As I am sure we are all aware, there has been a recent wave of news stories about teenage suicides to hit the airwaves. For a while there, it seemed like almost every day there was a new story about another teenager who felt the need to end his or her life because of incessant harassment by their peers. And now, according to the media outlets, we have a bullying epidemic on our hands.
To teachers, this probably isn’t news. We’ve been dealing with bullying and issues of harassment for quite some time. There are also many, many teachers who have made it a point to include lessons on hate speech (homophobic remarks, racist remarks, sexist remarks, etc.) in our classrooms. And although I’m glad these issues are finally being picked up by major media outlets and issues of homophobia, racism, and sexism in our schools are finally getting pushed out into the open to be dealt with, it is at too high a cost. Young lives should never be lost because of harassment of any kind, and as teachers, we have a duty to our students to step up – to become activists in our classroom – and to help shift the thinking of our students and erase this type of harassment for good.
Today, however, I want to take a bit of a look at the rhetoric being used here in these news stories. Everywhere you look, when you see a story like this, people are calling out bullies left and right. But are we doing any favors to anyone by calling this type of harassment “bullying?” According to Dictionary.com, a bully is defined as: “a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.” Maybe I’m out of line here, but someone who videotapes a man engaged in a private, consensual, sexual act with another man against his permission and broadcasts that video over the internet along with homophobic slurs does not sound like a bully to me. That goes well beyond badgering and intimidation. That is harassment. It’s homophobia. I’d go as far as to say that it was an attack. An assault. Torture. Persecution. Shall I go on?
And that’s just one example of a whole slew of events over the past months. The problem here is that when a lot of the American public thinks of bullying, they automatically associate that with the idea of the bigger kid picking on the littler kid on the playground. They think it’s almost part of growing up, and that they’ll grow out of it eventually. These examples we’re seeing in the media? They’re people using every means they have – technology, mob mentality, threats, intimidation, the list could go on and on – to physically, mentally, and emotionally harass another human being. And the scarier part? Some of these harassers are adults – or at least college-aged. If we’re not dealing with this in grade school and high school, if we’re not working towards ending harassment and creating a tolerant, socially conscious, accepting culture of people, we’re only adding to the problem.
I am absolutely not blaming teachers for these problems, don’t get me wrong here. But I am saying that your students spend more time in school than they do most other places, so it only makes sense to make this part of our jobs and part of our curriculum because these recent news stories, teachers, are examples of what happens when we stand back. Sure, we’re drowning in paperwork and red tape. We’re overwhelmed by smaller budgets and bigger duties. We’re being attacked in the media daily. But we cannot sit idly by and watch things like this happen. Even if you are sitting there saying, “Well, this isn’t happening in my school!” I guarantee you you’re wrong. The scary fact is that it most certainly ishappening in your school, and you can do something about it. You can talk to your students, teach them about tolerance and acceptance and about what is right in this world. You can watch for harassment. Build bonds with students who are consistently harassed. You can write that referral or talk to that counselor or dean when you see something going on. Just, whatever you do, please, do not sit there and do nothing.
And if you’re still stumped on what you can do,take a look at these great ideas from Colorlines.