Education and Cultural Celebration Can Stop Bullying Before It Begins

Fake Dictionary, definition of the word bullying.
Fake Dictionary, definition of the word bullying.

A friend in Maryland relayed a story the other day that stopped me in my tracks.

Her five-year-old was on the playground at school and was hit by a preschooler who was playing alongside him. Instead of telling a teacher, the 5-year-old grabbed a stick and hit back. His teachers - and his parents - were shocked at the normally mild-mannered child.

Later, when his parents asked their son why he hit the younger boy, their son sheepishly said, "On the Donald Trump news, people always fight each other."

The friend knew right then that watching morning news shows while getting ready in the mornings was now out of the question. And perhaps, for her family, simply turning the television off is all it will take to steer her son back to a more peaceful path.

But what of the rest of us in this country?

Republican Presidential hopeful Trump - and others like him - are modeling for our children the very things we say we don't want them to emulate: meanness, belligerence, intolerance, abuse. Trump uses his wealth, position and power to bully those he doesn't like, or whom he perceives as weaker. He is the poster child of a Bully-with-a-capital-B, and it is frightening to see him attract a bigger and more bloodthirsty crowd everywhere he goes.

He is exhibiting for children - and adults, too - the very worst our country has to offer.

But, as obnoxious as it is, Trump's bullying is perhaps not the worst kind; only the most visible.

In schools and neighborhoods around the country, bullying on a seemingly smaller scale happens every day. And it affects all racial, ethnic and socio-economic groups.

In Greene County, Ga. this month, a teacher told a high school junior that she was "the dumbest girl [he'd] ever met." He then went on to demean her even more, telling her in vulgar, inappropriate terms to limit her expectations because "you ain't gonna never be smart."

That kind of bullying has far-reaching consequences, possibly affecting the teenager's self-confidence and motivation for years to come. It is wrong, unequivocally, whether it comes from a political candidate or a trusted teacher - and it must be stopped.

While bullies and their victims have been present in schools throughout the history of public education, the intensity and variety of bullying incidents in the 21st century causes educators, parents, community members and lawmakers to be at a loss for just how to adequately address the issue.

We know that teachers need support in anti-bullying programs. Student voices need to be engaged and training in crisis management is required. But as a society we not only need to understand what motivates bullying (so that we know how to curb it), we must also recognize the impact bullying has on academic achievement, attendance and the mental as well as physical health for victims, bystanders - and even the bullies themselves.

Bullies - contrary to popular belief - often are acting out as a cry for help, or an attempt to be heard in order to have some basic need met. And without appropriate mental health treatment, they are more likely to ramp up their aggressive or violent behaviors, resorting to vandalizing property, engaging in substance abuse, and eventually being convicted of a crime by early adulthood.

Witnesses of physical or verbal bullying can feel anxious, guilty and fearful, and can - with repeated incidents over time - experience a reduced ability to trust others.

And the direct victims of bullying routinely present a range of issues, including school phobia, decreased academic performance, anxiety, depression, and in extreme cases suicide.

The Greene County student whose teacher called her dumb has said she will never forget the hurtful words he flung at her. "It really hurt me inside," she said.

Other students in other schools have also shared how deeply bullying affects them.

One high school junior in Cypress Hills, NY said, about middle school incidents with peers that scarred her: "You never really forget or really get over it."

A senior from the same school said bullying is commonplace in most teacher-student relationships. "They do not call it bullying, but yelling at me and telling me how dumb my decisions are is bullying," he said. "Everyone gets bullied by someone in power. It's just the way it is."

How sad that this is what our students - our future leaders - think. Bullying is "just the way it is."

But it doesn't have to be.

At the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, we know that a key component of education is to promote the academic as well as the social/emotional development of young people, giving them the ability to think critically, problem-solve effectively and embrace a passion for lifelong learning.

But when bullying is present in the school environment, our efforts are severely hampered.

That's just one reason why we work with teachers to change their perceptions and expectations of underachieving students. We help them to become racially and culturally sensitive. And we give students a real voice in professional development, instruction and classroom management.

We believe the best way to combat bullying is to stop it before it starts by addressing it in the classroom, as part of the curriculum - an inextricable part of teaching and learning.

We know that critical thinking, problem solving and good decision-making go hand in hand. But none of those things matter if those being bullied or those doing the bullying do not feel heard or valued.

Black, Brown, white, gay or straight. Christian, Muslim, Jewish or agnostic. Differently abled. Socioeconomically challenged. We are all different, and beautifully so.

When we value and celebrate our differences - instead of using them to separate or oppress - we do more than simply teach students and teachers that bullying is wrong. We eliminate the impetus to bully in the first place.

If Donald Trump really wanted to make America great, he would know that the way to do that is to value all perspectives, all backgrounds, all cultures - all people. And he would use his platform for good.

Instead he is encouraging fistfights in Chicago, inciting grown men to heckle and manhandle teenaged girls in Kentucky, fostering an atmosphere of bloodsport at basketball games in Indiana - and giving license to 5-year-olds in Maryland to hit their friends with sticks.

He gives new meaning to the term "bully pulpit." And our children are watching.



Denelle Wallace is an associate professor at Norfolk State University in the Department of Secondary Education and School Leadership.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org.