Progressive responses to bullying FTW

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I read this last week about my hometown: Needham bullies get therapy not detention. (It’s running under the title ‘Alternative responses to bullying’ now.) A quick excerpt:

Under a new antibullying program, Needham Youth Services director Jon Mattleman and his staff use YouTube videos and other unconventional strategies in an attempt to not simply punish aggressors, but to transform them.

In Massachusetts, the suicide of bullied South Hadley teen Phoebe Prince last year spawned first-in-the-nation legislation that requires school districts to develop bullying-prevention plans and set up systems to track and report incidents.

But Needham’s Bullying Intervention Program, designed by Mattleman and his staff over the summer, makes the town among the first to supplement its required school-based prevention program with mandatory counseling for bullies who get caught.

“Most school systems just identify these kids and suspend them, and they think that will be a deterrent,’’ said Mattleman. “Our belief in Needham is different. Yes, we want to send a strong message, but we also want to rehabilitate them.’’

I think this is fantastic, and it makes me proud to hear it’s my hometown that’s pushing the envelope on how we look at bullying and what to do about it. In fact, I think Massachusetts overall has a way of being rather progressive about big issues like this (first state to make gay marriage legal, after all).

I went through some bullying when I was a kid. Mine came almost exclusively in the form of being mocked by my peers, for reasons I still couldn’t tell you, and also some social exclusion. It sucked. I hated a lot of things about 5th grade because of it (Among other things, my personal Mean Girls got my entire class to participate in an April’s Fool joke on me. It might’ve been worse if the joke hadn’t been really lame and very transparent – they had everyone trying to tell me I had something on my face. I didn’t.), and Middle School was a wash in its entirety and I consider it overall to be three years I want back at the end (The high point was in 8th grade, when the people I ate lunch with, every one of them, moved to sit at another table entirely so I couldn’t find them and sit with them. I spent a month or so eating lunch in my homeroom with a few other refugees who were there for their own reasons. It was far less stressful in there.).

(Yes, my parenthetical grammar and punctuation were all over the place there. Deal with it!)

It hurt. I had also somehow gotten into a habit of having best friends who kept moving away after a year, so that made things difficult, too. But as down as I got about it, even when I was upset and crying over it, I never let them make me believe I was worthless. Those times I cried? I hated that I was crying about it, that it mattered enough to me to upset me.

Thankfully, I found friends who were genuine, whom I loved for who they were and who loved me for who I am. And we’re still friends today.

This article, though, has me thinking about those kids who made some of my middle school years miserable. I can understand now that, yes, learning to deal with some of this stuff is part of growing up–not everyone will like you, and you need to find out how to deal with that. You also need to find a way to deal that’s healthy and helpful, that doesn’t involve lashing out at others in return. Like I said, I don’t know why those people decided they wanted to make fun of me. Maybe they don’t even know. But I do think that approaching bullying like this is a significantly better way  than just continuing to dole out punishments that are clearly ineffective. Don’t just tell them it’s wrong–show them why it’s wrong, show them that their words have power, and that power needs to be used for good. Especially in a time when online attacks and cyberbullying are becoming bigger problems, and in those mediums, all we have are our words. Few people do evil things believing they are really evil – Disney villains are the only ones who go around touting themselves as ‘O Mighty Evil One’. Real evil looks much more like you and me.

It’s a sort of minor version of the imprisonment issue. What good is a person being behind bars for any stretch of time if he or she is never rehabilitated? If that person never really comes to understand that (a) what they did is wrong and (b) learns how to stop themselves from doing it again? Because let’s all be honest, how many times have you done something that’s not right, and then later, knowingly, done it again anyways? Just because you know it’s wrong doesn’t mean you won’t do it again. Of course, tossing them in jail is easier than putting all of them through therapy until it finally works. But that doesn’t mean it’s the more effective solution.

Likewise, throwing a kid in detention for bullying is easier than taking the time to show and teach him that what he’s doing is wrong, and making him understand that enough to stop doing it. But is it worth it? I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be. These are kids. It’s our job to raise them to be good people.

 

(And FTW stands for “For the Win”, in case you’re unaware!)

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