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Bullying and the Wall of Silence

April 13, 2010
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This is about institutional processes of denial. Institutions run on their own incentives. Often, their responses to certain problems are to pretend that they don’t exist. In order to do that, they create institutional mechanisms to silence those who suffer. We’ve seen this on college campuses. Administrators look for ways to impose secrecy obligations on sexual assault survivors, so that they can keep the news from getting out. They choose build a wall of silence to keep their reported numbers low.

We’ve recently seen this with the D.C. Police and the Howard University hospital. They choose to deliberately stonewall a young woman’s attempt to report a rape, probably for a lot of reasons and possibly in part to keep the numbers low.

That process does not start in college. I’ve seen it in elementary school.

I’m not talking about my own experiences with bullying, though I could. As an adult, as a lawyer, I got involved with a relative’s problems with the administration. Bullying in school is serious. School slut-shaming killed Jesse Logan, Hope Witsell, and as everyone has read lately, Phoebe Prince. School gender policing killed Eric Mohat and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover. And it leaves scars.

(Some day I’ll find and post the scene from a Season 6 or 7 Homicide: Life on the Streets episode where Gharty and Munch, the Richard Belzer character that moved to the Law and Order franchise, talk about bullying in a bar — Gharty having been the bully and Munch the victim. Nothing I can say could convey the power of it, but since I can’t find it: Gharty, full of bravado, tells Munch, if being bullied still gnaws at him, to hit Gharty with his best shot. His eyes go wide as Belzer, really an underrated actor, draws back the ashtray from the bar, and Gharty starts talking very fast and offering to buy another round, ending with, “whatever gets that ashtray out of your hand!” What I can’t describe was the way Belzer’s face and his whole body conveyed a stopper in a bottle, barely holding back decades of hurt.)

So this girl in my family was being harassed by a boy. Her parents went to the school. They got a lot of talk about how she liked the attention, how she egged him on … the usual victim blaming. He was verbally abusive and escalated to throwing objects. The school was doing nothing. Her parents got me involved.

I did some research. There was a bullying statute in place in her state. It required the school to record and report all of its bullying incidents, and then set forth what the administration would do to deal with a bullying incident. Then I researched how many bullying incidents the school had had since the law was passed. You can guess the answer.

Zero. The school had no bullying, officially. Not one incident. The next town over, too. And the next. And the next. I don’t know how many schools, maybe the whole state.

In dealing with the school’s counsel — as soon as I put a letter on my letterhead, they handed it over to outside counsel — one thing became clear almost immediately. They would make concessions as long as they could be informal concessions. They were determined not to call the incidents by the dreaded B-word. But they never said that. They were willfully evading the reporting requirement; nobody with a brain admits to willfully evading a reporting requirement while willfully evading a reporting requirement. They just made it clear that whatever was on the table, the B word never was. In part perhaps it was fiefdom-control; using the word would reduce the administration’s discretion. But it screams of a wall of silence. It screams of reporting a zero for the sake of appearances.

I got concessions, and it stopped the conduct. That’s not a happy ending. That’s an ending that helped one little girl. I didn’t stop them from reporting zero, and they are probably still lying, stonewalling and silencing. At every level, denial has a body count.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Robert permalink
    April 13, 2010 1:49 pm

    I agree that bullying does start in elementary school, but it seems to grow stronger once a child enters junior high and high school. Although a lot of girls get bullied, most of it is aimed at boys. Boys who are weaker or effeminate are the primary targets. Most of the bulliers are either jocks or juvenile street thugs. They target the weaker kids, either in strenght or group attacks.
    If a person complains to any teacher or administrator generally they are dismissed. The teachers or administrators don’t want to be bothered with these children, whether they be male or female. Some may say they will take care of the problem but in reality don’t do anything about it.
    It generally takes a child to be physically harmed before something is done. If it involves anything other then the child being injured they look the other way. For example, at a junior high school here in Ohio, freshman boys were initiated into high school by having their clothing
    torn off of them. They were then given girls clothing (dresses or skirts) and forced to put them on. When a couple of boys complained they were sent home to change and the matter was dismissed. There was no assault charges brought up on any of the instigators. The parents had to absorb the cost of getting the boy new clothing. Some of the boys were harassed by name calling (sissy, fag, etc). Some of the boys were threatened, but because of fear would not name their tormentors. So as usual it was passed over.
    I not certain as to what the girl freshman recieved, but I do know some their make-up was smeared on their faces or clothing.
    The schools need to have somewhere these kids can go and report these activities, although most occur off school property, the child is either on their way to or from school. This is the dilemma that school faces, at which point does the school become responsible to ensure the safety of its students.

    • epanalepsis permalink
      April 13, 2010 5:05 pm

      Although a lot of girls get bullied, most of it is aimed at boys.

      Is there a study?

      I went to a girls-only school after elementary school, so I can’t draw conclusions from my own experiences. However, before that – at elementary school – the bullying seemed to be distributed equaly. Though the bullying done by boys to boys was of a primary physical nature and the bullying done by girls to girls was primarily psychological. (Sometimes the girls would be violent as well, though).

    • April 13, 2010 7:35 pm

      Bullying happens in different ways to boys and girls but I don’t think it happens to one more than the other. Boys might get bullied in more of a physical way, and girls more verbally, but like epanalepsis says, without a study I’m reluctant to believe it’s an uneven distribution.

  2. April 14, 2010 10:33 am

    may I add my experience… bullying was always physical. – knock my glasses off my head, grab my books. What they hated was I never fought back. I thought fighting was wrong.

    Also – I would have killed them. So, I walked away.

  3. Fred permalink
    April 30, 2010 3:34 pm

    Just getting this off my chest.

    At the end of middle school, we (the students) were asked to evaluate our experience at the school, and discuss with faculty if we had any concerns. I approached my (then) favorite teacher ever, and told him that I was concerned about some of the behaviors I had observed (I didn’t then know terms like “bullying” and “sexual assault” so I couldn’t use them), and cited specific examples, including, but not limited to: boys lifting the cheerleader’s skirts in the halls between classes, boys asking girls for sexual behaviors (kiss or more) during lunch, and boys touching girls. All of this was without the girls’ consent, or so I inferred from how they would get angry and yell “stop it!” – the boys didn’t listen or stop, of course.

    My (then) favorite teacher told me that there was nothing he or any of the other staff could do about it, they didn’t like to see the children so sexualized either, but really, kids will be kids, and also the girls didn’t really mind or they’d report it.

    Today, I’d be able to take that answer apart, and say (1) You are the authority here, there is something you can and should do about it, (2) 14 yr. olds showing signs of developing sexuality is not surprising, and shaming them for it is not helpful, (3) non-consensual sexual activity is not the same as kids being kids, (4) if you don’t stop them now they’ll never learn, and (5) blaming the victims by saying they wanted it is complicit behavior, not helpful or wise like you want it to sound. At the time, I just left the interview really confused because here was someone I really, really respected, but his answer to what I felt to be a very important concern felt really, really, terribly wrong to me.

    But the point of all this is, I think bullying is probably difficult to address for more reasons than just keeping the numbers down. I suspect that (1) most of the adults present don’t recognize it for what it is, except in extreme cases, (2) it is so common now that stopping it is going to take a huge effort, and let’s be realistic, most people don’t want to undertake that, and (3) often as not, the adults in middle and high school buy into the same systems of thoughts that motivate the students, so they are themselves often as not either bullies or bullied (here I’m thinking of another story from middle school, in which taunts from students about her hair and clothing led my 7th grade science teacher to a mental breakdown where she left the profession).

  4. June 16, 2010 6:13 am

    I think bullying is an equal opportunity thing, in terms of gender. I had a culture shock when I went to a co-ed boarding school; a ringleader from my class got the whole male student body (near all, though some stayed out) from the 1st formers to the 5th to verbally assault me at some point. It only stopped after I began ignoring them and I guess I wasn’t an interesting target anymore.

    There were other boys who were bullied this way too; commonly those who are quiet or physically non-intimidating.

    Guess what? The teachers called it “teasing” and that it’s just for fun and I shouldn’t take it to heart. It took me a long while to even begin to be able to behave with any kind of civility to my male compatriots in college (who are such lovely souls who helped me realise that not all males are assholes).

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