Today I read an essay in The Walrus by senior editor Rachel Giese on the issue of bullying in children. In it, the author discusses the fact that bullying is increasingly being punished by legal action and other more “adult” consequences, when the offenses discussed are executed by children, albeit of varying levels of maturity. There is debate as to the proper avenues to take when dealing with this issue and no solution currently in place is truly satisfactory. In schools there are campaigns to discourage such behaviour and give victims of bullying as many options as possible to cope (Beyond The Hurt is one such program aimed at empowering children on the receiving end and developing policies to reduce instances of bullying).
Giese states in her essay that culpability for the problem lies with the community, but in particular the education system itself:
We should pause to remember where bullies learn this behaviour. Historically, adults have been the worst perpetrators of violence in the education system, as the abusers of children in residential schools and orphanages, or as enthusiastic dispensers of corporal punishment. In the case of LGBTQ children, at the forefront of much of the current conversation, the worst bullies are the adults who refuse to let same-sex couples attend prom and who ban students from organizing gay-straight alliance groups. Tellingly, the loudest critics of Ontario’s anti-bullying bills are religious leaders who say they will infringe on their right to preach against homosexuality.
This is characteristic of the tone the author uses throughout the piece: that much of the blame belongs somewhere other than the individual involved in the behaviour. This attitude is one that has crept into the education system over the years in other ways (policies expecting the acceptance of months late assignments, not marking homework, placing the onus on the teacher to motivate students rather than focusing on any intrinsic student motivation, etc.). These policies are designed to be general and sweeping, but lose sight of students in particular situations, which is exactly where bullying is centered. It seems that in bullying, like elsewhere in school, there is always someone else to blame instead of the person directly involved in the action. Just as consequences for late or missing school work are disappearing for the student, so is any real culpability for actions as bullies.
Though I agree that Giese’s examples of violence in education are to be criticized and stamped out of the system, ultimately the grade 10 student who picks on or hits another is the individual responsible for that action. It is right to study the particulars of the situation to see how that student came to the decision to abuse another and this can certainly allow those in positions of authority to take appropriate courses of action, but in the end the student has committed an offense against another and that action has to be dealt with in some way that discourages the behaviour. We have a legal system that dishes out punishments for a variety of socially unacceptable behaviours perpetrated by adults, who should know better. By the time a child reaches junior or senior high they have the ability to know better. I’m not calling for jail time for school bullies, but some course of action that places responsibility on the bully is required. A sane individual is responsible for his/her actions and every student deserves to attend a school with a safe and caring environment.