May 28, 2013

A different perspective on bullying

JK 2010 at campby Joanne Kates

The media are all over the Rehteah Parsons tragedy, but it’s a conversation utterly lacking in depth. The proposed legislation – against transmitting intimate images – is a lousy little band-aid on a festering sore.

Rehteah Parsons died because of bullying. The Internet does not create bullying. It just makes the cruelty more public. When the public discourse is all about Internet legislation, we allow ourselves the complacency of not doing the really hard work that would address the issue of toxic teen bullying – of the sort that drives young people to suicide. And Rehteah was not the only one.

Allowing ourselves to pretend that the legislation will fix it is like grow ups saying to teens: “Go ahead and drive drunk. We’ll prosecute you (if we catch you doing it)… But there’ll be no help up front, even though we know you’re tempted to do it. No education, no prevention programs. You’re on your own till mess up big. Cyber bullying is this generation’s drunk driving….. Cyber bullying is a subset of bullying.

Bullying is a product of bad relationships; its foundation is an imbalance of power between bully and victim. Most of the time, when bullying exists, we can see, if we look closely, deficits in relationship skills. Often on both sides of the chasm. When the adults in charge start to take responsibility for noticing bullying before it grows to crisis proportions, things change. There are robust anti-bullying programs available to schools and communities. So why is anti-bullying prevention and cure still reduced to poster campaigns and the occasional assembly in communities like the one where Rehteah parsons died?

Likely because the real work – digging in deep and helping kids manage their relationships better, teaching them communication skills so that they talk out their hostile feelings rather than acting them out – would be heavy lifting. A strong program to prevent bullying and to address it when it occurs requires a significant time investment. In schools that means teacher time and teacher training. The excuse for not doing this is the pressure to get the curriculum done – the “real work.”  If this weren’t so sad, it would be funny. Sad because Rehteah Parsons was at the most tragic – and now visible – end of a continuum of too many adolescents who feel unhappy going to school because of bullying either real or feared.

Learning goes better when kids feel safer, which happens when their relationships are healthier. And they grow up to be stronger adults. Would your life have gone better if you’d learned some relationship skills in middle school? Despite its bicentenary, we don’t discuss the minutiae of the War of 1812 in my family, but as for my kids’ relationship struggles…. So much for the curriculum argument.

After teaching kids relationship skills, the adults in charge ought to be on the watch for bullying and intervening promptly when it occurs. All the current outcry about the Nova Scotia police missing the boat is true – but horribly insufficient as a complaint about community inaction. Rehteah Parsons was being horribly bullied long before her parents ever went to the police.

Let us not assign blame, but rather dare to imagine – and plan – how to honour Rehteah’s memory – and that of the other Canadian teens who have suicided due to bullying – by instituting a national anti-bullying plan in every school. Because school is the greatest locus of this behaviour, where it incubates and concentrates. Let’s require schools to train teachers to lead bullying prevention programs as part of the regular curriculum, and give them the time to look out for bullying and intervene. Do we not owe our children a safer world, at least in their own communities?


Bullying is a relationship problem. Laws won't stop it.

Leave a Reply