Reflections on National Bullying Prevention Month

October has been designated as National Bullying Prevention Month. As the School Counselor at de Toledo High School, I’d like to share some facts, strategies, and thoughts on the subject for students, teachers, and parents.

According to the School Crime Supplement of the National Crime Victimization Survey, about 1 in 4 to 5 students have been bullied either in person or electronically. Bullying can appear in three forms: physical (hitting, kicking, slapping, spitting, tripping or any other type of physical assault), emotional (teasing, laughing at or making fun of someone, taunting, threatening, name-calling, or inappropriate sexual comments) and social (excluding, spreading rumors, public or online embarrassment including sharing pictures or “doxing” which is sharing private documents and/or information about the intended target, and telling people not to be friends with someone). Bullying can be in person or, of course, online through social media or cyberbullying.
Who does the bullying? There are two types of people who are considered prime candidates to be either in-person or online bullies. The first is the one most of us have considered: the person who is isolated, lonely or a loner, has low self-esteem, is less involved or uninvolved in school or activities, may have depression and/or anxiety and few/no social connections. But, the other type is the one less considered but surprisingly prevalent: well-connected to peers, perceived to have social power, overly concerned about popularity, status and social approval and likes to be dominant in a social relationship.
With the rise of social media use, online/electronic bullying also referred to as cyberbullying has become more prevalent with today’s teenagers, and why not? It’s much easier to pick on someone when you don’t see a face when you do it. Cyberbullying can be done by an individual or by a group through platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TicToc, and many others. It has become much easier and much more hurtful because the anonymity these platforms provide give even more power to the bully who enjoys as much power as possible. The truth is, that in the hands of the bully, social media has become ANTISOCIAL (hostile and without concern for another’s feelings) media because the social contact is destructive and dangerous. Any level of empathy that may exist in the bully is completely lost due to the cowardly nature of the delivery to its target. For most people, seeing pain on another’s face, watching tears fall or seeing heartbreak is painful. Social media enables the avoidance of those uncomfortable results. This is why electronic bullying is on the rise, particularly in middle school but also in high school and it is much more common in girls than in boys.
Who are the most likely to be bullied either in person or online? The short answer is anyone who has a visual or an emotional vulnerability. For example, a student who wears glasses, a student who is overweight, a student who is too smart, a student new to the community and seems a social threat to the bully, a student who doesn’t engage in the popular behavior (drinking alcohol, ingesting drugs, lying to parents, etc.), a student who is depressed, anxious or otherwise seems out of the expected social norm. In other words, ANYONE who is even slightly perceived as different may be targeted.
How do we, as parents, remain vigilant of the bully and the bullied? It is a misnomer that as students become more independent in high school, parents can pay less attention to their social lives and interactions. Yes, we want to foster independence, but it’s never too late to keep paying attention to your child’s social and online lives. Chances are very good that you, as the parent, at the minimum, are paying for your child to have access to the devices that allow contact by social media. Therefore, you, in fact, have the right to know how your child is using it. Clearly, you do not want to regularly read your child’s private exchanges and posts. BUT, when the community works together to alert each other to an issue of being mean or bullying, it is still the parents’ responsibility to intervene. A parent will not know what a child is sending or receiving if they choose to remain “hands off”. It is NEVER too late to parent a child and to show them what is appropriate and what is potentially damaging. Just as if you learned your driving child was speeding, you would step in. Use of social media should be no different. Parents can still communicate with each other, regardless of their teen’s age, when they hear of another child’s behavior changing because the parent suspects bullying has occurred.
As for educators, we, too, can be guilty of knowing something damaging or dangerous is occurring as a result of in person bullying or any type of social bullying on social media. Often, even microaggressions of which we become aware should be addressed. The “kids can be kids” attitude and that we’re “just teachers” has no place with this 21st-century issue. If we are trying to produce upstanding Jewish young adults, we must pay attention AND ADDRESS the bully and the bullied immediately with a Dean, the School Counselor and with parents. Bullying should be taken very seriously just as a physical assault would be. The consequences can be much worse than a physical assault, because students who are bullied will dwell upon and remember the pain for a very long time and it may shape the people they wish to become.
While we at de Toledo strive to create and instill a culture of kindness, we must, on multiple fronts – parents, teachers, staff and students – teach and reteach not just tolerance, but acceptance of difference. Everyone can be an upstander; that is, one who does not wait to address a bully situation, but to step up and step in immediately. This does not mean everyone has to be best friends or even friends at all, but it does mean that every human being, especially in our community, deserves to feel safe 24 hours a day, whether at school or elsewhere. If a student, parent, staff member or teacher knows of a bullying situation, it should be dealt with as soon as possible. The bully must be held accountable and the bullied should be heard and reassured that someone has their backs.

Recently, I was asked by an incredibly thoughtful senior at school to explain the reason(s) people do not step up or step in. The primary reason is fear; fear of reprisal, fear of being bullied for saying something, fear of being thought of differently by peers and fear of becoming an outcast. Again, students should be supported and reassured by parents, teachers and other adults in their lives that, if it takes repeated intervention to address the bully and to bring parents into the problem at school, that is what must happen. Once is rarely enough for a chronic “Queen Bee” who doesn’t stop. Once is rarely enough for the group in the group text to get the message that there is nothing funny about exclusion or other mean online behavior. Accountability takes effort, but keep in mind that if you saw a student with a new black eye every week, not one of us would look the other way after one intervention. We would continue to watch carefully.

Lastly, if the bullied are suffering, parents should not be afraid or intimidated by asking for help with their child in any form that could help their child recover and find their strength again. That help may be to see the School Counselor, to let the Dean know a child is anxious about being targeted in the future or to find a good psychotherapist who can let the child be open and honest about their fears and feelings away from the concerned parent who the child may not tell because they just need someone to listen and validate. It is a gift to find a good therapist for any child who would like to talk freely and confidentially about something difficult they have experienced or are experiencing.
Let’s all be committed to make bullying something we do not have to worry about in our community and something that all of our students understand is unacceptable and truly is antisocial behavior that hurts us all.

By Dr. Lise F. Spiegel,
de Toledo High School Counselor

Located in the San Fernando Valley portion of the City of Los Angeles in Northern Los Angeles County. de Toledo High School is accredited by the California Association of Independent Schools (CAIS), the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) and Builders of Jewish Education (BJE,) and financially supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Jim Joseph Foundation.