By Jason Menard
As a father, I can only imagine the pain Strathroy’s John Melo is feeling today, grieving the loss of his son Joshua, who took his own life – with bullying named the catalyst for his action.
Bullying is rampant in our schools – and our schools are ill-equipped to handle it. In fact, many schools have instituted a hands-off policy, the concept of which my wife and I fully support. However, a concept and its reality can be far different things. Essentially, what educational hands-off policies encompass is a zero-tolerance approach to violence and physical aggression. One punch and you’re out.
The hands-off policy has brought a different form of bullying to the fore. Now, more than the realized action of violence, the perceived threat of violence and intimidation are the preferred tactics of bullies. What hands-off policies tend to breed is a refuge for more subtle forms of bullying: veiled threats, intimidation, implied violence, and ostracizing run almost unchecked, with little recourse for the victims of this situation. While there’s an increased awareness of the social and emotional ramifications of bullying within the school system, the current system, as it exists, ends up protecting the aggressors and further victimizing the victimized.
As adults we tend to overrationalize the problems faced by our children. What seems clear to us, illuminated by the wisdom of experience and perspective, is not so clear to our youth. While adults can understand that these threats are nothing more than a cry for attention, or braggadocio covering up the bully’s insecurities and fears, to our children these threats are real and present threats to their physical and emotional well being.
I’ve seen some kids’ frustration with their situation. Up until a certain age, kids just aren’t equipped with the mental and emotional maturity to diffuse situations with intellectual tools like negotiation, humour, or dialogue. Rather, they’re more impulsive, conflicted in their thought processes, and incapable of resolving their emotions in a mature way.
So what do they do? They either become sullen and reclusive, or they lash out – but with the hands-off policy, they are punished for striking back against their aggressors, while the bullies get off scot-free. And as much as students and administrators encourage students to come forward with their concerns and fears, few if any students will do so out of fear of being branded a “squealer” or “tattle-tale.” Parental intervention often does more harm than good as well, as the child then becomes a target for having other people fighting their battles (the irony of which is that these bullies often travel in packs, having older children as their muscle.)
Bullying also is not simply restricted to the schoolyard. While threats may not be carried out on the playground, the victims of bullying carry the fear that they could be confronted on their way home from school, in their neighbourhood, or at their park. While the hands-off policies may discourage violence on the school property, they have little effect on the outside world.
So what are we to do? If a school embraces a hands-off policy and is vigilant in its execution, it must be equally, if not more so, vigilant in the proactive curtailment of intimidation. A verbal threat must be treated with the same response as if a punch was thrown, and teachers and administrators must be increasingly vigilant about actively looking for these situations. Threatening another student should eventually result in suspensions, parents should be immediately notified about their children’s aggressive behaviour, and consequences must be set in place to discourage this type of activity.
It’s a lot of work, but it needs to be done. When I was in school, you dealt with bullies in one of two ways, you either turned tail and ran or you stood your ground and fought. There was a clear line and there were no shades of grey. Obviously a return to this type of frontier justice is neither desired or warranted.
However, if we truly want to embrace a hands-off policy and make our schools a safe haven for social and educational development, then we need to do a better job of making sure that all our students stand – pardon the expression – a fighting chance.
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