The writing’s on the wall


by Meredith Jacobs
Managing Editor

I’m not certain how to begin this one.

A local high school student government recently dedicated a week to anti-bullying education. They hung posters in the hall explaining the four types of bullying: physical, verbal, covert (includes actions like spreading rumors, encouraging others to socially exclude) and cyberbullying. They dedicated class time to talking about bullying. And they brought in an expert to deliver an anti-bullying message at a school-wide assembly.

For two weeks prior to the programming, members of the student government tracked the Twitter accounts of fellow students and captured any tweets that were cruel and directed at other students. They collected enough to fill a main wall within the school.

They expected it to be a profound sight — a wall filled with line after line of cruelty — shocking to see on the walls of a lovely suburban school filled with nice kids.

But it backfired.

Even though the tweets were not attributed to anyone, students took photos of their tweets and re-posted them on Twitter claiming authorship. Other students began tweeting more horrible posts complete with the hashtag #putmeonthewall.

And while some of the offending writers approached the public airing of their meanness with bravado, others became angry and accused the student government of bullying and harassment and invading their privacy. They accused the student government of misreading the tweets and falsely labeling them.

The original targets of the tweets felt the pain afresh.

It was horrible.

Phone calls from parents to the superintendent were followed by calls from the superintendent to the principal. The principal stood by the student government, who then took down the wall of cruel remarks and replaced them with a wall of tweeted compliments. This change from barbs to niceties had been planned, but now appeared as if the student government was caving into pressure, which launched a second round of virtual assaults on the student leaders.

I was shocked when I eard the story. I would have thought for certain the original wall would have been a profound experience for the students — that they would feel humbled by the physical display of cyberbullying.

But instead they felt assaulted.

The next day, I happened to have a scheduled interview with Emily Bazelon, author of the brilliant new work on bullying, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the culture of bullying and rediscovering the power of character and empathy (Random House). Bazelon, a law journalist and senior editor at Slate and a New York Times contributor, began a series on bullying for Slate in 2009. What she thought would be a focus on cyberbullying quickly expanded into other forms of bullying as she realized they were interconnected. She writes that bullying is not, as I would have suspected, on the rise. But, she writes, cyberbullying changes the landscape a bit in that it is harder to escape, no longer is home a haven from school bullies; there is a wider audience; the content can be forwarded forever meaning it can resurface at any time; and the targets tend to be at the most vulnerable age — 12- and 13-year-olds.

I told her about the incident at the school, and she was not surprised by the reaction of the students. She explained that by displaying the tweets on the wall, even though they were unattributed, the authors were being publicly shamed. They retaliated by pushing back and by taking ownership, as if they didn’t care.

I wondered how the student government could be accused of invasion of privacy when the messages were originally posted on the very public forum of Twitter. Bazelon said that students have a false sense of privacy with social networks thinking that even though they are told it is not private, they believe their posts are seen only by a limited audience.

Bazelon believes that much like smoking has decreased as a result of public awareness campaigns, so too anti-bullying programs work. Too many schools have a culture whereby cruelty is rewarded with popularity. Just like smoking is no longer “cool,” so too should “meanness” become unacceptable.

This is a key ingredient to changing the tide of bullying — we must alter the culture of our schools and quite frankly our society.

Sticks and Stones is truly a must read for parents and educators. Bazelon explores everything from heartbreaking stories to the efficacy of new laws to programs that work. In the end she shows that it’s never quite so black and white as the media portrays these stories — the truths of the “victims” and “villains” are muddied morasses of different versions of the same story.

In the end, “zero tolerance” policies bind hands of administrator and too often punish those who have been bullied.

In the end, telling your kids to stay off Twitter and Facebook is not the answer.

In the end, sometimes the best thing your child can do is simply be kind to someone who has been a target. A simple “hello” as they pass in the hallways can help someone, who has been outcast, know that there is someone out there who cares.

So it comes down to empathy. We must raise children to be people for whom it is unthinkable to write or say horrible things. It is up to us to raise people of character and compassion. As Bazelon says, “For a small number of kids who bully, it’s true, the inability to feel empathy goes deep and is the terrifying hallmark of a psychopath — someone who can inflict pain without feeling an once of compassion or remorse. But true inability to feel empathy, luckily, is exceedingly rare. Most kids do feel or can learn to feel empathy and remorse. It’s our job to help them find that capacity within themselves, and build on it.”

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