“‘Hell is about to break loose’ if the situation isn’t handled correctly,” warns Murfreesboro [Tennessee] School Board candidate David Settles.
What exactly is “the situation”?
It’s one of the most outrageous bullying news stories ever. Police officers stormed the Hobgood Elementary School and arrested ten children between the tender ages of 6 and 11, putting some of them in handcuffs.
Among the vast number of outraged people are the American Civil Liberties Union and the Tennessee Black Caucus, which are demanding an investigation to discover who is to blame.
Making the issue a bit clearer, The Daily News Journal informs us that since five of the ten arrested children are black,
At a time of heightened tension in the country between police and the residents of the neighborhoods they protect — particularly minority communities — the incident raises concerns regarding several national issues, including the over-disciplining of kids of color, the criminalization of childhood behaviors and the growing mistrust some residents have with law enforcement.
The outraged masses aren’t likely to be satisfied till they see some guilty heads roll. Unfortunately, as will be explained, they are looking for guilt in the wrong places. As a result innocent people will pay the price.
What was the dastardly offense of these young criminals? Did they murder a fellow student? Did they tie up the principal and throw him into the school swimming pool? Did they plan to blow up the Hobgood School?
It wasn’t anything remotely as evil. The children didn’t even sneak into their teachers’ desks to steal answers to tests. So what did they do?
That’s right. Their crime was doing nothing. The children are suspected of witnessing a 6-year-old-boy hitting an 8-year-old boy who had previously hit him in the eye and “standing by and not stopping the fight.”
Actually, this isn’t totally accurate. Some of the kids were encouraging the younger boy. It must have been exciting to see a little kid getting revenge against a bigger one. But there was no murder or injury, just a common boyhood fight. As the article reports, the younger boy’s mom indicated, “if anybody checked they’d know there are fights every day.”
And the fight, which was over a basketball, didn’t even happen on school grounds. But one child filmed it on a cell phone and showed it at school. A teacher saw the video and reported the incident to the school resource officer, who in turn reported it to the police, who then came to do their job:
Christopher Williams, the school safety and education officer at Hobgood on the day of the incident, said that the Hobgood administration and office staff “handled the situation as wonderfully and as good as they could have.”
Now the neighborhood parents – and the rest of the country – are outraged at the police and are looking for who’s to blame. And rightfully so. What the police did was far more harmful to children than what the 6-year-old did.
Bully or victim?
Incidentally, this occurrence also reflects one of the most common problems schools encounter in trying to enforce anti-bullying policies: differentiating between bullies and victims. As News 2 reports:
“I feel like the news is making it look like he’s a bully, and the 8-year-old hit him first,” Brittney Herrin told News.
Those parents said their son, a 6-year-old kindergarten student, was hit first by the older child, but the bystanders didn’t record the beginning of the fight. They said because of the neighborhood they live, which has seen its share of crime, they actually teach their children to defend themselves. “They were just playing and the little boy hit him in his eye, and [my son] came and told me he was going to go and defend himself,” Herrin explained.
The mother says she told her son not to let anyone pick on him, so that’s when she says he went and confronted the older child.
Interestingly, the police didn’t arrest the 6-year-old boy who did the hitting, only those who allegedly didn’t stop him!
Who is responsible?
The police chief prudently apologized for the unreasonable actions of the arresting officers. But who is really to blame? How did the police come to take it upon themselves to act so outrageously? Do they have nothing more urgent to do with their time than arrest a bunch of children for normal childhood behavior? How did they come up with the idea that children should be treated like criminals for failing to act as deputy policemen?
The responsibility lies, plain and simple, with the bullying psychology itself, created by Norwegian psychological researcher, Prof. Dan Olweus. He created a definition of “bullying” that includes all aggressive behavior and posited a legalistic model of social life that categorizes everyone into bullies, victims and bystanders. The bullies are the guilty parties, the victims are innocent, and the bystanders are accomplices to the “crime” by either actively or passively condoning bullies’ behavior. He also instructed us to involve the entire community, including the police and government, in the campaign to stop bullying.
His model and recommendations were eagerly accepted by the academic psychological world following the Columbine massacre, the event that spawned the worldwide concern with eradicating bullying. Olweus’ bullying psychology rapidly became the most influential school of psychology in history, being enshrined in anti-bullying laws throughout the world. The American Psychological Association awarded Prof. Olweus the greatest honor it can bestow on a psychologist.
The general public enthusiastically embraced the anti-bully psychology because of its seductive premises: when people are repeatedly mean to us, we play no role in the way they treat us; that all of society – especially bystanders – is responsible for protecting us from other people; and that all we need to do when people are mean to us is inform the authorities, who will then force them to become nice to us.
The individual who is perhaps most responsible for the widespread dissemination the idea of bystander responsibility is Barbara Coloroso, who wrote the wildly popular book, The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander (yes, I am jealous of her success), which put Olweus’ teachings on steroids. She has made a lucrative career of portraying bullies in the most demonic terms and comparing the most horrific of evils – genocide – to bullying. To emphasize the guilt of the person who observes bullying and does nothing to stop it, she renamed the recent update of her book, The Bully, the Bullied and the Not-So innocent Bystander.
Because the Olweus model has become accepted as gospel truth, almost all anti-bullying programs make the role of the bystander the centerpiece, and sometimes even the only piece, of their intervention strategy.
The failure of the bystander approach
Despite its popularity, the bystander approach to stopping bullying hasn’t been working. At best, programs based on enlisting bystanders produce a mild reduction in bullying. Sometimes they lead to an increase. However, whenever the creators and researchers of these programs discover their ineffectiveness, they conclude that efforts to recruit bystanders must be intensified rather than abandoned.
Why has the anti-bullying psychology been failing in its mission? It’s because it is based on wishful thinking rather on a scientific understanding of human nature – and we can’t solve problems by ignoring nature.
Its proponents begin with a dream of a society that is entirely safe. They then embark on a campaign of social activism and political lobbying to make the dream a reality. They do this without actually knowing how to create such a society.
The leaders of the academic bullying field reject the possibility that bullying may be part of our nature. They insist, without any evidence, that bullying is a “strictly learned behavior,” a result of our “bullying culture.” Thus, they conclude that the solution to bullying must be to reverse our bullying “culture” by making it unacceptable, and by changing bystanders from “enablers” of bullying into anti-bully police officers.
Seven years ago, I wrote an article in response to a news story about a teen bystander who paid with his life for actively standing up for a bullying victim. Based on plain understanding of human nature, the article explains in detail why the bystander approach doesn’t work. This plain understanding is echoed by parents in the current Murfreesboro incident:
“That’s just like if it’s a gunfight in the middle of this park. Who wants to be a hero and break up a gunfight and put their lives in danger?” said the 6-year-old’s father, Fronzell Batts. “Those kids shouldn’t have to put their lives in danger to break up a fight.”
One doesn’t need a PhD in psychology to understand that most people don’t want to get involved in other people’s fights, and that parents don’t want their children to be forced into such a position, either.
What lead to the student arrests?
There is nothing new in the anti-bullying teachings, and schools have intervened millions of times in bullying incidents. So what lead to Hobgood students getting arrested for being passive bystanders?
From the information available, I surmise that there are two factors that contributed to this extreme response.
1. The event was video-recorded on cell phone. Many incidents of aggression have gone viral because they were video-recorded. This puts the parties responsible for handling bullying under especial pressure to do something. The last thing they want is to become humiliated in the national news for alleged negligence.
2. The fight took place off school grounds. Had the incident occurred at school, the administration would have followed district anti-bullying guidelines – conducting investigations, informing parents, drawing conclusions, administering consequences and filing required paperwork. Technically, the school is not responsible for what children do in their neighborhood. However, because the video was being spread in school, the school had to do something or risk being accused of “doing nothing” or “not doing enough” about bullying. So the school did the only reasonable thing: it involved the police.
Police have also been indoctrinated in the bullying psychology
Anti-bullying laws make bullying a crime, and police departments have been given their share of responsibility for dealing with it. All police departments are trained in bullying and learn the same things about it that the rest of us do, including the role of “not-so-innocent bystanders.”
Their awareness of the bullying psychology also explains why they didn’t arrest the only character in the story proven to be violent: the 6-year-old boy who was doing the hitting. Why wasn’t he arrested?
“The first reason is because of his age, and the second is his mom says he was just defending himself.”
The age cannot be the real reason because another 6-year-old was arrested. The second is the true reason: the mother insisted that he was a victim because he was hit first. The police are certainly aware of the bullying psychology’s taboo against “blaming victims,” so they didn’t dare arrest him.
The police are also aware of the massive popular concern with bullying and the danger of being vilified by the news media for not responding to it seriously. Therefore they needed to demonstrate to the world that it is tough on bullying. So they did what only police can do: they arrested the suspects, in this case elementary school children.
Perhaps what the police didn’t realize is that when it comes to bullying, they are “doomed if they do and doomed if they don’t.” If they hadn’t treated it seriously, they would have been vilified for not doing enough. And when they did treat it seriously, they were vilified for doing too much.
The wrong heads will roll
One of the unfortunate consequences of the anti-bully crusade is that countless school administrators and other public servants have gotten in trouble and even lost their jobs because they supposedly didn’t handle bullying incidents properly. The truth is, many have gotten in trouble even when they did properly follow bullying regulations, because following bullying regulations tends to intensify bullying situations. Now, the public advocacy organizations that have gone on the warpath in Murfreesboro will be looking to see heads roll. But they’ll be looking in the wrong direction.
The true culprits – the experts who have promoted this unscientific, counterproductive bullying psychology – are never held responsible for the results of their teachings. They will continue to earn big bucks and glorious awards for turning ordinary children into criminals.
Israel “Izzy” Kalman is Director of Bullies to Buddies, a program that teaches the practical application of the Golden Rule to reduce bullying and aggression and solve relationship problems. This article has been reproduced with permission from his blog.