David Finklehor says schoolyard bullying won’t go away until more adults start remembering their days of changing bodies, braces, and bad complexions.
And it isn’t just a case of the pain of being picked on fading with age, the director of the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center said in a recent interview.
Too many adults treat bullying as a normal part of growing up, rather than the traumatic experience it can be, he said. He imagines if the roles were reversed.
“If I was standing in line at the cafeteria at the university here and two other faculty members came over and pushed me and kicked me and took my bookbag and pushed it down the stairs, there would be an enormous outcry,” he said.
There might even be lawsuits and criminal charges, and the offenders most likely would lose their jobs, Finklehor said. But when the same bullying occurs in a school, the story often is different.
“If that child were still litigating about that two years later or still complaining about it two years later, it would be disregarded as completely disproportional to the offense,” he said.
Educators and law enforcement officials around the country have been scrambling to address bullying following the recent spate of school shootings and threats by pupils who apparently had been picked on.
In a nationwide study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in April, 30 percent of the children surveyed said they had been bullied or had bullied someone else at least occasionally. For 8 percent, bullying happened at least weekly.
Like other states, New Hampshire is trying to address the problem with a new law that requires public schools to adopt anti-bullying policies–measures that spell out what bullying is and who is required to do something about it.
But New Hampshire’s effort has received mixed reviews so far.
Critics say a requirement to tell superintendents about every incident, no matter how minor, is overkill. Others say the law’s definition of bullying is too vague and could prompt lawsuits.
“Under this policy, if two second-graders were together one day and one said to the other ‘I don’t like you,’ that incident would have to be reported to the superintendent,” said Ken Coleman, chairman of the Merrimack School Board.
Nicholas Donahue, the state education commissioner, acknowledges the criticism.
“The law and the concerns people have are understandable,” he said. “It’s a complicated situation.”
New Hampshire’s struggles typify what states and individual school districts are experiencing as they grapple with the root cause of much of school violence. Meanwhile, experts like Finklehor say policies alone are not enough.
“There are still large segments of society that would treat this as a nonproblem. They would say it’s just part of childhood,” he said. “We have a cultural tradition of viewing this as not very serious.”
Mark Joyce, director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, said there are limits to what schools can do.
“The school could have the best anti-bullying policy on Earth, but if that child goes back to a home where there is bullying, or to a neighborhood that values that … there is only so much the school can do,” he said.
Finklehor says society actually views bullying as somewhat educational.
“Even if it’s a nasty experience,” he said, the thinking is, “You learned from it, you learned to protect yourself, that you can stand up for yourself.”
It’s an attitude he says would not be tolerated in adult relationships.
“Can you imagine the cop who showed up at your house after you’ve been burglarized and says to you, ‘I’m sure you’re upset, but it probably taught you a good lesson’?”
Though the New Hampshire law required school boards to adopt anti-bullying policies by Jan. 1, many, including Coleman’s, have yet to comply. One reason is the law’s definition of bullying.
“It is poorly worded and, from an administrative standpoint, it will be problematic,” Coleman said. “What they define as bullying, it basically ends up being almost anything.”
In a model policy issued in December, the state defined bullying as “conduct which subjects a pupil to insults, taunts or challenges, whether verbal or physical in nature, which are likely to intimidate or provoke a violent or disorderly response.”
Mirroring child-abuse reporting laws, the model policy would require all school employees, including contractual ones such as bus drivers, to report bullying. It would give the principal 24 hours to notify the superintendent.
Joyce considers the reporting requirement burdensome and beyond the intent of the law, and some superintendents agree.
James O’Neill, superintendent in the 5,000-pupil Merrimack School District, said he doesn’t need to know about every altercation and trusts his staff to tell him about the ones that matter.
“I have faith in my staff to know what is and isn’t necessary to report to the superintendent,” he said.
Coleman believes the reporting requirement will undermine the law.
“What ultimately will happen is people won’t always bring it to that level, because it’s kind of ridiculous to bring everything up to the superintendent,” he said. “But then what you end up with is an inconsistent policy where sometimes it is enforced and sometimes it isn’t.”
But Daniel Ferreira, superintendent of the five-community Fall Mountain School District in western New Hampshire, says the more he knows, the better. He speaks from experience.
On March 28, police charged a 17-year-old with threatening to blow up Fall Mountain Regional High School and Keene High School with his girlfriend to get even with bullies.
“My feeling is to try to keep me informed, so that when someone from the school board calls and asks what’s going on, I at least have a clue,” he said. “The goal is to not have people blindsided.”
Henry LaBranche, superintendent of Salem schools, agrees.
“When we err, we need to err on the side of caution,” he said. “I would prefer to know about any incident that would occur that could arise to be an issue in the future.”
Whatever policies educators adopt, Finklehor hopes they will take bullying seriously.
“If we do this because we want to avoid Columbines, it’s a low-yield strategy,” he said. “If we do it because we think it’s awful for kids to suffer that kind of treatment, I think we’re going to stick with it and be on a better track.”
University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center, 20 College Road, #126 Horton Social Science Center, Durham, NH 03824; phone (603) 862-1888, fax (603) 862-1122, web http://www.unh.edu/ccrc.
Journal of the American Medical Association, web http://jama.ama-assn.org.