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Why We Can't 'Just Say No' to Bullying

In our quick fix, short attention span culture, shaking a finger is not enough. Just like the much-parodied mantra of the '80s and '90s to "Just Say No" to drugs, simply saying "Stop Bullying" will never change deeply entrenched cultural attitudes.
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My concerns are mounting about some of the emerging messaging and organizing around the issue of bullying, especially connected to the film Bully. President Obama, himself, has hailed the director of the film, and Mitt Romney's anti-gay high school violent behavior is national news. When you factor in the increasing attention to so-called zero-tolerance policies and the frequent announcement of new anti-bullying initiatives, and it is clear that the manner in which our national discourse evolves on this issue couldn't be more timely -- or critical.

Don't get me wrong. Bully is a moving documentary that deserves the attention it is receiving and one that I, too, would urge parents, in particular, to see. But, when I went to a screening, I left the theater wondering about what message the film is leaving with viewers, particularly with students, its primary target audience.

The closing scene in Bully showcases a rally where people touched by youth-on-youth harassment release balloons and call for an end to bullying. While heart-warming, this gesture is far too simple a solution to a phenomenon that is steeped in and abetted by unexamined bias.

In our quick fix, short attention span culture, shaking a finger is not enough. Just like the much-parodied mantra of the '80s and '90s to "Just Say No" to drugs, simply saying "Stop Bullying" will never change deeply entrenched cultural attitudes.

Similarly, harsh "zero-tolerance" policies fail to take on the complex nature of the motives of those who are doing the bullying. They do nothing to develop compassion and respectful understanding of differences among students or staff. What's more, the students primarily disciplined by zero tolerance rules are disproportionately LGBT youth, students of color and students with disabilities, ironically the same groups that are often the most targeted. Criminalizing and expelling students who bully, without looking at the underlying causes of their behavior, only creates more pain in their lives and the lives of others.

My concern is even more urgent for the young people who go to see Bully who, themselves, are harassed every day traveling to and from school, in their classrooms or in the hallways. The bleak picture Bully portrays of what life is like for students like them is the opposite of a lifeline. Waiting for one's community, church or family to become more loving and less abusive, without any roadmap on how to get there, will take too long. To a targeted teen who's on the edge, that's an impossible dream.

I worry that someone who is subjected to endless abuse every day, with no adults standing up to challenge the culture of bias-based harassment, will choose the route of the youth who are (finally) honored and celebrated in Bully -- but only after they took their own lives. With suicide, someone finally pays attention, holds a sign in their honor, and chants their name with respect and love. But only after death. That sends a horrible message, one that can, in some ways, make the option of taking one's life appealing, prompting what has been documented as "suicide contagion" by experts in the field.

We saw some of that after the tragic death of Tyler Clementi and others; only after losing them did those around them pay closer attention to the school, church, and family cultures that contribute to so many bullying-related suicides. Now, Tyler's own parents, for example, devout Christians who used to believe homosexuality is a sin, are publicly saying we need to challenge our cultural assumptions about gayness.

Fortunately, the director of Bully is starting to talk more about what needs to happen next after screenings of his film. But I want to urge him, and everyone else jumping on the anti-bullying bandwagon to take their calls for action one step further.

We should be asking how it's possible for high-achieving students like Dharun Ravi, the roommate who videotaped Tyler's tryst, to arrive at college still thinking it's perfectly normal to humiliate a classmate for being gay. What was missing in his K-12 education that would allow a high school student to graduate with that assumption? And how can we make sure that doesn't happen again?

In most communities, if you don't fit into some narrowly defined box of how girls and boys are "supposed" to act or look just because of your gender, you are at great risk to be bullied. If you are attracted to students who are the same-sex as you are, you are at great risk to be bullied.

So, why can't we call it like it is and demand solutions that reflect these facts, which directly address the root causes of so much bullying?

Simply put, there is no way we will stop bullying unless we insist that the curricula in our schools address anti-gay stigma and the pressures to conform to gender norms. Until politicians of all political stripes stop vilifying the LGBT population. Until all "people of God" stop telling children they are evil.

The stories captured in Bully certainly imply for example, that hostility and ignorance about sexual orientation and the pressures to fit into a standard "male" or "female" box are critical factors in almost all of the horrific, senseless deaths it recounts. And if targeted students are like Alex, the film's central character, and have a mental or physical disability or other characteristic that sets them apart from others, the chances are extremely high that the weapons used against them will also include homophobic or sexist slurs and innuendos.

Yet Bully and other programs and policies like it stop far short of demanding that our schools adopt curricula that is inclusive and respectful of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. They fail to make a strong enough case that parents and educators could transform school climates dramatically if they took the courageous step of challenging behavioral norms for children based on gender. They rarely ask parents to question their own biased attitudes, which they pass down to their children who then turn against their peers.

So administrators, please: be very thoughtful when you ask your staff to go see Bully or sign onto an anti-bullying campaign. Don't do it unless you are ready to insist that there be changes in your curriculum.

Teachers, be very careful if you take your students to see Bully. Don't do it unless you can take the next step immediately to begin addressing gender pressures and homophobia in your classrooms and hallways. Please consider how students who are already on the edge may feel after watching this film if you don't.

Politicians, it's a no-brainer to support anti-bullying policies. But we need you to also have the backbone to support and fund curricula that is inclusive of LGBT-headed families, youth, and teaching methods that don't reinforce limited gender norms.

The best thing that could come out of the mass attention to Bully and other new anti-bullying efforts would be that parents, politicians and educators joined together and did far more than put up posters saying "No Bullies Allowed" or offer speeches and incomplete policies that don't really do the job. We need to roll up our sleeves, take some risks, and open up real dialogue in our school communities about these deeply entrenched, and often politically sanctioned, biases.

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