One in six American schoolchildren report being bullied verbally, physically and online, two to three times a month or more, many for more than a year. That's a fact.
Everyone in America likely has a bullying story, whether as the victim, bully or as a witness. The question is, when will it stop -- and how do we stop it? Making bullying history is a tall order, no doubt, and one that was at the fore of the Department of Education's third annual Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Summit this month.
First, we must acknowledge publicly that we have a bullying epidemic in America. It is estimated that 13 million American children are teased, taunted or physically assaulted by their peers, making bullying the most common form of violence our nation's youth experience in 2012. Every day, about 160,000 of American children miss school because of fear of physical and psychological attacks on the basis of their skin color, ethnicity, physical or mental abilities, sexual orientation, gender identity or religion. Bullying doesn't just affect youth, however, it impacts the elderly, too. This is a problem that is both profound and pervasive.
Second, in fashion similar to how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deal with health epidemics, there must be a two-pronged approach to stopping the bullying epidemic. One is prevention. The other is intervention. Couple this with a restorative justice model that prioritizes victim-offender reconciliation, as well as trauma healing for the entire community, and a different path is possible.
On prevention, it doesn't take a brain surgeon to understand why people bully, at any level of society. It often stems from a position of weakness, insecurity and fear. Few people who are truly confident in status, intellect and security (emotional, financial, social or other) need to resort to bullying. In contrast, many people who bully are missing out on something, whether it was a supportive and stable home environment, sufficient self-confidence that comes through healthy emotional and cognitive development, or a desire to be part of a community, accepted and respected.
This is not rocket science. We all have basic human needs for meaning, connectedness, security (of all types), recognition and autonomy or action. When these needs go unmet, either due to acts of commission or omission by others, we tend to create conflict -- sometimes violent, sometimes not -- to try to meet those needs. Some people internalize the pain, through addiction, unhealthy eating habits, or even suicide. Some people externalize the pain, through bullying, violent crime or even homicide.
Any fix to bullying, then, must attend to these basic needs that are not being met. That means we must focus on everything from the home environment to the policies of our government, from parenting to poverty.
On intervention, the same dynamics are at play. Bystanders often remain quiet while witnessing bullying because they don't want to jeopardize their status in society, their connections to the community or their relations with friends and neighbors. That is why we allow jokes to be told in front of us that make fun of people who are gay, people who are obese, people with mental or physical disabilities, or people who have a different religion or race or belief. And yet, we don't say a word. Why? Because we don't want to be ostracized from the community in which we are living, nor do we want to be thought uncool or even unpatriotic. Instead of seeing something and saying something, like an upstander would, we indeed say nothing and are complicit in the act.
Remember that bullying is symptomatic of a much deeper wound. If we allow it to continue to fester, the symptoms will only increase in severity. They will not go away. By failing to intervene, we forgo an opportunity to stem a tide that will, in time, wash ashore with a force more powerful and more violent than previously possible.
Bullying is also not something that can be stopped through hard power or punitive punishment, for it merely exacerbates that which started the bullying in the first place: a desire to meet any of the basic needs for recognition, connectedness, security, meaning and action. It's a pretty simple equation. People who resort to bullying are usually people who want to be accepted, want to be loved, or want a seat at the cool kids' table. That's it.
Therein lies the answer, and it is what inspires our work at the federal level, through the recently founded Congressional Anti-Bullying Caucus, and at the local level, through the work of the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding, which aims to bring together all community stakeholders in Gainesville, Fla., to make bullying history.
Our efforts will mean more money and more training for every educator, every bus driver, every school nurse, every janitor, every counselor, every parent, every playground attendant, every administrator and, ultimately, every kid and adult in the classroom in America.
But this isn't enough. We need your help. We need you -- when you see something -- to actually say something. Stop the violent act before it escalates. Intervene. But we also need your help in making sure everyone has a seat at the table. Prevent. Help people meet their basic needs. Because we know what happens when they don't.
This article was first published in USA Today.