I recently watched a DVD of Diablo Cody’s wickedly and eccentrically funny Young Adult (2011). Charlize Theron stars as a 37 y.o. writer of a series of young adult novels that has just been canceled. A former high school queen, she feels she has lost her way and so returns to her home town to rekindle a romance with her former (now married) high school flame. She accidentally encounters another former classmate “Matt” (Patton Oswalt). Matt had a brief moment of fame in school for having been mercilessly beaten by homophobes; however, as soon as the media discovered he was not, in fact, gay, they lost interest because the assault no longer was news as a hate crime.
Few of us, fortunately, encounter school bullying as brutal as that faced by Patton’s character, but nearly all of us face some degree of it – and more people than ever will admit to it must have been the bullies, at least on occasion. In my old prep school of 120 students (grades 7-12), before I was a junior, by which time I had outgrown being handled easily, I was stuffed into a locker, pummeled on buses, hung over a porch rail by my feet (it was an 8 foot drop to asphalt), and sprayed by a fire extinguisher, among many other things. It wasn’t even especially personal. I was just handy. Other underclassmen would have served as well, and just as often did. My experience was pretty typical, and I didn’t think that much about it. (I actually liked my school on balance.)
The psychology of the time was very different from today when it came to official responses to these incidents. No one ever considered calling the police. There were no lawsuits. To be sure, bullying was never “OK”; if a faculty member spotted it, there was punishment. Yet, never in my six years there was there an expulsion or suspension for it; all punishments were of the in-school kind such as Saturday detentions and work details. This was part of a broader instinct to keep the law out of campus issues; kids caught with marijuana, for instance, were turned over not to the police, as they likely would be today, but to their parents.
Today, we are all about Zero Tolerance. This term is a misnomer, because school administrations in my benighted schooldays did not “tolerate” bullying any more than administrations do today – they intervened whenever it came to their attention – but they responded in a measured way. By Zero Tolerance we really mean more extreme punishment; we “set an example for others” with more punitive responses. Though this has led to more minors being charged with criminal offenses, it is not at all evident there has been any reduction in bullying as a result. If anything, the opposite seems to be the case.
Some anti-bullying experts take an alternate approach. Izzy Kalman, for example, argues that we lose sight of the victims when we focus on severe punishment. Greater success can be had teaching kids how to deal with bullies – on how not to be victims. This also is a valuable life skill, since bullying hardly ends with a high school diploma. (He doesn’t say schools should overlook bullying, of course; he simply says that increasing the severity of punishments is an ineffective way to try to reduce it.) He points out that the most horrific events such as suicides and school shootings are not carried out by bullies but by the kids who see themselves as victims. Helping them not to see themselves that way is the most constructive thing to do. He may well have a point.
The handful of students who don’t face school bullies in any serious way – the bright stars of the campus such as the one portrayed by Charlize Theron – most certainly will encounter them where we all do: at work, in various relationships, and with petty officialdom. It’s bound to be a shock.
One of Izzy’s Workshop Videos