The Secret Life of Schools

“Hey you! Pizza face!”

I heard the words coming from somewhere in the hall and I knew immediately that they were directed at me.

It took only a moment before Frank had grabbed my shoulder and spun me around to face him.

“I need some money for cigarettes. Give me a buck.”

Frank was a few inches shorter than me; but he was two years older and was proud of the fact that he had the dark shadow of a mustache above his upper lip. His breath reeked of stale tobacco.

I looked down at the floor of the hallway, strewn with paper and trash. He tightened his grip on my shoulder and shook me hard.

His was face was contorted in anger,

“I said I want a dollar. Give me the money or I’ll beat the crap out of you. I’ll get you by the buses.”

I noticed a group of kids from my class standing a few feet away from us. They could hear every word.

As frightened as I was I had to save face. I calculated that there wasn’t too much Frank could do to me in the hallway. A teacher would hear the commotion and break up the fight quickly. It was what happened after school that really scared me. Frank would find the right time and place, and there would be no one to stop it. I would be at his mercy. It might be one or two punches and done, or a something more serious, more sadistic. There was no telling with Frank once he got his adrenaline going.

“I only have a dollar and I need it for lunch.” I replied as forcefully as I could; but the words seemed to leave my mouth like little puffs of air rather than a gale wind.

With that, Frank swung me into my locker with a crash. My books and papers flew into the air.

I twisted my shoulder out of his grip and pushed him across the hall into the crowd of students that were gawking at the two of us. I could hear the voice of one of the teachers hurrying to the scene.

“What’s going on! Break it up! Break it up!”

My legs were gone, my body was gone, all I could feel was a surreal energy; something between power and dread.

Frank’s look of surprise disappeared. He stood up to his full height and glared at me with real hate.

“You’re dead! he said. You’re really dead!.

He pointed his finger at me,

“If I don’t get you today, I’ll get you when you least expect it. When there ain’t no crowds around to stop it!”

I was as out of control and shouted at him,

“Get lost, ‘s***head!”

Of course, the teacher heard that and later that day I was brought to the Principal’s office and punished.

I didn’t take the bus home that day because I knew Frank would be waiting for me. It was a very long walk home. I stayed home from school the next day, faking a fever and stomach ache. I was terrified.

This story isn’t unique to me. Bullies have been a staple of public education for generations. In fact, a bully like Frank may be the easiest kind to deal with; after all, no one really liked him. Most people recognized him as a bully. The kind of physical bullying he did was frightening; but I never felt like it was an assault on my identity. I might have felt like a coward at some points; but who wouldn’t be afraid of a guy like Frank. No one else was standing up to him either. So, in some way I could forgive myself my cowardice.

But what goes under the radar and is much more pervasive is the shy little girl that is harassed by her classmates. For some intangible reason her classmates have focused their darker sides on her. She is unpopular so it’s okay to insult her in any way. The insults are personal. They don’t come from a jerk like Frank; but from all the kids, including the most popular. The bullying and meanness is so pervasive that the little girl begins to believe it. After all, she is the only one they are picking on…and there are so many of them. And yes, she is ‘flat’, and she does where glasses, and she isn’t pretty, and….

Psychological bullying can be much worse than physical bullying.

So it is with cyberbullying. 58% if kids have had their feelings hurt online. Kids say and do things online that they would rarely do face to face.

This video says it all:

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So much of our student safety efforts are on filtering and blocking content. Much more of our attention should be on focused the ‘Hidden Life of Schools’. Our children our precious. When a child overcomes the embarrassment and shame they feel, and works up the courage to let a teacher know that they are being bullied…it is not enough to respond by brushing them off with a glib statement like,

“Ignore them.”

This is not an either/or situation. Of course, we need to protect the physical well-being of our students. We spend enormous sums of money doing this; from hiring security guards to installing surveillance systems. However, we also need to protect our children’s hearts and souls from those that would tear them apart with words, and pranks, and meanness.

Turning our heads away from the ‘Hidden Life of Schools” will create more Ryan Halligans.

pete

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8 thoughts on “The Secret Life of Schools

  1. Pete,

    Wow, thanks for the emotional trip down memory lane and for using your own pain to make a point. I think many non-tech teachers might be surprised at the pervasiveness of this problem.

    A few years ago, I first learned about MySpace because two girls were talking in my presence about a rude comment that someone had written about the cheerleaders on MySpace. That night I took a little trip on the site and I admit I was sick to my stomach by the things written there. I talked with my principal the next day and he took a cyber-stalker approach and warned parents against kids giving personal information. What I tried, unsuccessfully to make him understand was that the bigger threat may be bullying.

    The more people get this message out, the more the educators of the world can be on the look out and try to make changes.

  2. Hi Pete,

    The hard thing about relational aggression is that there’s often no clear source. It’s incredibly subtle and most often completely missed by the adults in the room. Its pervasiveness is what’s so damaging and uncontrollable.

    For some reason, my daughter has had a hellish time this spring. What started it? Who knows? She won the lead in a school play. Did that upset some other kids? She’s a sensitive kid – with strong emotional reactions. Did the other kids figure out how easy it was to provoke a reaction from her and think it was funny?

    Whatever started it – it took on a life of it’s own. She’s a kid that needs strong social support in place in order to learn – and that wasn’t there any more. Her grades plummeted. Her perfectionism sky-rocketed. She started to act like a victim – expecting the rolled eyes, the snickers, the whispers behind her back.

    Her teacher is wonderful, sensitive & caring – he legitimately wanted to help. But what could he do?? He wanted us to give him names and specifics, so that he could pursue action through the District’s bullying policy.

    But how do you list names and specifics when it’s things like the stuff I said above? “Susie rolled her eyes when I wanted to join them for lunch.” “Everyone turned their back or looked away when it was time to pick me for the group project.” They were all little things individually, but cumulatively, they added up to a clear message that said “you’re the bottom of the heap, you’re not cool, you don’t belong, you’re a crybaby, you’re not okay just being you!”

    And I’m not sure anyone (the parents, the teachers or the adminstrators) wanted to start labelling every kid in the class as a “bully” according to policy – and the consequences that brings with it. So even when kids come to us and tell us this stuff is happening, what can we actually do to help them?

    What do you do when even your friends turn away & won’t support you during class or at school – even though they still invite you over for playdates (as long as it’s away from school)? My little girl said to me one night – “I know why my friend won’t stick up for me in class. She doesn’t want the same thing to happen to her.”

    That’s an awful lot of hard-won wisdom from a nine-year-old.

    The only thing I can be grateful for right now is that she’s young enough that the cyber-bullying aspect wasn’t added on top of all of this. At least she was still safe and loved when she was at home or away from school – it didn’t become all-encompassing, the way it does when the internet is a big part of your social network.

    But we can’t be fooled – cyber bullying is not an independent issue that we need to deal with. It’s all a part of the same culture. The rolled eyes just become snotty comments on Facebook. And kids don’t have a safe place anymore…

    As a parent, I’ve had the incredibly good fortune to have good friends around me who have either done the research or know people who specialize in relational aggression. I googled the term and found some great websites. I found http://www.bullybeware.com and Cindi Seddon – who gave me fantastic advice to help my daughter.

    Here’s what I now believe about this kind of social teasing or bullying:
    1) We cannot police this kind of behaviour.
    – There is no policy that can be used to stop it. In fact, trying to police it actually makes it worse for the victim!

    2) The only way to stop it is to create a positive, supportive peer culture.
    – We must be emotionally self-aware (as parents or as teachers) in order to teach our children how to behave in positive, tolerant and supportive ways toward each other. We must model what we teach!

    3) Parents can’t control the classroom or school culture, but we CAN empower and support our kids socially.
    – Teachers are doing all they can to teach & guide their classes, but we’re just beginning to learn about identification (let alone strategies to stop it). So parents have to learn to set a foundation of social support for their children from early on.

    The first thing I got really conscious about for my daughter was to help her experience success OUTSIDE of school – through community art classes or with friends from other social circles. At least she could have some perspective – things might be lousy at school, but she knew she was capable of being (and having) friends.

    And the thing that I think is turning the tide for my daughter has been to help her create positive social experiences with her classmates – in order to create stronger relationships that carry over to school. I talked to a group of the parents to help set the stage and now, every Friday, she invites a small group of girls over to our house for a semi-structured, fun activity. Like movie night, or going to the pool, or doing their nails.

    And I’m there too – participating and coaching them through positive friendships, talking about ways to communicate, bringing up “what if” questions that get them thinking.

    What I really like about this strategy is that it empowers my daughter to take positive action to create the relationsips that she wants – not to passively take what someone else dictates to her. I’m just the support person in this plan!

    And so far so good!! I pray that this is setting a strong foundation of relationship skills that will help guide these girls through the coming years!

    As you can tell, you hit on an emotional subject for me! It’s incredibly difficult to see your child in pain, but not have any idea how to make it better!

    The biggest thing I hope that both parents and educators realize is that this is really serious stuff – not just because of the relatively few that go to extremes and result in the unimaginable (like suicide), but because of the thousands that are emotionally scarred for a lifetime!

    Our children truly are so precious! We need to work together (parents and teachers) to protect them!

  3. Wow, what a powerful, heartbreaking story. He deserves a lot of credit for using his pain to try and reach out to others.

    In my ed tech class we’ve been talking about whether social networking sites or virtual reality sites have a place in education. I dont think cyber-bullying was every mentioned in any of our discussions. As college students we dont deal with bullying as much and it isnt at the forefront of our minds, however huge a reality it is. I am not convinced social networking or virtual reality sites have a place in the classroom, and cyber-bullying is just another reason why. It’s bad enough that students are subjected to this outside of school, but I can’t imagine being a bullied student and having to endure even more bullying due to a class being held on Second Life or in a group on Facebook. I realize that teaching shouldnt be restricted based on a few minor issues, but this is just another aspect to think about as we introduce different types of technology into the classroom.

  4. Ashley205,
    We can take Ryan’s father’s advice and work with kids to help them see how devastating going along with cyberbullying is. Like he says in the video, the good kids who laugh are the ones we need to get to…

    I don’t like the idea of banning Web 2.0 tools.

    Pete

  5. I agree with you Pete – I don’t like the idea of banning the tools either. Our school bans certain sites (facebook, youtube, and others) and you know what happens? Students figure out how to get to them anyway via proxy servers at school or they use them at home.

    What we need to do is teach using these sites so that we can address the very important question of responsible Internet use, responsible social networking.

    By banning the sites in our classrooms, I think we are actually ignoring the problem of cyberbullying. In that sense, it is irresponsible.

  6. Terry,
    Thanks for the kind words. There is a lot of talk about cyberbullying but I don’t see much being done on a large scale to deal with it. I think the seriousness of the problem has not fully sunk in…
    pete

  7. Heidi,
    I love the creativity, the empowerment, and the continued connection of an adult with your daughter and the others. You are modeling the empowerment, courage, and creativity that you would like your daughter embody.

    I believe that without ever saying a word, you are teaching her one of the most important lessons of her life.

    Inspiring!
    pete

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