Opinion
Education Opinion

Reframing Bullying in Middle Schools

By Sarah Shulkind — April 23, 2008 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Events

Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Using Integrated Analytics To Uncover Student Needs
Overwhelmed by data? Learn how an integrated approach to data analytics can help.

Content provided by Instructure
Professional Development Online Summit What's Next for Professional Development: An Overview for Principals
Join fellow educators and administrators in this discussion on professional development for principals and administrators.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education 'Widespread' Racial Harassment Found at Utah School District
The federal probe found hundreds of documented uses of the N-word and other racial epithets, and harsher discipline for students of color.
1 min read
A CNG, compressed natural gas, school bus is shown at the Utah State Capitol, Monday, March 4, 2013, in Salt Lake City. After a winter with back-to back episodes of severe pollution in northern Utah, lawmakers and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert will discuss clean air legislation and call for government and businesses to convert to clean fuel vehicles.
Federal civil rights investigators found widespread racial harassment of Black and Asian American students in the Davis school district north of Salt Lake City, Utah.
Rick Bowmer/AP Photo
Education Tiny Wrists in Cuffs: How Police Use Force Against Children
An investigation finds children as young as 6 and a disproportionate amount of Black children have been handled forcibly by police officers.
15 min read
Jhaimarion, 10, reacts as he listens to his mother, Krystal Archie talking with an Associated Press reporter in Chicago on Sept. 23, 2021. Archie’s three children were present when police, on two occasions, just 11 weeks apart, kicked open her front door and tore through their home searching for drug suspects. She’d never heard of the people they were hunting. Her oldest child, Savannah was 14 at the time; her youngest, Jhaimarion, was seven. They were ordered to get down on the floor.
Jhaimarion, 10, reacts as he listens to his mother, Krystal Archie talking with an Associated Press reporter in Chicago on Sept. 23, 2021. Archie’s three children were present when police, on two occasions, just 11 weeks apart, kicked open her front door and tore through their home searching for drug suspects. She’d never heard of the people they were hunting. Her oldest child, Savannah was 14 at the time; her youngest, Jhaimarion, was seven. They were ordered to get down on the floor.
Nam Y. Huh/AP
Education Gunman in 2018 Parkland School Massacre Pleads Guilty
A jury will decide whether Nikolas Cruz will be executed for one of the nation’s deadliest school shootings.
3 min read
Annika Dworet and her husband, Mitch Dworet, wipe away tears as their son's name is read aloud during Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz's guilty plea on all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. The Dworet's son, Nicholas Dworet, 17, was killed in the massacre.
Annika Dworet and her husband, Mitch Dworet, wipe away tears as their son's name is read aloud during Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz's guilty plea on all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. The Dworet's son, Nicholas Dworet, 17, was killed in the massacre.
Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP
Education Briefly Stated: October 20, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read