In earlier posts I published parts one and two of what originally was planned to be a five part series. Because the next three sections outline effective solutions, I believe it will be beneficial to my readers to combine them into one article.
If you would like the entire series as one PDF, you can download it here.
I am grateful to Mr. Paul Coughlin of The Protectors for sharing his expertise on the Christian School Journal Blog.
Parts 3–5 of the Five Part Series: Effective Solutions
Guest post by Paul Coughlin, The Protectors
To combat this churning anxiety among parents and students, think comprehensively. Students, faculty and parents must realize what bullying really is and their role in diminishing it. To start, the word should be stripped from the Sports Page. As a varsity soccer coach, I know that teams don’t bully one another. They beat one another in the theater of sport through aggression, strength, skill and cleverness–and sometimes merely good fortune. They do not strip an entire team of dignity and healthy self-regard. And just because a child gets his tender and sometimes excessive feelings hurt (often the product of over-protective and indulgent parenting), doesn’t mean he is targeted. It could just be a case of conflict, misunderstanding and related problems that do not constitute bullying and require different solutions.
Though definitions vary, most agree that this intentional and predatory form of abuse is the deployment of superior power (physical, economic, relational) to intentionally harm another multiple times and for no good reason. It’s victimization without provocation and often includes humiliation, isolation and audacity on behalf of bullies, who are more motivated by contempt and disdain, which are usually longer-lasting than anger, helping to explain why bullies can be so tenacious in their campaigns of cruelty.
There are so many misconceptions about the word bullying that schools and culture in general would be better served by using an alternative. Since bullies wed power to fear, the word terrorizing is pretty accurate. So are hating since most bullies look down on targets, and assaulting, since bullies violate a person’s physical and psychological well-being.
Yet even in this theater of bullying where all is not as it appears and where most targets are more sinned against than sinner, God through his grace may have built in a kind of Achille’s Heel into this abusive behavior that courageous and wise administrators can exploit to help foster God’s love, compassion and justice throughout their school.
Martin Luther King wrote that injustice and its related evils carry within themselves the seed of their own destruction. When it comes to bullying, this seed is the audacious nature of many bullies, who contrary to popular myth do not suffer from low self-esteem but rather inordinate self-regard. They behave badly for many reasons, and one of the least recognized is self-love, not self-hate.
More times than not bullies believe they are more or the most intelligent, skilled and popular child in their class. They believe they are superior to others and hold others in contempt and disdain. Like the dictators and despots throughout history, deep inside they believe that others deserve to be treated poorly. Phillip Yancey, while denouncing the racism of his fundamentalist youth, wrote that “Black people gave us [Southern Christians] someone to look down on, someone to mock and feel superior to” [Soul Survivor, page 14]. This same dark impulse to feel, think and behave superior to others is alive and well throughout the hallways, cafeterias, locker rooms, stair wells and playgrounds of Christian schools–all hotspots for bullying.
If one doubts this unsettling statement, consider this: physically and mentally challenged children are among the most bullied in any group gathering. Many have no relationship to their bullies, so there is no “conflict,” “miscommunication,” or “misunderstanding” Like African Americans under Jim Crow, physically and mentally challenged students are seen as children of a lesser god, unworthy of basic respect and dignity. As former professor at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard Henri Nowen explained, if our ability to think is our singular capacity that makes us fully human, how then should we treat those who do not fully possess this capacity? Are they fully human? Our unofficial and shameful answer, both inside and outside of Christian culture, is a resounding no. Of course we do not say so with our words, but we do with our behavior through the unvarnished and brutal portal of the human heart called bullying.
Bystander to ‘Alongside Stander’
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, “for they shall be called the children of God” [Matt. 5:9]. Remarkably, the word peacemakers here does not imply pacifism, unlike other sections of the Beatitudes. Instead, it refers to those willing to resist and actively bring conflict to an end.
Today, when it comes to bullying, we create much peace-faking, little peacemaking. Think, for example, how many times abused targets are forced to shake hands with their bully oppressor, as seen in the gripping documentary Bully. To help your students become real children of God, help them fight like Christians: those who are assertive but non-violent in the face of persistent injustice and sometimes evil.
A 10-year, landmark study by the Department of Health & Human Services revealed that most school-based, anti-bullying efforts are ineffective; some even dismal. The reasons vary, yet atop the list is that efforts to reform bullies through popular and more feel-good measures such positive discipline and peer mediation did more than fail: they put more power in the hands of school bullies. This study recommended that the best but also hardest route to diminishing bullying is to leverage positive peer pressure through bystander intervention.
Studies show that the vast majority of school-aged kids recognize bullying, feel sympathy and empathy for targets–yet they don’t act upon what they know and feel is right. Only around 13% help the target as 40–60% support the bully either overtly (“Hit her again!”) or covertly by snickering, pointing or giggling at the target then or later.
When we know and feel something is wrong and it’s within our power to act but don’t, most of the time it is due to the lack of courage, or to put it another way, the sin of cowardice [Rev. 21:8]. To transform passive, conflicted and often sinful bystanders into righteous and even heroic “Alongside Standers,” students who assertively but non-violently intervene, we must grow our student body’s capacity for courage, the virtue that many such as C.S. Lewis argued underpins all others.
Courage and moral strength are tethered throughout the Bible and across cultures. Sign language for courage is two clenched fists, a symbolism that is practically synonymous with strength. and Jesus told us that the greatest of all commandments includes our capacity for strength as well, a connection we hardly recognize in what he said is the greatest of all commandments: “Love God with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself" [Mark 12:33, emphasis added]. Here in we find our triad human capacity: think, feel, act. Schools [and churches] have focused too much on the first two but hardly on the third. Your anti-bullying efforts will continue to be truncated until you do.
Your children will commit such righteous and heroic deeds when prepared what to do before they witness bullying through roll play, and by giving them the right script to follow. One success story comes from 5th Grade Teacher Diane Alosi of Silverdale Baptist Academy in Chattanooga, TN:
One of my students, Melody, heard a student bullying another student. Melody, a smaller child, walked up and spoke boldly, using words straight from the Protectors Program. When Melody shared this with our class, her classmates spontaneously, without my direction, stood up and applauded her. Melody and the former bully are now friends and together they help defend other classmates!
I have had the great pleasure to meet this young protector as part of a 700 Club feature story about our faith-based program. When filming wrapped, she walked up to me and said it was an honor to meet me. “Melody,” I said, “it is my honor to meet you. I want you to run for President someday because we need more people like you leading our country.” Though small in size, Melody is large in character and esteem among her peers. Her eyes are deep, strong and steady, lion-like, which is the international and historic symbol of courage, the same symbol Lewis chose to represent Aslan, his Christ-figure in Narnia.
Power of Two
One Oregon study reveals that like Melody, if one student (and they don’t have to be large in size or even popular) uses assertive but non-violent words such as “Stop,” “That’s wrong,” that bullying can end almost 60% of the time and within 6–8 seconds. We take this amazing dynamic even further, in part through a profound Greek Proverb: “Only the gods are courageous in isolation.” Jesus showed this kind of courage in the Garden of Gethsemane–but he was divine. The rest of us need others to bolster encouragement, which means to comfort and to urge forward. This may be one reason why Jesus sent his disciples out in tandem.
Have your students make an agreement with another student that they will defend each other from bullying, but then here comes the school-culture-changing part: Together, when they see another bullied, they will intervene on their behalf. During the same 700 Club taping, I met two boys who used the power of two on behalf of a bullied boy with Aspergers. He was considering leaving the school and his grades plummeted. But that was before these two protectors changed his life through courageous, assertive but non-violent words and deeds.
More Than Preparation: Parental Expectation
But preparation is only half of the equation to turning passive bystanders into heroic alongside standers who will change the culture of your school and in doing so, transform spiritually as well. The other half is expectation, as in parental expectation. Parents must expect their child to do something positive when they witness bullying, such as direct intervention, reporting [not tattling] to authority, comfort the target, and so on. It’s for this reason why we know that the most important presentation we give at Christian schools is to parents, not students. Parents far more than teachers are the invisible hand that moves the actual hand of students for good or bad.
I desire to end this series with a sunny example of Bystanders becoming righteous and heroic Alongside Standers, like the protectors of the young boy with Aspergers. Having confronted bullying, they now know how to call a bully’s bluff, making them better leaders now and in the future. Yet as Christian school leaders, you know that bullying isn’t always so easily eradicated. We have left numerous voicemail messages and sent even more email responses to the distraught mother of the hemophiliac boy mentioned at the beginning of this series. No response.
Though we always hope and pray for the best, we also know that in this perplexing theater of bullying there are dark hallways and even darker haunted rooms. Without a protector, his odds are slim, and grow slimmer. He needs someone to help loose the shackles of bullying, the way PE Teacher Sampson did on behalf of a very young Frank Peretti, a gifted Christian writer who accredits this teacher, along with counselor Mr. Eisenbrey, with saving his life from the horrors of bullying: “I can’t overstate the pivotal nature of that day in my life. From that moment onward, everything was so different. I could enjoy school. I could get excited about being a Cleveland Eagle…I got involved in school drama productions–where I could actually use some of the gifts God had given me–and I burst out of my shell, making lots of new friends, and just going nuts being creative” [The Wounded Spirit, Frank Perreti,].
Culture isn’t getting kinder, more loving or humane. We believe bullying will worsen in the coming years, but get better within pockets of resistance, and Christian schools can lead this resistance. “I have been in Christian education for more than 20 years. And one of the changes I’ve noticed is that the crassness of our culture is seeping more and more into our Christian schools,” a wise Christian school counselor told me recently. “We’re seeing problems we didn’t see before, including bullying.” Instead of hiding from it, she said that Christian schools need to adjust to these changing challenges by bringing a new expression of God’s love and wisdom to it.
Some Christian school leaders will have to contend with unaware board members who do not have daily contact with the world of students, and who believe “bullying doesn’t happen here.” As one ACSI-accredited teacher told us recently, “We seem to be moving past this belief that bullying doesn’t happen in Christian schools. Of course it does. Instead of putting our heads in the sand, we need to show our students, faculties and families how to transcend it.”
Another obstacle is more practical: covering the cost of implementing a freedom-from-bullying program, which can be expensive. To help alleviate the cost, make your anti-bullying effort comprehensive and curricular, not extra-curricular. Your parents already pay for curriculum in additional to tuition. Far from an admission of guilt, most parents will be glad to pay for a program that provides greater school safety, spiritual formation, character development and leadership growth.
And as a board member of a private school myself as well as a varsity soccer coach, I know that school’s spend far more money on uniforms for just one or two sports teams per year than on a comprehensive solution to bullying, the same program that can pay for itself by retaining just one student’s tuition who would otherwise leave their school due to bullying. Where we put our money is where we put our values.
Wanting to diminish what is now the leading form of child abuse in the nation without a financial investment is like wanting to remove asbestos from a school building but without paying for the cost of abatement; or more on target, defending your school in court against claims of neglect related to bullying and not wanting to pay an attorney. Bullying is asbestos to the spiritual and psychological lungs of your students. They are more than worth the investment now and for eternity.
Bio: Paul Coughlin is an expert witness regarding bullying and the law, a former newspaper editor, FoxNews contributor, and works with professional athletes to diminish bullying, such as the Baltimore Ravens. He is the author of numerous books, including Raising Bully-Proof Kids. He is a men’s conference speaker and Founder of The Protectors: Freedom From Bullying—Courage, Character & Leadership for Life (www.theprotectors.org), which provides both a faith-based and values-based solution to adolescent bullying in schools, summer camps, Sunday School, and other places where bullying can be prevalent. For parents struggling to defend their child from bullying, check out The Protectors unique resource, 4-Circles of Defense Against Bullying.