Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Bullying and Self-Defense for Kids: The Schools Have It All Wrong

On my Facebook feed, I found the following (posted by a prominent internet persona):

Caveat: Like all things internet, this one hasn't been verified. I don't know whether this kid's story is true or false. It was posted by a source I have otherwise found to be reliable, so I think it's likelier true than not. But ultimately, I'm not as interested in this particular story as I am about a specific aspect of it.

There's a lot about this story that rings true. Kids that "look gay" are harassed and bullied all the time. Schools frequently don't do anything about it, either because of pressure from the other parents or because the bullies are very good at not getting caught. That's one of the survival traits of a bully - the ability to sense when adults are watching and switch behavior.

The particular aspect of the story that caught my eye is in the middle:
I got 2 days out of school suspension for overcoming the bully, defending myself.
Schools obviously want to discourage fighting among their students. This is more a function of cultural behavior than anything else - where my kids go to school there are virtually no fights, because physical violence just isn't in the local culture. I'm sure that there is bullying of other kinds, some of which can be horrific. But kids hitting other kids? Not so much.

But this kid's school may well be different. And here's where the schools get themselves in trouble and end up teaching the wrong lessons. What most of us want schools to do is punish the aggressor in any physical altercation. Someone who defends themselves, within reason, should be either lightly punished or not punished at all. Personally, I'd lean towards the latter, because we want to teach kids that it's OK to defend yourself if someone attacks you. Otherwise, we're raising potential victims.

But schools don't do this - not because they don't want to, but because it's hard. Usually by the time an adult gets involved, the altercation is well underway (if not over), and there's no way of knowing who started it. Schools used to try to sort that out by interviewing both the fighters and witnesses, but discovered that that's a tricky arena. It takes real skill and judgment to take a bunch of biased witness statements and figure out what really happened.

In today's world, judgment is not encouraged. Schools prefer rules that can be uniformly applied by anybody, so there won't be any charges of bias against a particular teacher or administrator. "Zero Tolerance" policies fit this mold exactly. It doesn't matter if you're carrying stolen oxycontin or a couple of aspirin - a drug is a drug, and off to detention you go.

So if you want a universally enforceable rule on who to punish in school fights, but you can't know who the aggressor is, what do you do? Here schools adopt a rule with terrible consequences: they pin guilt on the winner of the altercation. Teachers will assume that, if you're winning the fight, you must have started it.

This is, of course, patent nonsense. Kids start fights all the time that they then lose, often badly - just search YouTube for dozens of filmed examples. Sometimes, the innocent victim really does know how to defend themselves, and does. Sometimes, the bully gets a nasty surprise.

My guess is that teachers, like most adults, have little to no experience with interpersonal violence themselves and so don't realize how silly the assumption is. Unless they have training, the most likely exposure they would have had to fighting was being a victim of bullies - in which case, they may well have been on the losing end. They may also make the mistaken assumption that violence is rational - that a bully wouldn't start a fight he couldn't win. All of this, of course, is wrong.

Unfortunately, the results of this error are that schools teach kids to be victims. If the only way I can avoid punishment by the school is to lose the fight, I have an institutional incentive not to defend myself. The authority figures around me are telling me: if you want to be a "good kid", if you want to get good recommendation letters to college and good grades and the approval of your teachers, don't fight back. Let yourself get hit, pushed, kicked, picked on. Trust the adults to deal with it.

Except, of course, that the adults don't deal with it. The story in the picture above rings true because it happens all the time. Teachers are powerless to stop bullying, and they know it. So do the bullies.

I don't have an easy solution. Allowing free-for-all combat would shift the balance of power to the strong, not necessarily the virtuous. Right now, that balance lies in the hands of the sneaky and unethical, which is probably worse. But I certainly don't think that having all kids "fight it out" is the answer.

The best answer, unfortunately, is messy. There has to be room for judgment on the part of teachers and administrators. I have many teacher friends who have seen situations where they and their colleagues know who the troublemaker is. But because of the "universal rules", the kid gets away with it time and again. And all students learn the same lesson: the one who cheats best, wins.

Readers of this blog know that I'm an ardent self-defense pacifist and a passionate believer in the use of force to defend oneself. There are thousands upon thousands of teachers, dojos, workshops, and classes all over this country teaching people how to defend themselves when they're attacked. Much of that effort involves undoing the damage of the K-12 years, where kids are methodically taught not to engage in any self-defense at all. For the sake of the kids in our schools and the adults they will become, we need to find a better way.

1 comment:

  1. Bill, my limited childhood experience of school bullying (I was home-schooled for all but three years of primary/secondary) matches this poor kid's experience. Bullies were allowed unlimited freedom to pick fights or beat up on random targets. Punishment was reserved for anybody who dared to fight back. Going the "victim" route meant that the bullies got away with it and you got hurt; fighting back meant that you got punished (albeit not very severely, this was the sort of small town school where punishment meant being chewed out by the principal, and then probably more punishment at home when word got back, which it always did) and the bully did not. Being a verbal kid I challenged our principal many times about this policy, and his reaction was essentially a shrug and a "I can only punish what I see" response. Why he was always blind to bullying but never to self-defense is something I didn't understand then or now. That school only had about a dozen rooms and most of the doors were open except during classes; you had to work at not seeing stuff.