying in general.
The next day we read a story entitled “Tuesday of the Other June” about a girl named June who runs into another student with the same name. Other June informs June she is not June; she is “Fish Eyes” and other derogatory names. As we read, the students again completed quick-writes and discussed the main character’s experiences with a bully. We examined the reasons why she put up with the bullying for so long and how she eventually rid herself of her bully. This led to a discussion about ways to deal with bullies, including the possibility that striking back physically can lead to the bullied student getting suspended for fighting.
We then turned to an article from bullybeware.com to examine some statistical evidence about bullying. Thirty percent of students in grades 6 through 10 are involved in moderate or frequent bullying. Many students avoid bathrooms and hallways because of bullies. Half of all bullying incidents go unreported. Cyber-bullying is growing as we speak. Bullying statistics show an increasingly strong relationship with homicide and suicide.
I pointedly mentioned that just 25 percent of students report that teachers intervene in bullying incidents, whereas 71 percent of teachers believe they always intervene. This led to a discussion about reporting or “snitching” on bullies, as well as an eventual discussion about how those who stand around and do nothing while someone is being bullied are a part of the problem—and can be a part of the solution.
We learned about the four main types of bullying: physical, verbal, relational, and reactive victims. We looked at the main causes of bullying:
• the desire to dominate peers;
• the need to feel in control;
• a deficient sense of remorse;
• a refusal to accept responsibility, and
• family and/or parental problems.
We learned, too, that bullies who don’t outgrow or change their ways suffer long-term consequences. These include alcohol use, smoking, inability to make friends, and poor academic achievement. Middle school bullies can be popular; older bullies are not. Most interesting to students was the statistic that by age 24, 60 percent of adult bullies have a criminal conviction.
After all of this input, my students’ performance assessment was to write a persuasive letter to our principal. In their letters, students were to first share their learning and then make suggestions about how bullying might be dealt with at our school. Their suggestions included more supervision on the yard and near the bathrooms, announcements to share information about bullying, lessons in every advisory class, and more severe consequences for bullying behavior.
Quite frankly, their letters were awesome! Many of my students this year were special education students, and writing well was a goal we had worked on all year. I was really proud and impressed by the results because these letters were an indicator for me of how meaningful our work had been. Our wonderful principal read all the letters and gave personalized feedback on each within days.
Within a week, however, one of my students returned from lunch, put his head on his desk, and cried. His friends nearby let me know that Jesus was upset. When he hadn’t recovered after about 10 minutes, I asked Jesus if he could write me a letter to explain what was wrong. Which he did. Bullied at lunch. Kicked and hit for no reason. Tired of being bullied since the 5th grade.
I asked the class to work independently so that I could talk quietly with Jesus and his friends. When I asked if they could help Jesus stand up to his bullies, this extremely nice group of four boys was horrified! They were obviously terribly frightened of being bullied themselves. I reminded them of the importance of speaking up to an adult when they witnessed a bullying incident. I advised Jesus to have a serious talk with his parents to see if they wanted to intervene on his behalf.
We then devised a support plan together. If his friends witnessed Jesus being bullied, the first “point person” would immediately peel off from the group to locate an adult. If he were absent, the second “point person” would take off, etc. The look of relief on Jesus’ face was very powerful.
I am hopeful that my persuasive unit on bullying made a difference in my students’ thinking. I remain highly concerned, however, about the causes and effects of bullying in our schools. More bullying takes place on school sites than on students’ trips to and from school. Unless we work together to change the culture of bullying and “snitching”, we may only face increasingly dire consequences, both for the bullied and the bully.