Practically everyone has been damaged by bullying in some way. Victims, bystanders and even those who bully carry the harm and heartbreak of bullying out of adolescence and into adulthood.
Since the first step to wisdom starts with calling things by their right names, it is important to understand what bullying is and isn’t. This is especially true in our current day and age, when practically every negative behavior is called bullying.
During my time as Iowa’s state education chief, I felt like Iowa state law accurately defined bullying. That law described bullying as “electronic, written, verbal or physical acts” that are based on “personal traits” and create a hostile environment. Things like name-calling or physical assaults because of a student’s real or perceived appearance, color, gender, sexual orientation, disability or economic status easily come to mind as examples of bullying. Importantly, the poor behavior must also be repeated over time with a deliberate attempt to hurt another person or group of people.
Today, these acts can occur in person or electronically through text messaging, email or social media.
Efforts at raising awareness and preventing bullying have taken off all across the country, and while this is a good thing, it has led to numerous behaviors as being mischaracterized as bullying.
When someone provides very direct responses, exercises positional authority, plays political hardball or are critical of someone’s ideas, they are not a bully. If they link such actions to a real or perceived personal trait in a deliberate attempt to hurt, threaten or intimidate, then they are a bully.
For example, someone may vehemently disagree with something I write in the Vail Daily. They may feel compelled to write a letter to the editor that harshly criticizes my views. Such a letter may even question my credibility or suitability for the position I hold. Though such action may be overly direct, harsh or even downright mean — it does not meet the threshold of bullying.
I can share an example of bullying from my own childhood. Growing up in Kentucky, I feared the bus ride home. We lived in a large rural county, and the bus route was long and students of all ages rode the same bus. I was an awkward and introverted grade-school kid, and the name-calling and mild physical hazing on the bus were nothing short of merciless. In my preteen years, I sometimes exacted the same sort of treatment on others. As an adult, I carry both the pain and humiliation of having been bullied and the deep regret of having been hurtful to others.
Perhaps if the adults in my life had been more attuned to the signs of bullying, this experience and cycle that millions of people experienced could have been broken. Certainly, we can work to make more people aware of the signs today so we can focus a great deal of attention to putting an end to it among our children.
Telltale signs of bullying include a young person being fearful or even unwilling to go to school, to take the bus or to walk to school. Frequently “lost” lunches, torn clothing or damaged backpacks are signs. More urgent and severe signs include declining school performance and evidence of depression.
Recognizing these signs is the first step toward ending the behavior. Seeing a sign should trigger a caring, gentle conversation with the young person to find out what is really happening. If bullying is happening or suspected, then school personnel can make sure the victim is protected and supported at school. They can also make sure that the bully is held accountable and helped toward having better and healthier interactions with others.
We work hard to make sure students are safe on school grounds and buses. Within schools, we’re piloting an anti-bullying program in some of our middle schools. Teachers at all schools are trained in positive classroom behavior techniques. Teachers and counselors are trained to watch for bullying and to intervene at the earliest possible time.
The district intentionally keeps bus routes shorter and puts age-alike students on buses together. Bus drivers are specially trained to manage interactions between students, recognizing positive behaviors and moving quickly to address mean-spirited ones. Our buses all have video surveillance systems, so the level of accountability that exists today was not present when I was a kid.
Some might feel that the experience of bullying is just part of growing up — it’s “just the way it is.” We would rather it be “just the way it was.” Our country has evolved socially to a place where things like sexism and racism are no longer tolerated in schools — let’s get to that place with bullying, too.
Each child is a unique, wonderful miracle, and no one should be made to feel afraid or ashamed of who they are as a person.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.