Author Mike Harmon on Bullying and Schools
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?