Bullying has many roots that educators are quick to call out: The home environment, parental role models, peer influence, mass media, and poor school funding all get their fair share. However, there is a more direct root that teachers and principals can start fixing right now, no excuses: School acceptance.
From their first moments walking through the doorways of school buildings across the nation, students are taught that they must conform to that school’s norms in order to survive. That means their clothing, their speech, their behavior, and their attitude must fit within the “acceptable” ranges. A variety of mechanisms allow adults to determine and enforce those ranges, including the curriculum (and hidden curriculum), classroom management methods, building-wide behavior management (including punishment and rewards), and the school climate in general. Students reinforce these ranges of acceptability among themselves according to their investment in them. This generally focuses on peer network formation, or cliques. Cliques reinforce each key determinate of school acceptability. While they tend to grow and thrive threw middle and high school, research and parental anecdotes shows that cliques are established in elementary school and earlier.
I have seen an increase in the amount of enforcement by students over the last decade I have worked in schools. One of the ways this enforcement has always reared its head is as acceptable bullying, which is made okay by adults. Bullying dates from the roots of schools, and earlier (and still) in the public places young people interact, such as neighborhoods and malls. Bullying is a deft way to deal out punishment for unacceptability by boys who don’t behave in a way that is perceived as “masculine” enough; and a stealth way for girls to reinforce acceptable behaviors for their peers, as well. It’s also used to shore up attitudes about social standing, cultural backgrounds, religious belief, educational levels, and many other factors.
I think that any advocate genuinely concerned with student voice will naturally gravitate to bullying as an issue in schools because bullying is among the easiest ways adults manipulate students every single day. We do this through every way I listed above. The question for me becomes how to teach young people about their voices in ways that allow them to authentically experience the impacts of bullying without perpetuating them problem. How can we increase empathy through meaningful student involvement?