Bullying and the Wall of Silence
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.