How schools make bullying worse
by Izzy Kalman | April 12, 2019
I have been a school psychologist since 1978. I am trained to see the entire school as my client. Something that is bad for the school as a whole is likely to be bad for the individual components of the school, including students, teachers, administrators, counselling staff and parents. And about the worst thing to have ever happened to schools is the passage of school anti-bullying laws.
The New York Daily News of March 14 informs us about the filing of a court suit in the case of Abel Cedeno, a Bronx high school student who stabbed two students on September 27, 2017, killing one and seriously injuring another. Cedeno claimed he committed the attack because his victims had been bullying him. His lawyer, Tom Shanahan, is suing the New York City Department of Education for having failed to stop his client from being bullied. In other words, the murder is the fault of the NYC DOE.
Shortly after the news broke in 2017 about Cedeno's intention to sue the school system, I wrote a piece about the story called "I Killed My Classmate, So I’m Suing My School," which criticized anti-bullyism for destroying personal responsibility. This failing movement to rid schools of bullying has made it legitimate to blame others for our own horrendous actions. Even more absurd and draconian, it blames the school for the bullying among its students, when the actions schools are required to take in response to bullying have been proven by research to be by-and-large ineffective.
The purpose of anti-bullying laws is to make schools safe, but they have done the opposite. And the main reason is that reporting on people to the authorities immediately escalates hostilities. Five years ago, I wrote an article, “Why Telling on Bullies Backfires”, explaining the process in detail.
The most basic premise of anti-bullyism is that kids need to report bullying to the school so that the school can make it stop. But this idea has no basis in reality, and it doesn’t take a randomized controlled research study to figure out why. In prison, everyone knows that “snitches get stitches.” A sure-fire way to get people to despise you and want to hurt you is to inform on them to the authorities.
This is not to say that schools can never solve bullying problems. Sometimes they do, especially if the kids involved do not have any great investment in the bullying, and if the school has effective means to solve the problem. But interventions are rarely neutral. If they don't make the situation better, they are likely to make it worse.
The number one reason students hate each other is that they tell on each other to their teachers or principal. When I work with bullied children, I ask them if they have been telling on other kids. In fact, my most seriously bullied clients tend to be those that have been routinely doing so. When such kids stop telling, their situation quickly and dramatically improves. Yet the PhD psychologists who are the world’s leaders in bullying prevention, who inform government policy on bullying, and who could be expected to understand human nature, have proliferated the irrational belief that informing the school authorities is essential for putting a stop to bullying.
If we are kids in school and I complain to the school that you bullied me, the school now must interrogate you. Are you going to admit you are guilty? You will defend yourself and probably blame me. You will tell your friends I am a snitch and try to turn everyone against me, so now my situation worsens. If the school decides in my favour, you will hate the school, too. You will want to get back at both me and at the school, so you will be on the lookout for an opportunity to do something even worse.
News stories regularly appear in the media about bullying that led to serious violence against the self or others. Read them carefully and you will see that in almost every case the violence occurred after the victim and/or their parents reported the bullying to the school.
And that’s precisely what happened in the Abel Cedeno case. Toward the end of the Daily News report, attorney Shanahan is quoted as saying, “No matter what [Cedeno] did, it got consistently worst. Reporting it didn’t help, it made it worse.”
What did he expect—that kids would like Cedeno better for reporting them?
Shanahan is an attorney. Hasn’t he discovered that when he accuses people of wronging his clients, the accused do not jump for joy? Has he not discovered that legal proceedings intensify hatred between the parties, as they each passionately try to prove they are innocent and the other is guilty?
As bad as bullying is among kids in school, it is worse at home. Most of us that have two or more children discover that they torment each other regularly and all our attempts to create peace between them don't work. In fact, if you instruct them to report to you whenever they are mean to each other, you will discover that they take up all of your time with their fighting and that they get angry with you, too. Would you be in favour of laws requiring you to get involved whenever your children complain about each other and holding you legally liable for the results? Would you want to be a defendant in a court trial because you couldn’t create an environment in which your children live free from fear of their siblings?
It is time to stop this unfair assault against our schools, an assault that hurts the entire school community and benefits lawyers most of all. Until it can be proven that reporting to the school authorities on one’s peers is a reliable way to stop bullying, we have no business holding schools legally responsible for the bullying among the student body.
And if anyone is to be sued because bullying escalated after the school got involved trying to stop it, should it be the schools? Or should it be the leading bullying authorities that have insisted that students must report on each other and have successfully lobbied for laws holding the schools legally responsible for the consequences of their counterproductive advice?
Izzy Kalman is the author and creator of the website Bullies2Buddies.com and a critic of the anti-bully movement.