Several recent events have prodded me to write about bullying. One of the continuing problems in education is the fad. Fads come about because of the very nature of our educational system. But before I get too far into addressing that, may I mention a minor annoyance?
Many conservative commentators are fond of derisively calling our public schools “government” schools. It’s sort of the educational equivalent of calling an opponent a Nazi or racist, and for some segment of society, the use of that adjective says it all.
Such name-calling is, of course, not only counter-productive, it’s inaccurate. While one can argue that the government is involved in our schools, and that more and more it’s the federal government, our schools are actually one of the few remaining examples of representative democracy closest to direct democracy.
Our local schools tend to very much reflect the nature of the communities that surround them. School board members are our neighbors, often our next-door neighbors, and they may win their seats by a single vote. We can often discuss education policy with them across the kitchen table or backyard fence. In almost no other level of government can citizens walk—and it’s often a short walk–into the offices of board members, principals and superintendents and have a real chance of affecting policy.
While it’s true that in some places—Detroit and other Progressive-dominated urban wastelands come to mind—school systems are corrupt and unresponsive to their communities, they still reflect the values of those communities, and corrupt school board members are reelected time after time.
Government schools? Well, yes, in the sense that government draws its powers from the consent of the governed. But when we don’t pay attention, and when we allow bad, foolish people to run things and to establish bad, foolish policies and practices, who do we blame? The government?
As Pogo so wisely said “We have met the enemy and he is us.” They’re our schools, every one of them.
Bullying. When a 17 year-old killer—who would want his name to be mentioned here—shot five students at Chardon High School in Ohio (three have died), virtually every initial news report called him a tragic victim of bullying. Only after several days passed and facts began to emerge did we learn that the killer was not a student at the school, that rather than being bullied, he chose his victims at random—they were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time—and the local prosecutor called him “someone who’s not well.” No kidding. The prosecutor added:
He chose his victims at random. This is not about bullying. This is not about drugs. This is someone who’s not well, and I’m sure in our court case we’ll prove that to all your desires and we’ll make sure justice is done here in this county.
One can only hope.
Bullying is the latest fad and growth industry in education. In an essentially classless American society, education is rigidly stratified. Teachers are the blue-collar workers, earning the lowest wages in the “professional” ranks. For the most part, they cannot increase their salaries by any way other than step increases or pay raises—things that are becoming ever more rare in the Obamaconomy.
Building principals are the next step up the prestige and pay ladder and commonly make double and triple the wages of teachers. Their only path to greater pay is to become administrators: assistant superintendents and superintendents. Administrators can make many, many times the wages of teachers, with superintendents of large districts making in the quarter million dollar range and more.
The primary alternate path to fame and fortune in education is to develop a concept or fad and ruthlessly market it as education’s new salvation. Such concepts, almost always nothing more than the recycling of ideas as old as dirt with new acronyms or terms, and sold with flashy Power Point presentations, can draw big bucks. Some teachers abandon the classroom and go on the road with these brilliant, groundbreaking, transformational concepts, conducting the kinds of in-service training courses that make teachers want to commit suicide to end the pain. More commonly principals desperate to become administrators, or assistant superintendents desperate to become superintendents, ride these concepts like dying mules to relative fame and fortune.
Once such people have sold a school district on their transformational program and hundreds of thousands of dollars—even millions—are allocated, the fad is entrenched and must run its course—which often takes ten years or more—until the person responsible for it is run out of town by enraged, pitchfork and torch-bearing villagers assaulting the mad administrator’s castle, or until they retire or leave for greener pastures. Even if the idiocy of their fad is quickly recognized, administrators who have wasted huge amounts of money are generally not quick to admit it, thus making such fads generational matters.
When such brilliant fads are published in administrator’s journals—another minor means by which such people attain professional status and perhaps, promotions—they spread like viruses. Once other school districts are infected, they too remain sick for many, many years and for the same reasons as the district in which the virus originated.
Everywhere these days there are attempts to “raise awareness about bullying,” “anti-bullying initiatives,” “anti-bullying action plans,” and as with various other “zero-tolerance” policies, common sense is often out the window. “Zero-tolerance” most commonly translates as “zero common sense” in application.
Lest anyone mistake my position, allow me to make it as clear as possible: nothing should ever be allowed to distract students from learning. No student should ever be made to feel uncomfortable in school (except through their failure to do their work or properly behave). However, we must always differentiate between real and perceived slights.
There is no such thing as a right to be free of discomfort in life. There is no such thing as a right never to be exposed to ideas with which one possibly might disagree. There is no such thing as a right to never be exposed to foolish, stupid or disagreeable people. In fact, if one never learns how to deal with such things, one never truly grows up. Learning how to deal with others—particularly disagreeable and difficult people–is an essential part of education.
However, virtually everything a bully might do is illegal, and if not directly a violation of law, can easily be a violation of rational, necessary school rules. A student who threatens another and/or takes their property is committing theft in virtually every state. It matter not whether the property is a pen, lunch or a computer. Any student who, when not clearly playing with the consent and participation of others, hits, pushes or kicks them has committed an assault. And the list goes on and on and on. Even if someone is merely making rude comments, or they don’t know when to stop teasing, teachers and principals can absolutely enforce standards of civil behavior with appropriate consequences.
As with all educational fads, an overwhelming amount of attention and resources are focused—at least initially—and overzealousness reigns in the name of virtue. With bullying as with so many problems in education, if teachers—and particularly principals—had been paying attention and doing their jobs, the kinds of outrageous behaviors we read about simply would never happen. As a result, some students who were continually harassed in truly cruel and outrageous ways for months, even years, might kill themselves or harm others.
In cases like this, it is almost always later discovered that those doing the bullying were breaking a wide variety of school rules and even laws—sometimes felonies—and commonly, school officials were aware of this in ways small and large, yet did little or nothing. One often sees this in athletic hazing, which can be particularly lengthy, cruel and physical.
In such cases, the correct, and inexpensive remedy is proper supervision of the adults involved. Applying the overarching label of bullying to a kid who is committing serial thefts and assaults is closing the gate after the livestock have escaped, and does not address the twin problems: continuing criminal behavior on the part of the student and lack of adult responsibility and action on the part of adults responsible for correcting student misbehavior. The “bullying” is a syndrome, a title applied to describe multiple and continuing acts of cruel and criminal misbehavior over time.
The fact remains that the overwhelming majority of kids who are subjected to what many are so quick to label “bullying” deal with it quite effectively by a variety of means, including ignoring it, calling bullies the idiots they are, reporting it to school authorities who quickly and effectively deal with it, or sometimes with the simple but often effective expedient of intimately introducing a bully to their knuckles. The overwhelming majority of such “victims” aren’t victims, but people who take personal responsibility, deal with and overcome the problems life presents and virtually never commit suicide or go on homicidal rampages.
Am I advocating fighting? No. I am, however, advocating legitimate self-defense, and in many actual bullying situations, self-defense is a legitimate, even a necessary response. Unfortunately, many schools have “zero-tolerance” fighting policies and end up punishing victims of assaults as well as the little criminals committing them. It is always best to report these problems to school authorities, but there are times when the authorities—school official or police officers—simply aren’t present and self-defense is not only the necessary response, it’s the only rational response.
The same foolish, zero-tolerance attitudes are commonly applied to bullying policies. Sadly, many principals and administrators like zero tolerance polices because they relieve them of the necessity of actually thinking and doing their jobs.
I suppose part of this tendency is the victim culture. Instead of holding people strictly responsible for their behavior, too many want to find “deeper” causes for their acts. While it is often useful–in an after-the-fact, sociological way–to fully understand the factors that motivate people, this sort of thing too often serves to excuse rather than to explain. The time for such explanations is when sentencing for crimes or discipline for misbehavior is being considered, not as a means of entirely avoiding consequences.
The school shooter is “someone who is not well?” Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps he did it for no more complicated reason than that he wanted to do it and enormously enjoyed it. And there is, after all, such a thing as evil in the world, and what happened in that Ohio high school cafeteria was surely evil. Some people are indeed disturbed, but that seldom means they cannot understand and act upon the difference between right and wrong. Some people are sociopaths. They do what they do because they have no concern for others and there is no “deeper” meaning or motivation. Others do harm for any number of perverse motivations, regardless of how transitory or lasting they may be. Their explanation may be no deeper than “I felt like it at the time.”
It has been my experience, not only as a police officer, but as an educator, that many people need to feel that the world is under their control. Unless they can, through the proper rules, laws and rhetoric, force people to behave predictably, in ways they prefer, they are incapable of dealing with the world. Rather than accepting the existence of evil, they pass laws to outlaw that which they won’t name and cannot accept. Rather than accepting that people harm others and that guns are nothing more than tools, they try to outlaw guns in the expectation that no one will thereafter be harmed by guns. Rather than accepting that some people are just cruel or essentially sociopathic, they seek “root causes,” or “socio-economic causation.”
Ultimately, in schools where teachers and principals are awake, aware and doing their jobs properly, where everyone is responsible for their behavior, and where there are swift and effective consequences for committing crimes and for violations of school rules, bullying will still, from time to time occur. However, when it comes to the attention of adults, it is quickly and efficiently extinguished, not because it is a special category of politically correct offense, not because teachers have endured expensive and brain cell crippling training sessions, but simply because it is wrong, usually criminal, and because it interferes with teaching and learning. Shouldn’t that be the primary, most important reason we oppose and eradicate it?
The enormous sums of money being spent on anti-bullying “education” and “awareness” programs can be better spent on providing the best possible educational opportunity for students. After all, if a school is determined to actively suppress rude, stupid, abusive and criminal behavior in its students, what else is necessary? Isn’t that what any school should be doing?