Today I went to an individualized educational plan (IEP) meeting for one of my middle school students. The parent reported that her son “is constantly being bullied at school.” She said he is being harassed by other students because of his disability. It happens before and after school. Once, students stole his hat and put it in the trash. Another time, they took his water bottle and put sand in it.
Now I consider myself to be an involved administrator, so I’m stunned by this news. I ask the staff if they have witnessed any bullying. No. The teachers have not witnessed anything. They report that the student has friends and participates in social activities at lunch. They say he appears happy at school.
Then how do we explain this discrepancy?
I think back to when I was in junior high school (that’s what we called it back then) in the 1980′s. I know what it’s like to be bullied. I was a thin, effeminate, gay boy back then. There were few staff members who either “saw” the bullying or stood up for me. I remember what it’s like to be picked on constantly. You want it to be over. You just want to be left alone. Some days, it seems like the end is the only way out.
I hope we’re clear as a profession that turning a blind eye to bullying has dire consequences that can be lethal. We’ve all seen the headlines over the past few years. Education can no longer allow for overt bullying to occur in our schools. We cannot chalk up bullying as “character building” or say that the victims are somehow to blame. Sadly, I’ve heard both thoughts from fellow educators.
We’ve all been working to stop the tired scenario of the bully-taking-the-lunch-money as a profession, but what about the subtle and covert forms of bullying? Waiting for just the right moment–when the teacher’s head is turned or the duty officer is around the corner—the bully attacks. At least when I went home from junior high, the harassment ended for a few hours. Today, students have access to cell phones and Internet. Opportunities for harassment and bullying are any time and any place, 24 hours a day.
We cannot assume that just because we don’t see bullying it’s not happening. I resolve to ask my students from now on directly if they are being harassed on an active basis. I will make it part of my daily conversations with students and their families.
Dorman is a middle school psychologist and project facilitator in California.
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