I think it is a denial fantasy that the relentless verbal abuse that used to pound through the hallways of the Exeter Area Junior High in 1987 and 1988 have magically disappeared in 2010 at Cooperative Middle School.
It's the same school, same hierarchical institution, same oppressive school rules, just in a different building a few miles away.
The survey by bullying expert Stan Davis states an "extremely positive finding that students rarely see these negative behaviors in their classrooms." I don't buy it. When I moved to the Exeter school system as an 11-year-old in January 1986, I was surprised to discover on my first day of school that the students were terribly cruel and judgmental towards one another, especially regarding clothing, appearance and economic status. I was stunned, coming from a much more close-knit school, to witness even developmentally disabled students being tormented with a cockiness and ease that conveyed entitlement!
It took only a few hours before the bored students found something about me, the new kid, to tear apart (my headband and boots); on that day I joined the legacy for six and a half years of witnessing, experiencing and regrettably, sometimes participating in, the daily barrage of mental and verbal abuse in the Exeter school system. I could write a book about the severity of the problem, which was so much a part of the fabric of the school experience that it was assimilated to be the right of those fortunate enough to have their followers believe they were more worthy human beings than their victims. The verbal abuse towards certain groups was relentless, viral and incredibly vicious, and this was before abuse could be spread via texting, Web sites and social media.
The most disturbing aspect of this experience was the way too many of the faculty of the EAJH and EAHS behaved towards the children, modeling behavior such as humiliation, verbal aggression, domination, favoring popular students, ignoring bullying of unpopular students and even occasionally joining in with students who were bullying a child victim. I wonder if a bullying expert with a student survey back then would have come up with any results?
The fatal flaw of all adult-instituted studies of school children is that few adults can ever cross the barrier of the youth culture. Adults can peer in, talk to informants and sequester a hypothesis, but the reality is that there is a code of student culture, a code of tacit rules, unspoken customs and common student knowledge that is indecipherable and even incomprehensible to most adults. I feel confident to guess that the survey did not dig deep enough into the student culture to realize that many of the ways children control and hurt each other emotionally are too subtle, chronic and wordless to even come to the awareness: Grouping, shunning, disregarding, ignoring, excluding, controlling as well as the raised eyebrow, the passive-aggressive "compliment," the innocent-seeming laugh, benign-seeming patronization. These subtle behaviors are below the surface of more obvious attacks such as gossip, verbal abuse, threats and physical violence and often can't be conveyed on a survey.
The tragedies that have occurred recently in Exeter and in Hadley, Mass., resulting in the loss of precious lives are not new. In the 1980s, popular films and music reflected student suicidal ideation due to peer harassment and the late 1990s saw the deadly results of chronic peer harassment in the horrors of multiple school homicides.
In my years of working as a mental health counselor with youth of all ages, it has been chilling for me to discover how prevalent desperate thoughts of suicide or homicide are among victims of peer harassment who believe there is no escape from the assault on their dignity.
Surveys, programs, "awareness" campaigns and more rules are not the answers to peer-to-peer, teacher-to-student and even student-to-teacher cruelty. In public school, youth are dominated and subordinated for 13 of their most malleable years of life, allowed little or no meaningful input into their own education and environment. It makes sense in such a powerless environment that children would seek power by trying to control less-assertive peers. This is contrary to the peer culture in most homeschool groups and in democratically run schools such as the Sudbury Valley Free School, where children are in charge of their education.
We need to take a sobered-up and insightful look at how peer bullying and harassment are side effects of the power structure of public schooling itself.
Laurie A. Couture is the author of "Instead of Medicating and Punishing," a mental health counselor and a parenting coach who lives in Newmarket.
Originally published here.Commentary by SoulRiser on May 9, 2010 @ 7:11 PM