POSTED ON APRIL 17, 2013:
The Hidden World of Bullying
Tulsa play describes how problem can exist anywhere
Bullying has been with us since schools began. Interestingly enough, it looks as though, at least for the last 25 years, in this country and in much of Europe, bullying rates -- that is, the number of incidences per kid per day -- have been on a pretty steady keel. There is no epidemic of bullying, or at least that's what Yale faculty member, Slate magazine editor and author Emily Bazelon demonstrates in her fascinating and rigorously researched new book Sticks and Stones.
But there is a "bully" problem here and across the country: Like wild infection, the bully challenge is mutating in ways that make it more dangerous and insidious than ever -- almost independent of frequency here and elsewhere.
The Play's the Thing
There's a fantastic new children's play in Tulsa that debuts Thursday, April 18, at the Jazz Hall of Fame -- and it's about The Bully.
The work, an original production by veteran school playwright and Tulsan, H.L. Grayson, is entitled No Sister of Mine and is a student play, one in which fifth and sixth-grade students from the Sankofa school populate all the roles and do much of the production work.
Grayson's play features an array of energetic and talented student players, a well-crafted script and some emotional moments. I sat in on rehearsals of the production some weeks ago and was very impressed. The central premise of Grayson's new show, apart, of course, from the unassailable notion that bullying is a bad thing: Fierce bullies can be incubated in the home, in otherwise pretty regular families.
In Sister, we witness a nasty interplay between two siblings -- a situation in which a high-status kid basically disowns and constantly bullies their sibling at the school they both attend and elsewhere, with sometimes hilarious, often sad consequences.
No Sister debuts at 7pm, with the stage door opening at 6:30pm at the Jazz Hall of Fame's main space in downtown Tulsa. Tickets are $5 in advance and $7 dollars at the site -- advance tickets can be purchased at the Deborah Brown Community School, 2 S. Elgin Ave.
Part of the new interest in bullying stems from America's recent round of mass killing -- especially the school-centered slaughters, including the tragedies at Virginia Tech several years ago and the Newtown monstrosity. But there is no strong evidence to link bullying to Newtown and other mass killing events: Interestingly, some scholars, including Jessie Klein, a sociology and criminal studies prof at Adelphi University, and the author of "The Bully Society", believe otherwise. But, in a time where America trails Western Europe and many of our Asian competitors in elementary school performance, any distraction --and bullying is a monumental diversion -- that takes kids away from the books is a gigantic problem.
A Bully Pic
"Bully" looks in a compressed, gritty way at the problem: The 2011 film is a documentary and is powerful and hard to watch. The film follows kids from school in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Iowa, Georgia, and Texas during the 2009-2010 school year, and it looks at families as well as bullied kids. Lee Hirsch, the director of the film, is himself a product of "bully world," and he says he wanted "to do the film so that the hidden lives of bullied children could be brought into the open." Hirsch's sources suggest that more than 13 million American children are bullied at the schoolhouse, on buses, via the Internet and cell phones and in public spaces. Hirsch's movie reveals a raft of stark stuff: sickeningly, every school day in America is marked by kids engaged in massive avoidance routines. Every day just under 200,000 kids simply don't show up at school because they anticipate being hassled, confronted by little monsters that inhabit school hallways and hollows.
There is a fevered, still emerging dynamic that is re-animating "bully world": the explosive rise of online bullying. Kids are using Facebook, email and tweets increasingly to aggressively bully their schoolmates. This online "trashing" is a complicated matter because most cyber bullying doesn't take place at school; in fact it can happen at any time, making it uber-difficult to supervise or forestall. What might have been a nasty or extremely embarrassing moment that three or four kids witnessed five years ago -- a bad thing that disappeared into the air after it happened -- can now mutate and go viral, "visiting" hundreds or even thousands of kids, with devastating results for the child who is the target. This is a catastrophic facet of bullying that we really need to figure out to how manage without doing the Orwell thing.
Unfortunately there is additional bad news on the bullying front. In the last month, writer/researcher Bazelon and others have spotlighted brand new research that strongly suggests that the damage spawned by severe bullying can follow a kid for as long as 20 years and have a surprisingly destructive impact on confidence, the reported frequency of psychiatric and social problems and even on employment outcomes.
Operation Aware, a long-standing anti-drug/kid violence mitigation nonprofit in Tulsa, is a critical part of a coalition of entities engaged in an array of anti-bullying activities in Tulsa. I met recently with Jeni Dolan, the organization's interim executive director, and Mandie Rowden, the group's communication's chief, about Tulsa's bullying landscape and the work of a local confederation of folks who are trying to craft solutions to the bully challenge.
Operation Aware is in area schools doing anti-bully programs with kids, schoolhouse administrators and teachers. One thrust: the organization and its partners are trying to give kids an augmented perspective. For example, the group might describe a physical assault at a school from the vantage of a child victim. Later, they will depict the same event from the predator/bully's point of view, while another perspective would be to look at this same "micro world" from the perspective of a teacher who witnessed the assault.
Called social norming and gaming, these efforts allow kids, usually via simple surveys, and in some places with special smart phone apps and interactive games, to see that most of their peers don't believe that bully tactics are acceptable --shoring up the strong dislike of "bully world" that most kids already feel. Here in Tulsa Some of Operation Aware's programming is designed to give administrators and teachers a dramatically better understanding of how bullying arises. They can learn to -- in advance -- do the savvy assessments and pattern recognition work needed to identify potential bullies and victims.
The state legislature is conjuring bills that would probably impose new criminal sanctions or use novel juvenile justice interventions to address persistent "bully" kids. Dolan and Rowden expressed real reservation about these developments; skepticism I share. We live in a time with too many American kids, too many T-Town kids, secure labels in middle school, even in elementary school, as "predators" -- sometimes for trivial offenses. This "school to jailhouse" dynamic has been brilliantly outlined by Michelle Alexander, the Stanford legal scholar/writer: Kids who are caught up in the gravitation pull of the crime justice system, especially low income and minority youth, are often hobbled for life by offenses that might be dismissed in adult circles.
So, while it's good that our legislature is looking at the bullying problem, it's critically important that they don't go off the cliff and add to what's already a bloated incarceration "enterprise" in Oklahoma by using the wrong tactics to address bullying. If the work of Dolan and Rowden at Operation Aware is an example, we need more state dollars to replace federal Title IV funds and other declining sources previously available for anti-drug/anti-violence efforts. And we need more city and philanthropic help to fuel imaginative preventive initiatives--especially ones that can forestall cyber bullying and augment the coping capacity of parents of children who are bully victims or nascent bullies.
If you have an interest in bullying or simply want to see a fascinating theatric treatment of the bully problem, see Mr. Grayson's wonderful new children's play on April 18 at the Jazz Hall of Fame.
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