Saturday, March 3, 2007

The Bully's Best Friend

Several years ago my wife and I attended the back-to-school festivities at my son's elementary school. This is the yearly exercise where hapless parents learn about all the new and wondrous miracle strategies that the public education system has cooked up to benefit "the children."

The evening was winding down, finally, when we bumped into the principal in the hallway. Although I tried my best to avert my eyes and hurry toward the exit, he corralled us and asked if we had any questions.

"Well," I said, "there is one thing I'd like to discuss. My son continues to be bullied by the same gang of four or five delinquents. We've told his teachers, we've informed your assistant, but it has continued now for almost a year."

"You do know that we have a full-time psychological social worker on staff," he replied.

The look in my eyes obviously betrayed a combination of puzzlement and contempt, but this genius continued anyway.

"Matt can schedule an appointment to come and talk. It will help him resolve his feelings."

"Matt has resolved his feelings," I informed him. "He hates their guts and wants them to be carried off by flying monkeys."

I went home that evening, my faith in the public education establishment reaffirmed, and had a long conversation with my son. It was reminiscent of conversations I had with my father when he told me it was always best to avoid a fight, but "when push comes to shove," he insisted, "you have to defend yourself."

These motivational encounters are seared into my memory because they were almost always followed by terrible beatings at the hands of the thugs in my old neighborhood. Defending yourself doesn't guarantee that you'll be victorious. In my case it invariably led to ignominious defeat and liberal applications of Mercurochrome.

"But Dad," Matt protested, "I'll get in trouble."

"Look, you may get in trouble with your teachers and you may get in trouble with your mother, but" I assured him, "you will never get in trouble with me if you defend yourself."

Unlike his skinny father, Matt's a big powerful kid who can do a lot of damage if he has a mind to.

He had always been told to avoid fights; to just walk away. This time he couldn't. They harassed him. They pushed him. And then, the unthinkable happened. A little girl he had known since pre-school jumped in and screamed at them to stop. When one of these sixth grade suburban gangstas pushed her aside Matt popped him. Just once. That's all that was needed. Matt got a reprimand from the school, but after a few weeks it was clear that the bullying had stopped. I felt very proud of my son and pleased with myself.

But did the bullying really stop?

Of course not.

They just went on to bully someone else's son.

My job is to see to it that my children don't get bullied. I did my job.

But it's the school's job to see to it that nobody's children get bullied, not to make them feel good about getting beat up every day during recess.

They weren't doing their job then, and they're not doing their job now.

Today, schools promote anti-bullying strategies which encourage the goons to talk to their victims. They attach no blame to the perpetrators. Predictably, they are failing, according to the British children's charity Kidscape.

Using this strategy the school forces the victim to provide a written statement describing how distressed he feels about the way he's been treated. He is then expected to read the statement to the good little boys who have derived pleasure from inflicting pain. This approach gives the thugs all the information they need to torture their victims even more.

One exasperated mother described the dismal results:

"They found out about my son's weaknesses, his feelings and his lack of confidence and had a field day bullying him and telling others. The bullying increased because the bullies knew he would not tell again after this devastating result."

In another instance a school principal refused to exclude a boy who had set fire to a young girl's hair. He was reluctant, he said, to single out a youngster who had "problems." Describing this junior arsonist as a youngster with problems is like saying that Jeffrey Dahmer had an eating disorder.

Maybe the girl with the flaming hair can resolve her feelings about being set on fire. Would anyone like to suggest that she talk to the psychological social worker?

Not me.

Because until and unless school officials get over their aversion to placing blame on kids with "problems", this cycle will repeat, and repeat and repeat. And for generations to come, children with problems will continue to be problem children.

For now, you'll have to excuse me. I have a therapy appointment. I'm working to resolve my feelings about elementary school principals.