In early January, a group of wrestlers attacked a boy at Kelly Walsh High School. They pinned him down on a locker room bench, put a towel over his head and poured liquid over him. Around that time, three high school students from Riverton committed an act of hazing on a school bus that was so egregious that they now face expulsion.
When these episodes became public, many people took to social media to share that they too had been bullied or knew someone who had. There was a common theme to their stories. They had sought help from an adult and that person in authority hadn’t helped. Instead, they dismissed or minimized those concerns or instructed the bullied to get along with the bully.
We should ask ourselves: Why is bullying pervasive in our culture? Why are these stories so similar? And why did so many people respond by saying: this experience reflects my own?
The answers to these questions can be found in two common reactions to these incidents.
Some insisted the real problem stems from children who are just not resilient enough. The world is a tough place, and the only acceptable response is to endure its difficulties in silence, or worse, fight back and perpetuate even more violence. This line of thinking is hardly worthy of a response, other than to say that a child whose larger and stronger peers pin him down inside a locker room shouldn’t be asked to develop a tougher skin. As adults, we don’t accept violence as an acceptable solution to our problems. Why should we ask our children to abide by a different standard?
Yes, bullying is wrong, others said. But boys will be boys and it happened when I was a child, so it’s always going to happen. We’ve even heard people take this logic to its darkest extreme and suggest that, while bullying is bad, sometimes the victim has it coming. Let the children police themselves, by tooth and claw if necessary.
This second line of thinking is the most insidious. It accepts bullying as an enduring reality of childhood, a difficult path that all of our children must traverse on the journey to adulthood. It boils down to this tortured thinking: Yes, kids shouldn’t bully kids, but I suffered and you will have to suffer, too.
Except it doesn’t have to be this way. Our history has shown that when we say, “Enough,” things can improve. We once accepted, for example, that children would die young, that humans could buy and sell other humans, that violence would always be a basic component of the human condition. And while these problems still plague us, they are diminishing. Fewer children die young. Slavery is outlawed and human trafficking is on the decline. Our lives are less violent than before.
In all of those instances, the change began in our minds. We decided, as a society, that we would no longer accept beliefs that had long been considered truths. We began to attack the culture that allowed these ills to persist.
We now stand at a similar juncture. We can accept that bullying will always be endemic to childhood. Or we can dismantle, piece by wretched piece, the culture that says boys will be boys, that what happened when I was in high school will happen again, that says violence is somehow grudgingly tolerable if it’s committed by children against children.
Our children take their cues from us. If we decide that we will no longer allow bullying, that we will punish it swiftly and decisively, that our children should not suffer like we have suffered, it will get better. Not all at once. And perhaps not completely. But it will improve.
It starts with all of us.