What’s worse than bullying? Anti-bullying intervention

Emily Bazelon’s new book makes a powerful, eloquent case against too much adult meddling in children’s spats and scraps.

Helene Guldberg

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Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Emily Bazelon, senior editor for online magazine Slate, is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the issue of bullying.

It focuses on the struggles of three young people: Monique, a seventh grader in Connecticut, who was pulled out of school after months of taunts from other girls; Jacob, an eighth grader in upstate New York, who sued his school for failing to protect him from attacks and slurs due to his sexuality; and Flannery, a high-school student in Massachusetts, who faced criminal charges related to bullying after the suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince.

One important lesson of the book is that there is no magic bullet when it comes to dealing with bullying. ‘When children’s private screw-ups turn into public debacles, it’s often because adults either did too little or too much in response’, Bazelon writes. Despite the best intentions of adults, there is always the danger that they make things worse for the children they are trying to help. Bazelon tells the stories of children and young people whose private conflicts ‘spun out of control’ and were turned into ‘community-wide wars waged by adults – involving the police and courts’.

Bazelon is not arguing that we should turn a blind eye to bullying. Children and young people do not have the same capacity as adults to handle negative emotions, whether loneliness, shame, jealously, anger or frustration. Taunts and rejection by peers can leave some children deeply unhappy. As adults, we have a duty to protect the young: that’s part of being an adult. We have an important role to play in socialising the next generation. Part of that role is instilling in them a sense that we expect them to try to behave according to adult standards when in adult company. But we should also recognise that what goes on behind our backs involves a lot of testing of boundaries, experimentation, conflict (as well as the resolution of these conflicts), and, in teenage years, a lot of what is referred to as ‘drama’. It may not be a good thing for adults to continually try to poke their noses into these private spaces.

It is not easy to strike the right balance between protecting young people from painful experiences and giving them the space to develop strategies for dealing with these experiences. ‘Doing it right means recognising that there is truth in the old sticks-and-stones chant: most kids do bounce back from cruelty at the hands of other kids. They’ll remember being bullied or being a bully; they’ll also learn something useful, if painful’, Bazelon writes. Also, adults do need to be honest and admit that they can easily make the situation worse rather than better by getting involved.

Bazelon writes: ‘If real change can and has come from a concerted effort to stop bullying, there’s also a risk that a search for solutions will end up doing more harm than good. By prying too far into the lives of teenagers, we impinge on the freedom they need to grow. We stifle development when we shut down unstructured play at recess, for example, or censor every word online, in the name of safeguarding them from each other. We risk raising kids who don’t know how to solve problems on their own, withstand adversity, or bounce back from the harsh trials life inevitably brings.’

Prior to 20 April 1999 – when two seniors, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire on their classmates in Columbine High School, killing 12 students and one teacher – bullying was not high on the agenda for educators, psychologists and researchers in the US. ‘No states had laws that clearly addressed bullying’, Bazelon says. ‘Now, 49 do…’

She writes: ‘In the aftermath [of Columbine], a nation that had treated bullying as a rite of passage suddenly started to rethink its indifference. In state capitols from California to Mississippi to West Virginia, laws were written ordering schools to come up with policies to stem bullying.’ And this was despite Harris and Klebold not having been the target of bullying or being known bullies themselves.

In the media, policy circles and most bullying-prevention programmes, ‘bullying’ is presented as a cut-and-dried case of ‘bullies’ and ‘victims’. Or as Bazelon writes: ‘There’s a bad kid and a victim.’ But it is rarely so clear-cut: ‘The problem is that much of the time, when you dig into the facts and the context, stories of bullying become more complicated. Some victims retaliate, or themselves have a history of bullying or of psychological problems.’

Bazelon should be applauded for taking a critical look at how bullying is discussed today, and for being prepared to look at hard cases. A couple of months after Phoebe Prince’s suicide in January 2010, the district attorney for northwestern Massachusetts, Elizabeth Scheibel, filed charges against six teenagers – claiming they had orchestrated a ‘nearly three-month campaign of verbally assaultive behaviour’ that was ‘torturous’ and ‘relentless’.

Bazelon was surprised at the time. ‘I hadn’t talked to a single teenager [at the high school] who described an orchestrated, relentless three-month campaign against Phoebe’, she writes. She later managed to gain access to the hundreds of pages of court documents submitted to the grand jury, including ‘dozens of police interviews, as well as cellphone records.’ When she finished reading the file, she was crying for Phoebe. ‘I felt terrible for her family, but I could not understand the DA’s decision to lay the burden of her suicide at the feet of six adolescents.’

The material confirmed that ‘the story of Phoebe Prince’s suicide was a terrible tragedy, but it was a different and far more complicated story than the one the DA was telling publicly’. Phoebe had attempted suicide a few months before her death when her relationship with one of the six teenagers had ended. She had a history of depression and self-harm.

Bazelon wrestled with how much to publish from the court documents. ‘Normally, a 15-year-old’s history of depression and struggles with suicide would remain private, and I kept thinking about the pain of her family. I didn’t want to add to that.’ Phoebe’s story is heartbreaking, and I it felt intrusive reading about her relationships with her parents and older boys to whom she confided about her insecurities, cutting and depression. Her last texts, sent to an older male friend, are particularly sad. It should never have come to this: her story should have remained private. Her family should have been given the space to grieve in peace. But when Phoebe was turned into a symbol of bullycide – and six teenagers were held responsible for her death, publicly shamed and hounded by the media – her story was made a public matter. Bazelon’s decision to publish with ‘sensitivity’ was therefore the right one.

One of the girls facing charges was 16-year-old year old Flannery Mullins. Flannery had remarked in a gym class that ‘someone should kick [Phoebe’s] ass’, after being warned by a friend of Phoebe’s that Phoebe was trying to steal Flannery’s boyfriend.

‘In the end, after all the tough talk and threats of prison, all the blistering TV interviews and the “Justice for Phoebe” bumper stickers, only one of the six teenagers, Sean [Kayla Narey’s former boyfriend, who Phoebe had slept with] would be required to plead guilty to one charge – a misdemeanour count of harassment’, Bazelon writes.

At the public hearing in May 2011, the adolescents listened to Phoebe’s mother’s grief-stricken account of her daughter’s death and how the teenagers were to blame for it. ‘There is a dead weight that now sits permanently in my chest’, Anne O’Brien told the court. ‘It is an unbearable pain and it will stay with me until my own death. I would not wish this kind of pain on any parent. It is torture.’ Phoebe’s mother’s hatred of the teenagers who taunted her daughter is understandable. But that so many adults were involved in the decision to subject these adolescents to an onslaught of abuse is not. The blogosphere, local, national and international media latched on to the case – venting their rage at the six teenagers and accusing them of killing Phoebe, with no regard to whether they were mixing fact with fiction.

As Bazelon wrote on Slate in 2010: ‘If Phoebe’s death prompted a wave of media attention, Scheibel’s charges brought a tsunami.’

I wonder how many of the adults who publicly blamed the six teenagers for Phoebe’s death could put their hands on their hearts and vow that they have never said or done anything in their youth – or adult life, for that matter – that was cruel and callous, which they later regretted?

Another one of the teenagers blamed for the death of Phoebe was 17-year-old Kayla Narey. Kayla had been upset by Phoebe’s relationship with her boyfriend. She admitted she had acted vindictively towards Phoebe. In court she said: ‘My parents instilled in me to be kind and considerate to others. Unfortunately, during a time in high school, my relationship with my boyfriend became the priority over my core values. It was my hurt, anger and jealousy that changed my behaviour. I had the chance to be the person I was raised to be. I failed. That failure will always be with me.’

The irony is that one of the things bullies are regularly accused of is lacking empathy. Bullies don’t stop and think what it feels like to be at the receiving end of their taunts. This is most probably true. But could the same not be said for those who jump on the bandwagon and label children ‘bullies’ on flimsy evidence? Where’s their basic human empathy? Numerous adults vilified these six teenagers publicly, seemingly without any concern for the consequences, and without any attempt to differentiate between gossip, innuendo and what really happened.

Some of the teenagers did say things to or about Phoebe which would have been extremely hurtful. There’s no doubt about that. But they should never have been held responsible for her death. The cause of suicide is complex. To reduce Phoebe’s death to ‘bullycide’ is far too simplistic. ‘That jump to causality is so easy and heart-wrenching and sensational’, Columbia University psychiatrist Madelyn Gould tells Bazelon. ‘But it is also irresponsible. Suicide, in general, is never caused by one thing. The impression we’re giving to parents and schools, and kids themselves, is that anyone who is bullied is at heightened risk of killing themselves without taking into account the other facts in their lives that have made them vulnerable.’

What may come as a surprise to many is that the rate of teen suicide has fallen substantially both in the US and the UK since the 1990s. This, of course, is of little comfort to the parents who have lost their children in such tragic circumstances. ‘But the pattern of good news has been lost in the din of each individual tragedy’, Bazelon writes.

As adults we should be asking ourselves whether we are helping or hindering children and young people by the way we talk about and deal with bullying. Adults undoubtedly need to find ways of helping children and young people to negotiate difficult situations, but we also need to be careful not to undermine their abilities to sort out these difficulties themselves. I firmly believe that the obsession with bullying on the whole does more harm than good, and my view has been strengthened by the account in Sticks and Stones of the struggles and heartache of various different children and young people.

Bazelon draws many conclusions I wouldn’t necessarily agree with. But she shows that bullying is rarely a clear-cut case of ‘mean’ children versus ‘victims’, and she raises a number of important questions for the reader to consider. She recognises that as the obsession with bullying has escalated, ‘a cottage industry of self-styled experts’ has sprung up to meet the demand. Many initiatives have been costly and ineffective. Bazelon asks: ‘Was the problem that hucksters and old hippies were giving bullying prevention a bad name? Or was the whole effort fundamentally flawed?’

These are serious questions that we need to have a public debate about. But at present, the discussion about bullying is far too emotionally charged and censorious. Those who raise concerns about the anti-bullying bandwagon are often accused of being uncaring and callous. I am inundated with abusive emails whenever I write about bullying. No doubt a few more will arrive in my inbox as a result of this article. But hopefully, a few more will go away and read Bazelon’s book and recognise that it is time to reframe the debate.

Helene Guldberg is author of Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)) and Just Another Ape?, published by Imprint Academic. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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