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Author Mike Harmon on Bullying and Schools

October 18, 2011

 Today’s post is a devastating first-person account on the impact bullying has on teens and a school’s role in dealing with the issue. It’s not an easy read but we know you’ll agree that young adult author Mike Harmon’s words are stunning and thought-provoking. Mike’s powerful books often touch on the topic of bullying and its effects, especially the beautifully written Brutal. We encourage you check out one of his books if you haven’t already.

Todd was quiet, personable, received good grades, and was a football player with scholarships in his future. He’d never been in trouble with the school or the law.

Then he threw two punches and it almost all fell apart. Garrett, a wrestler, bumped into Todd in the hall. Words followed. Garrett pushed, then tried to punch him. Todd threw two punches, breaking Garrett’s eye socket, nose, and fracturing his jaw. My son’s friend saw it happen. Blood flew everywhere, Garrett fell to the ground, and Todd walked away.

Both kids were suspended for fighting. The police were called. Todd was looking at being charged with a felony, losing his place on the team, and with losing his scholarships.

The above story is true, and a person should assume the school took the appropriate measure in disciplining the two students under the zero tolerance for violence policy.

This story, in a nutshell, captures why our system sometimes not only ignores reality, but also promotes violence. How?

Let’s fill in the gaps. Garrett dated Todd’s new girlfriend for two weeks previous to the relationship. Garrett began by verbally bullying the girl. The bullying then proceeded to Todd when Todd asked Garrett to stop. Garrett would challenge, humiliate, and bully Todd at every turn. Garrett took Todd’s phone and smashed it. He’d bump Todd out of the way in the halls. On one occasion, Garrett shoved him against the lockers. Todd refused to take direct action. His future was too important. The school was aware of the situation, Todd’s parents had called about it, and Garrett used that in itself to embarrass, emasculate and humiliate Todd further.

The bullying continued for three months until Todd finally gave up on a system that would not respond. After three months of verbal and physical assaults, Todd solved the problem himself. The police found that under the law, Todd defended himself. He’d been physically assaulted three times previous to the incident, had reported it to teachers, and the school had done nothing but talk to Garrett. Garrett had initiated the final assault. According to the prosecutor, Todd was justified in taking action, and charges were dropped.

The school, according to policy, superseded the law based on their policy of zero tolerance for violence, held up Todd’s suspension,  and both students were disciplined. It was on his file not that he had defended himself, but that he’d been suspended for fighting. Anger management counseling was mandated for Garrett and Todd. Todd, who spent three months going through the proper channels and exhibiting immense patience and strength, was mandated for anger management counseling. This, to me, is not zero tolerance for violence. This is zero tolerance for reality.

What I’m saying is this: if the system works, great. But sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s drilled into our kids that it is better to continually follow rules that don’t work, and therefore suffer victimhood, than it is to protect yourself and your self-esteem at the risk of being punished. This is victim creation, and it invites more violence. Todd respected and trusted the rules, and was afraid of getting in trouble because he knew that if he faced Garrett on Garrett’s terms, he’d be treated the same as the perpetrator. Todd cared about his future. Garrett knew how to work the system. Hence, the bullying continued, it escalated, and finally when the top blew, Todd ended up doing justified but serious damage to Garrett. Immature? Yes. Realistic? Yes.

Unfortunately, this is not isolated, and most times it ends up being a torturous and grinding nightmare for those who are bullied, with no resolution but to endure this trap of insanity. Act and get punished. Don’t act and get abused. This oftentimes creates bitter, hateful, repressed and dysfunctional people with low self-esteem. Or it eventually creates mass victimizers. Think Columbine or a dozen others.

My first question: Who failed?

I wrote Brutal, my third novel, with this in mind. When we blanket our kids with rules that do not take into consideration the reasons they are sometimes broken, and that often contradict or even supersede our own laws, what are we really teaching them? There was no facilitator for judgment. Just a policy. A talking head dispensing punishment with no logic. Violence is a horrible thing to be avoided, yes, but is it a worse thing to teach our kids that all violence is equally bad?  That when the system fails we have no recourse but to continue being abused? Do we teach that logic, judgment, common sense and reason have no place within policy?

When do we allow our victims to fight back? Is it fair, even humane, to punish children for protecting themselves when we’ve failed in their stead?

Schools dedicate energy to stop bullying, but within this dream, have we created rules and policies that are insufficient on one side and illogical on the other? These questions beg answers, and until we figure out how to effectively deal with the bullies themselves, are we content with telling their victims to suffer through it?

If you want more information for your child or teen on dealing with bullying, please check out KidsAgainstBullying and TeensAgainstBullying. Both sites are created for and by teens and children.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2011 8:10 am

    Wow! When my son was in middle school and high school, he would tell me of bullying that was going on that the school chose to ignore, so I know this isn’t uncommon. I actually think the schools do things to promote bullying with some of the hierarchy they create with events like Homecoming.

  2. October 18, 2011 8:35 am

    I know from personal experience that the school system that my kids attend turns a blind eye to bullying and harassment, even when it happens to teachers. It’s shameful and scandalous and though I try to instill my kids with the right values, it seems almost like they are punished for not taking the same route of violence that the bullies take. Some of the conversations that I have had with that school would shock you. Brutal sounds like a book that I need to read. Thanks for putting this out there.

  3. October 18, 2011 9:28 am

    Bullying is a serious problem affecting millions of children. It can interfere with their social and emotional development, as well as their school performance. 19,000 children attempt to commit suicide every year as a direct result of being bullied. To help combat this, I have developed a bull prevention show for schools & libraries called “The STOP Bullying Show”. Based out of Orlando, Florida, this show raises the awareness of bullying in a fun & engaging way; while teaching kids very specific steps they can take to help put a stop to it. Highlights of the show can be seen here…


    http://www.StopBullyingShow.com

  4. Angela permalink
    October 18, 2011 3:04 pm

    Great, important post. Thank you for sharing your thought processes.

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