School Climate & Safety

An Interview With Jessie Klein, The Bully Society

By Catherine A. Cardno — May 02, 2012 7 min read
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While bullying is a perennial issue in schools, the recent release of the movie “Bully” has really brought discussion of the issue to the forefront of the conversation. BookMarks recently caught up with Jessie Klein, who has published a book on bullying and school shootings, The Bully Society (New York University Press, 2012).

Reviews of Jessie Klein’s take on bullying and school shootings, which she notes are different from typical interpretations, have been mixed. Both the New York Times and The New Republic have recently reviewed her book, admiring the questions she asks but critiquing her methods.

BookMarks spoke with Klein about her ideas and the connection between bullying, school shootings, and what parents and schools can do to protect their students

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There are a lot of conversations going on right now about bullying, particularly in light of the relatively recent school shootings in Chardon, Ohio, and Oakland, Calif., as well as the new documentary “Bully” that is out in theaters. I’m curious—why did you decide to write on school shootings? What prompted this book?

Luke Woodham, the 16-year old shooter in Mississippi in 1997 explained in a note he gave his classmate: “I did this to show society, push us and we will push back. I am not insane, I am angry... I do this on behalf of kids who are mistreated every day.”

It struck me that Luke thought of himself as a victim and that he was shooting children to bring attention to the horrible ways some kids are treated at school. It was a devastating and horrifying act—but I realized that many of the school shooters were complaining about the same issues that children across America talk about. The shootings become a magnifying lens for understanding what all our children endure at school. I was struck by that fact that so many shooters attacked boys who called them gay and girls who rejected them. I set out to explain the role of gender in school bullying and school shootings; and to help schools create more peaceful communities where bullying would not persist.

The school shootings become a magnifying lens to view the culture of schools more generally. Students and school faculty I interviewed across the country complained that kids get called “gay” and “slut” everyday. Boys who are more academic, and less sports-oriented—or otherwise less typically masculine—often are harassed with all kinds of pejoratives challenging their manhood. Girls are called names for appearing too sexual or not sexual enough. I know schools could do more to address issues of gender; they can help students express themselves as boys or girls and create a community where students are supported and accepted instead of being taunted and teased.

Who are the school shooters? Are they the “bullies” that you talk about, or are they the victims of bullies themselves?

School shooters tend to have been victims before they shot up their schools; in fact when I interviewed students across the nation, self-professed bullies often told me that they were first bullied before they started bullying others. They believed they had only those two choices and the only way to prevent themselves from being bullied was to become the bully. Schools should give kids more choices by helping them become leaders in building a compassionate school community.

What were some of the unexpected trends about school shootings and bullying that you unearthed in your research? Why do you think shootings are increasing with more frequency these days?

In addition to the role of gender, school shooting perpetrators increasingly attack principals and teachers who they blame for punishing them or giving them low grades. This increase and this particular kind of shooting takes place at the same time that zero tolerance policies and high-stakes tests have proliferated in the United States. I think these children are telling us that the impact of these policies is painful; and they are rebelling against them. I think we need to rethink how we discipline and assess learning in our schools.

Shootings are increasing from one decade to the next as our society becomes less compassionate. Since the 80s, and the birth of Reaganomics, we have dismantled many of our social programs that helped people who were struggling; we subscribe increasingly to a philosophy that insists everyone do everything on their own. People have come to think that helping others undermines their motivation to help themselves. With this new perspective, empathy has decreased, social isolation has tripled; and depression and anxiety rates have soared. As our society becomes less compassionate, kids are told they have to handle their conflicts increasingly on their own. That’s what the perpetrators did when they found no one would help them. If we develop a more compassionate society, we will see fewer shootings and less bullying.

You’ve said before that your conclusions differ from others who discuss bullying. What makes your point of view crucial for understanding bullying today?

My perspective is different from others in that I expose the dominant role of gender in the motives among these shootings. I show how the shootings are intricately connected to normative bullying behavior and I show the increase in school shootings related to zero tolerance policies and high-stakes tests. My research is also multifaceted. I studied reports on the school shootings, I interviewed students and teachers across the country about their bullying experiences, I reported on widely publicized statistics related to my findings, and I compiled a chart of 191 school shootings which took place between 1979 and 2011 and categorized the motives of the shooters alongside their own explanations for their crimes.

I also discuss my experiences from working in schools for 20 years as a social studies teacher, social worker, supervisor, guidance administrator, conflict resolution coordinator, substance abuse prevention counselor, and college advisor—as well as my experience as a social work, sociology and criminal justice professor. I share the most effective techniques—which are backed by excellent research—for eradicating school bullying and transforming schools from bully societies into compassionate communities.

How might parents, students, and schools, bridge the gap between knowing what the trigger points might be for school shootings and creating more peaceful communities?

Schools can be most effective by calling all school meetings. Students should lead these meetings, write the agenda, and call on the participants. Parents should also be invited. Conversations about democracy in the school, gay-bashing, drugs, or any other issues that afflict the school should be discussed in a compassionate and thoughtful way. Students will tend to feel respected and appreciated in such discourses. As they own the values of the school, they will become more compassionate towards themselves and others. This kind of work can be done on a smaller scale in homerooms and it can also be integrated into curricula.

Building community is essential for eradicating bullying behaviors. Different schools will do this in their own ways. Town meetings as described above are effective; some schools have fairness committees where students who do anything considered hurtful to the community are asked to answer to their peers and find ways to give back to the school in some form of community service; this is in lieu of the more common punishment related to suspension and such.

Do you think there is hope for the future? What needs to change, within classrooms, schools, and society, in order to make a difference for the students who are—or who could potentially be—victims of bullying?

There is great hope for change. It takes very little to make people more compassionate. More people are lonely and depressed than ever before in our history. Many adults and children are on anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications among other prescriptions just to cope with their daily lives. People crave the care and connection that develops from being part of a compassionate community. Even small efforts can snowball quickly into massive change that can eradicate bullying entirely. One day programs like Challenge Day are often successful for at least the day they are present in schools. Kids apologize to those they hurt, and reach out to one another with love and even affection. Many students say they appreciate the one-day reprieve from the hostile environment they otherwise endure every day. Much more could be accomplished if related efforts were woven into the school community systemically.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.


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