A Gentle Personality

Jen was soft spoken and frail in her appearance. She walked with a slow, short stepping gait. Her handwriting was neat, but pained and laborious. People who knew her appreciated her sweet, gentle personality. Jen learned that she had a debilitating, progressive, incurable neurological disease. The news was a devastating blow to Jen and all who knew her.

The Attack

One day, Jen physically attacked another girl. This behavior was totally uncharacteristic of her. Jen, however, had been cruelly and continually taunted by this girl and a few other students for at least two years. Jen and her parents had notified her school administration of the problem. She had sought help from a school counselor to deal with the harassment. The students were spoken to. No direct disciplinary action had been taken. Verbal bullying and adolescents is often not taken seriously.  There are rarely specific consequences attached to this type of verbal bullying. Finally, distraught over the news about her illness, and tired of silently enduring the verbal abuse of her tormentors, Jen physically lashed out. She was suspended.

The System Failed Jen

Jen showed up to class one more time after that incident. Then she disappeared. She attempted suicide. Fortunately, she did not succeed. She didn’t return to school. She feared the taunting. She didn’t feel safe. The high school failed to provide a safe learning environment for this student. Consequently, she sat home alone. She couldn’t get an equal education. Who is responsible?

Most Staff and Students had No Idea of the Extent of Jen’s Torment

The sad news is: most faculty at Jen’s high school was unaware of what happened to her. The majority of the school’s student population didn’t know. If we randomly asked teachers whether teasing, taunting, or harassment was a problem at that school, the majority of faculty and students might say no. The school demographics consist of a mid to upper middle class population in a small New England town. It is not the inner-city. No knives or guns were used. The weapons were words, expressions and gestures. Were they any less damaging? The emotional scars for Jen will last much longer than it takes for a physical wound to heal. Jen was a victim of verbal bullying.

Put-downs are not a Joke

Jen’s story is a drastic example of verbal bullying and adolescents. What about the kid who jokingly puts down another student in the name of friendly bantering? Sometimes it ends after a few sarcastic remarks. Sometimes it comes to blows when one of the players no longer sees the humor in the situation. I’m not talking about playful teasing that doesn’t cause hurt feelings. I’m talking about put downs. Words that can be taken as insult — even when the players are laughing about them.

The No Put-down Rule

I’ve taken a stand on this type of humor in my classroom and home. I simply don’t allow it. I explain to my high school students that my classroom is a safe haven. It is a place for them to come where they do not have to worry about being put down. When they defend their humor, I explain that teens have to take a lot of garbage from too many people. Too many people are quick to put them down. So why should they have to listen to put downs in my classroom. I want them to feel good when they are in my room. I encourage them to say kind things to each other. I remind them how important respect is to me. I tell them that they deserve respect. Put downs are not respectful. What’s interesting is that once they hear the reason behind the rule, they accept it. I give them permission to call me on my behavior if I ever break the rule. (I suggest they do it politely.) I rarely hear insults in my classroom.

Verbal Bullying Can Have Devastating Consequences

When people think of a bully, they think of a punching, kicking, and physically aggressive person. If they had to give a bully a gender, it would be male. This narrow view of bullying causes us to only react strongly to physical bullying in our society. In reality, verbal bullying, which includes harassment, taunting, mocking, exclusion and shunning, can have equally devastating consequences. With the exclusion of death, or permanent injury, physical bullying heals rather quickly. The consequences of verbal bullying can last a lifetime.

I hesitate to refer to verbal bullying as anything other than verbal bullying because I find that there is a tendency to minimize it as a social problem. People react to the word ‘bully’ with a certain sense of alarm. People don’t react to taunting, mocking, exclusion, or shunning with the same degree of concern. I think the alarm should sound just as loudly for verbal bullying as physical bullying.

Physical Fighting vs. Verbal bullying and Adolescents

Consider the typical disciplinary procedures for physical fighting in our schools. They usually involve suspension or expulsion. In contrast, verbal bullying, with the exception of sexual harassment, is often dealt with very lightly and inconsistently. Often, the only consequence is a verbal reprimand. Many teachers ignore it. Verbal bullying is much more prevalent than physical bullying. It is a major problem in our schools and our society.

Verbal harassment is not only minimized as a problem by school faculties and administrations, some school personnel use verbal bullying as a disciplinary or motivational tool. In specific settings, it is also accepted and expected. One only need go to the locker room or the football field to see verbal bullying at peak performance.

Sports and Verbal Put-downs

Myriam Miedzian, Boys Will Be Boys, writes, “The language of sport is filled with insults suggesting that a boy who is not tough enough, who does not live up to the masculine mystique, is really a girl or homosexual.” She sites football player, David Kopay as saying “like many other coaches, Dillingham

[fictitious name] used sexual slurs — ‘fag,’‘queer,’ ‘sissy,’ ‘pussy’ — to motivate (or intimidate) his young athletes.” (Miedzian, 1991, p.202)

I’ll never forget the look of dismay on a friends’ face when she told of standing on the sidelines of a high school football field shocked at the language being used by the coach to reprimand the team during practice. She was horrified at the example being set for her son by an adult role model. “My husband and I didn’t bring him up that way. We taught him to respect women. This isn’t right, but, there is nothing I can do. My son would never forgive me if I complained about it.”

During a spirit rally, a football team brought out a stuffed dummy representing the opposing team. They threw the dummy on the field and proceeded to attack it, tearing it to pieces.  “Take ‘em apart” was the epithet. The team was dehumanized, symbolically abused before the entire student body. The message was, “bullying in the name of wining and sports was OK.” The reality is: It’s not OK.  In order to play the game, boys, and in many cases, girls also, must work hard at repressing empathy. They must steel themselves to the humanity of the other team. They must hide their own humanity and feelings to endure the abuse of the coach they are supposed to look up to. (Miedzian, 1991)

A Solution: Set the Example

High school teachers, coaches and parents of adolescents need to be aware of the price society pays when we ignore, or at worst, participate in verbal bullying. I rarely speak to a parent or teacher who is not concerned about the fate of our society. Disrespect, rudeness, selfishness, bullying and lack of regard for other human beings are rampant in our culture. Before we become discouraged and throw up our hands in resignation, remember: We set the example for our youth. We set limits and boundaries for them to live by. We can make the difference for our society through our words and our actions.

Excerpted from “Free the Children: Conflict Education for Strong Peaceful Minds” by Susan Fitzell.

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