On the bulls and the bullied: Questioning a state mandate

Maryann Keating

The four-year-old howled when big brother called him, “Little Tiny Stinky Baby.” After being chastised by parents and promising never to do it again, the seven-year-old simply continued taunting little brother by calling him “L.T.S.B.” Big brother, following an awakening through sessions at school and church, confessed to mom that he was acting like a bully and would try to stop.

Less inclined to share personal regrets for having bullied, most of us can relate to experiences of having been subjected to bullying at some point in K-12. Painful memories persist and the emotional damage is severe.

In Indiana, a 2013 mandate requires school districts to report the actual number of bullying incidents. The willingness, however, of students and parents to report bullying, and district compliance with the mandate, varies widely from school to school. For example, the South Bend Community School Corporation reported 312 bullying incidents for the 2017-18 school year, yet Penn-Harris-Madison, a nearby district, reported just 27 incidents across its 15 schools (South Bend Tribune, June 2, 2019, C4).

About 75 percent of school corporations responding to an Indiana Department of Education survey indicated difficulties in reporting behaviors labeled as “bullying”; thus, the accuracy of incidents reported is questionable. To address the fact that a low percentage of schools in the state data base listed zero bulling incidents, a 2018 bill permits the auditing of districts in which two or more parents dispute the accuracy of reported incidents.

K-12 school teachers observe students traumatized by classmates threatening or slandering them at school and on social media either for their identity or how they look and act. Children need to be taught, believe, and be shown that regulations and laws are enforced. They need to observe or experience serious penalties to those engaging in assault, theft, threats and harassment. A well-meaning wish to get an unpopular classmate to behave or dress the “correct” way, is no excuse for bullying.

The challenge for school administrators is to identify students who either have been seriously traumatized or whose anti-social behavior cannot be tolerated in an academic setting. In these instances, high-level legal and mental health services, beyond which neighborhood schools can provide internally, are required.

Responsible administrators, aware of their own limitations and those of anyone attempting to differentiate between students, are receptive to information and insist on stakeholder support when it appears necessary to exact appropriate penalties on students in the process of becoming socialized. However, in the case of persistent anti-social behavior beyond their control, schools should not be given an incentive to “save face” but rather encouraged to call for outside intervention in dealing with disruptions affecting the educational process.

It is one thing to acknowledge the depth and breadth of the problem. It is another thing to believe that the best cost-effective means for reducing bullying is to insist that all bullying instances be reported to the state or be audited for having misrepresented the number. Perhaps the state has not chosen wisely in how to react to bullying.

Parents, teachers, and counselors need all the help they can get in dealing with bullies and in caring for those affected. Bullying, generated either by students, others parents or new technology, can be minimized. Success will be realized when individuals, not school districts, come to learn and agree that bullying will not be tolerated.

Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D., a resident of South Bend and an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is co-author of “Microeconomics for Public Managers,” Wiley/Blackwell.