Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bullying is front and centre, and clear-eyed assessment can help parents, professionals

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Yale law professor, essayist and magazine editor Emily Bazelon's revealing book on bullying is based on two years of in-depth research she conducted for a series of articles published in the online journal Slate.

It is a clear-eyed, analytical assessment of bullying, its modern manifestations and the educational and legal systems' responses to the problem.

Bazelon conveys the issue's complexities intelligently and in an accessible, straightforward style. It is a near perfect book for concerned parents and for professionals looking for fresh answers.

Bullying is the curse of childhood, and any child who has ever been physically, emotionally or verbally bullied knows that the old saw "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me" is a crock.

Parents are rightly concerned about in-school bullying and the creeping tentacles of 24/7 cyber-bullying. Over-heated media reports attribute tragic youth suicides to cyber-bullying ("bullycide") and leave listeners, viewers and readers with the impression that we are in a crisis situation.

However, Bazelon contends that the percentages of children being bullied and those who bully have not changed over time. Yes, she acknowledges, it is a serious problem, but schoolyard bullies and Facebook slanders are not signs of a coming bully apocalypse.

And what about the bully? How are they affected by their behaviour? Psychologists, Bazelon tells us, have learned that children who engage in bullying are more likely to develop psychological problems in adulthood. Consequently, bullying must be seen as is a multi-pronged social problem.

Bullying is front and centre in Manitoba today. The provincial NDP government, responding to the legislative paths taken by other Canadian provinces and U.S. states, is broadening the definition of bullying and adding protections in the public schools for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered (GLBT) persons.

Bazelon discusses in depth the American legislation on bullying and culture-war disputes on GLBT rights and school obligations. In the U.S., as in Canada, various faith-based schools and community interest groups contend that gay-rights protections infringe on religious values, while public school educators generally contend the right to safe schools overrides other considerations.

Manitoba's proposed bill redefines bullying as "typically, but need not be, repeated behaviour." Along with many American and Canadian academics, Bazelon believes this is too vague and will create unmanageable disciplinary issues for schools. As well, students might unjustifiably be labelled as bullies, leading to unwarranted sanctions and social stigmatization.

Bazelon is not blind to the anguish teenage victims suffer at the hands of bullies, the helpless feelings of parents and inadequate responses of the school system.

She introduces case studies of three students: two who have been bullied and the third who is perceived as a bully. The stories of all three are sure to make readers feel sad, angry, confused and, at times, hopeless.

Monique is the typical heart-wrenching personification of bullying that everyone has experienced, seen or heard about in the school system.

Jacob is a gay teenager who came out in Grade 8 and was verbally and physically abused to the extent that he feared for his life. The school administration made promises to help keep him safe but never followed through on its pledges.

He successfully sued the school board for damages, and it was forced to implement gay-rights initiatives, much the same as the Manitoba government is proposing in its Bill 18.

Flannery, along with five other students, was charged with complicity in the suicide of a high-school student named Phoebe Prince. The press invented the name "bullycide" to describe the students' treatment of Phoebe.

As Bazelon methodically unravels the threads of each case and meets with the bullied and the bullies, she begins to understand the complexity of the problem. There was no simple fix for any of them.

One characteristic is common, however, and that is the lack of empathy the bullies feel for their victims.

Empathy, writes Dr. Michele Borba, is "the first essential virtue of moral intelligence." It can be defined as feeling sympathy for others and remorse for what you have done.

The bullies we meet in the book reject the idea that they are bullies. They see the victim as an equal or near rival in the drama of adolescent life; they would never bully a weak person who couldn't fight back.

So what is to be done? Schools and government, Bazelon writes, cannot solve the bullying problem on their own, nor can parents, nor can social media. All must find ways to work together.

Facebook must be vigilant in monitoring and reacting to reported complaints of about abuse and make its code of conduct effective. Parents need to understand the ins-and-outs of social media, monitor their children's online activities, while allowing them an appropriate measure of freedom.

If school anti-bullying programs are to be successful, they must be long-term and school-wide, as well as supporting at-risk students.

Bazelon concludes her book with a well-thought out lists of frequently asked questions about bullying, readily available resources for children, parents and educators, and contact information on support groups.

Ian Stewart is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 J10

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