School Climate & Safety

School Advises Students Not to Report Bullying, and Basically Just Accept It

By Ross Brenneman — April 17, 2014 4 min read
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Teachers at Zeman Elementary School, in Lincoln, Neb., will be talking to 5th graders today about how to handle bullying after the children were sent home earlier this week with advice that could be considered egregiously awful at best.

According to the Journal Star, children received a flier yesterday with several pieces of advice on how to respond to bullying. What did some of the advice include?

  • Do not verbally defend yourself. We defend ourselves from enemies, so we are treating the other person as an enemy, not a friend.”
  • Don’t be a sore loser. No one likes a sore loser. Would you like to play with someone who gets all upset when they lose? Lose gracefully and be a good sport; kids will like you better.”
  • Learn to laugh at yourself and not get ‘hooked’ by put-downs. Make a joke out of it or agree with the put-down. For example: ‘If you think I’m ugly, you should see my sister!’”

Here’s the kicker:

  • Do not tell on bullies. The number one reason bullies hate their victims, is because the victims tell on them. ... Tell an adult only when a real injury or crime has occurred. Would we keep our friends if we tattled on them?”

Lincoln parents did not take so kindly to the suggestion that their children not tell them about being bullied, and in response to a flood of rage, the school published a new anti-bullying pamphlet (at right) alongside an apology on its Facebook page. In addition, the school today posted that its teachers would be meeting with 5th graders to provide accurate information about bullying.

A district spokeswoman told the Star that the initial flier had not been approved and wasn’t supposed to be sent home, but declined to explain how the flier got printed several dozen times and distributed to the entire 5th grade without any adult having read it and finding it objectionable.

Pursuant to Nebraska law, Lincoln has an anti-bullying policy, which states that “Inappropriate behaviors, including but not limited to bullying, intimidation, and harassment, must be avoided by students and all staff,” though it doesn’t get into much detail beyond that. And hey, what better way to avoid bullying than by willfully accepting it? It’s not bullying if you want it!

Student informants are a key component of violence prevention, but, as the initial pamphlet indicated, there’s clearly a stigma attached to being a “tattletale.” That’s part of the reason that many schools and districts have turned to tip lines to learn about bullying and school violence.

In 5th grade, though, how much do students know about bullying? Do students know its effects—online or otherwise? Or the lasting consequences of abuse (there are many) including, possibly, suicide? They might not know that federal data show bullying and harassment persisting over the past decade despite some small declines, meaning that legions of children may be exposed to harassment. Or, instead, do they hear mixed messages that bullying is wrong, but so is telling someone about it?

In reading up about the line between being a good informant and a tattletale, I ran across this 2011 piece from blogger and author Joelle Casteix, who says she doesn’t punish the messenger, because there should not be a hindrance to telling the truth:

Childhood sexual abuse, bullying, and other crimes that plague our children thrive in secrecy. They thrive in a world where kids are scared to talk to an adult. They thrive in a world where ‘tattletales’ are punished. Predators thrive because we were programmed as children to believe that tattling is wrong, even though we don’t rationally know why.

If you doubt her, then read this chilling, thorough new report from The New York Times about the rape allegations against Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston, who was not charged with sexual assault due to, by the paper’s account, a trainwreck of an investigation by the local police. Relating a different case, the paper writes:

The father, a part-time deputy sheriff in another county, said he was away on business when he called his daughter and found her crying and confused. With prodding, she disclosed that she had just spoken to the police about ‘a situation,’ but would say no more. An officer had told her that ‘it might be better not to inform me,’ her father said.

The point, as Casteix writes, is that perhaps it would be good to extinguish the negativity around reporting a misdeed.

In November 2013, you might recall, a Colorado school taught its 5th graders about bullying through a simulation in which students were actually bullied. I don’t know who designs anti-bullying lessons for 5th graders, but it seems like there might be a deficit of good material.

As is requisite of all articles about bullying, I should point to the expansive coverage of bullying and of anti-bullying resources over at the Rules for Engagement blog, including this post I wrote in May 2013 that describes just about everything researchers know about bullying.

Image: The new bullying pamphlet distributed to students.

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