Saturday, June 11, 2011

Bully Culture

I was homeschooled, then attended Christian school, then went to 2 public elementary schools, 3 public middle schools, 3 public high schools (including 1 magnet school) and finally, GED school. We moved a lot. I had the un-enviable experience of being the New Kid many, many times growing up. In some schools I was bullied, but at others I wasn't.

School culture plays a huge role in the degree of bullying that goes on. Surely some teacher or gym coach at that Iowa elementary school must have noticed the 20 kids ringed round me in a daily post-lunch circle, taunting me and calling me names (and not even clever ones. They just said "Big nose!" over and over.) But no teacher ever once intervened. Bullying was accepted, permissable, allowed. And so age 11 was one of the worst years of my life, and when the eating disorder I'd struggle with for over a decade began.

By contrast, my first high school, which was a magnet school for the visual and performing arts, had almost no bullying. We had a fairly diverse student population, but acceptance of diversity was also very high. During my first year there, student-led petitions had added a vegetarian alternative to the lunch menu and juice vending machines in the hallways. We started a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance and Amnesty International. Being gay or bisexual was practically trendy it was so accepted. (To my knowledge, the school is still nicknamed "bi high" to locals.) That was the only school where I felt comfortable holding a girlfriend's hand.

The new website has advice and resources for everyone involved in bullying: the bullied, the bully, the principal, parents, and even bystanders who observe bullying without reporting it.

My academic success began a long, slow decline with those 5th grade bullies. I started skipping school, faking illnesses to stay home, and even inducing vomitting - anything to get out of class, away from my tormentors. Being bullied is NOT a right of passage. Being victimized is NOT something you have to accept, for my child or yours.

If you're a student or parent, I encourage you to get involved with your local school. Find out what measures are being taken to prevent bullying. Encourage your school to adopt some if they haven't already, and make it clear to the school you want to do your part to help reduce bullying for all students.

A culture of acceptance, tolerance, and openness to new ideas made my first high school a fun, exciting place to get involved in activism and learn (like college!) A culture of silence, of kids not reporting other bullies, and teachers pretending they didn't see what they must have, made me suicidal at age 11. The difference is obvious, the choice is clear. Prevent bullying in your community, school, or workplace. We all deserve a better world.