As a school psychologist since 1978, I relate to the entire school as my client. An organization is a living body similar to our own. If something is bad for our body as a whole, it is also going to be bad for our individual cells.
Ever since state legislatures began passing school anti-bullying laws, I’ve been warning that they will hurt not only the school but also its individual components, including students, staff, and parents. Anti-bullying laws are one of the worst things to have ever happened to schools, holding them legally responsible for accomplishing the impossible.
Rather than making bullying disappear from schools, the laws make it easy for parents to sue schools for failing to make bullying disappear. When people within a system take each other to court, hostilities escalate.
These laws have wreaked havoc in countless schools, and a case in point is Hand Middle School in South Carolina. Numerous individuals there are suffering, the school is being publicly ridiculed and raked over the coals by the news media, and principal Brian Goins undoubtedly wishes he never entered the education field. Not surprisingly, his stint as principal lasted only one year.
What are the limits of racial harassment?
The recent bullying lawsuit against Hand Middle School in South Carolina might be the subject of a comedy skit if it weren’t so tragic.
The student population at Hand Middle School is 54 percent African American. The parents of a stellar African American student, India Young, are suing the school for failing to stop their daughter from being racially bullied. While “bullying” comprises a basket of virtually all possible negative behavior, racial insults are considered the most egregious and are emphasized in virtually all school anti-bullying laws.
Are you thinking that white students, members of the “powered privileged class,” were the ones relentlessly insulting and attacking India? Think again. It was her fellow African American students that were tormenting her.
They have been accusing her of “acting white,” and calling her “white girl” and “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside) because she takes school seriously and is a high achiever in an advanced class with few African American students. And the attacks have not only been verbal but have escalated to physical. India even had a couple of teeth chipped.
The lawsuit emphasizes that the harassment is race-based. But what are the limits of race-based harassment? Is it race-based harassment when people insult members of their own race for apparently acting like members of another race?
And is it the school’s fault when this happens? Did the school plaster the walls with posters or give lessons encouraging African American students to do poorly in school so they won’t be acting white? Of course not! They got this attitude outside of the school, hanging out with their peers and family members, and from their preferred entertainment media.
But once children enter school, their racial attitudes suddenly become the fault of the school.
The failure of reporters
We would expect news reporters to present both sides of a story. However, the articles bashing Hand Middle School are based solely on the reports of the disgruntled parents and their lawyer. While they claim that the general school discipline declined dramatically during the reign of rookie principal Goins, the lawsuit indicates that the harassment of India began in the previous school year, when the school atmosphere was supposedly excellent under a supposedly effective veteran principal.
Though India’s bullying situation was set in motion before Goins became principal, he paid the price.
One-sided reporting of school bullying lawsuits is actually the rule, not the exception. Reporters rarely have the time and resources necessary for a thorough and balanced investigation. It is easier just to report what the parents and their lawyers make public.
Furthermore, reporters love the opportunity to bash schools for “not doing anything” or “not doing enough” to stop bullying. It makes them feel morally virtuous, contributing their part for the anti-bullying cause by exposing the heartless school authorities who, in contrast to themselves, don’t care about the suffering of unfortunate, defenseless students.
But the main reason for the one-sided reporting is that schools are prohibited by law from making any public revelations about an ongoing lawsuit. Thus, parents and their lawyers freely inform the public of their narrative, making the most damning accusations against the school, while the mouths of the school authorities are muzzled.
I don’t know any more about the details of this story than what anyone else does from the news reports and the text of the lawsuit. However, I will present to you what probably has been going on, based on my knowledge of bullying and what schools are required to do.
India, her parents, and the school are not to blame
First, it should be clear that nothing here is intended as blame or criticism of India and her parents. Their actions, including suing the school, are completely comprehensible and justifiable under the circumstances. All they have been doing is following in good faith the instructions promulgated by the anti-bullying industry.
Nor should the school personnel be blamed. They have probably been doing their best to follow anti-bullying mandates, but the mandates are a Catch-22. The harder schools try to comply with them, the worse the bullying situation is likely to become.
My only criticism is directed towards my fellow psychological professionals who have created the bullying field and urged for the passage of school anti-bullying laws. They should know better than to think that laws can solve the bullying problem for schools when their own research reveals that the policies and programs they advocate for can’t come close to eliminating bullying.
Would they be willing to take legal responsibility for the failure of their programs and policies? Don’t they realize it’s hypocritical to demand that schools accomplish what they haven’t figured out how to do?
The lawyers’ foolish demand
Ironically, one of the demands of the lawsuit is that the school district “adopt and implement the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program or some other evidence-based bullying prevention program.” Had the lawyers done some quick research into the effectiveness of the Olweus program and the recommended “evidence based” programs, they would have discovered the folly of this demand. Not only don’t these programs work well, they often make the problem worse.
And in “minority” schools they are notoriously ineffective. The main reason is simple. These programs are all predicated on convincing students to inform the school authorities when they are bullied or witness bullying. But as they say in the “hood,” “snitches get stitches.”
No, you can’t sell the Olweus approach to African American populations. And if African American students grow up in a subculture that inculcates them with the attitude that doing well in school is “acting white,” will they change their minds if a white principal lectures them it’s not true, or will their convictions be reinforced? Or if an African American educator tells them that doing well is not “acting white,” will they accept it, or will they accuse him/her of “acting white” or being an Uncle Tom?
What probably happened
The following is only conjecture. However, I would be happy if someone who actually knows the school from the inside would confirm the account I am positing here.
From what I could find on the internet, it seems like Hand has been a better than average school for a number of years, satisfying both the students and their parents. Serious violence had not been a problem, though, of course, kids would engage in insults and minor aggression as they do in virtually all schools.
With an African American majority population, the common stereotypes and insults bandied about would reflect the students’ subcultures.
India, being a good, conscientious student and a rarity in the advanced class, was made fun of by less academically successful black students for “acting white.” Since schools don’t generally teach children how to effectively handle insults on their own, especially racial insults, she was understandably scared and upset when the kids would insult and intimidate her.
She would try to defend herself by insisting that she is not “acting white,” and ask them to stop calling her Oreo. Such responses would accomplish the opposite. They would make the insulters feel that they are defeating her, so they would continue ridiculing her. And the more she insisted she was not “acting white,” the more they would insist that she was.
Schools are required by anti-bullying laws to teach students how emotionally harmful bullying is—especially racial bullying, that bullying won’t be tolerated, that they have a right to attend school without anyone harassing them, and they should inform the school authorities when they are bullied.
India would take these messages to heart. She would feel righteous indignation at being insulted and subsequently inform the school authorities, believing they had the solution to her problem.
How the school unwittingly inflamed hostilities
While the news reports decried the supposed fact that the school authorities were indifferent to India’s suffering and did nothing about her complaints, the truth was probably the reverse. All schools today take bullying seriously, if only out of fear of lawsuits. The lawsuit indeed says,
44. To the extent Defendant Richland One [the school district] took any remedial measures to address the race-based verbal harassment and bullying, they were ineffective.
No, the school did not ignore the bullying, but its correctional efforts were counterproductive because they often are.
The school did what schools are required by law to do about bullying complaints. They investigated, and they reprimanded the offending students and punished them with suspensions.
Reprimands and suspensions may intimidate mild-mannered students who do not like to get in trouble. But they are worthless with tough kids and with those who do not care about education. Reprimands and suspensions make them angry with the school, confirming their conviction that the school is against them. Reprimands and suspensions also make them furious with their snitches, and they want revenge.
While previously they may have been merely having fun with India, teasing her about her “white behavior,” they now truly despise her and the “white society” she seems to emulate. So now they truly want to hurt her, and they do.
The more India and her parents complained to the school and to the district, the more the hostilities towards them escalated. And not only were students fed up with them, so were the school district officials. India’s parents reported that on an occasion when they approached the district superintendent, who is also African American, he was overheard saying he is trying to avoid them. Was he being racist?
Of course not! He was probably frustrated with endless complaints about a situation that got worse the more the school officials tried to resolve it.
What the school might have done
The best thing a school can do to reduce bullying is to teach children how to deal with it on their own. However, schools can be reluctant to do this because of fear of being accused of “blaming the victim.” Furthermore, laws require schools to discipline bullies, not to increase the responsibility of victims for solving their problems.
Unfortunately, school disciplinary measures for bullying generally consist of suspension and expulsion, which are often ineffective or counterproductive. They don’t fit the crime nor do they make restitution to the victim. Students injured India, which is a serious crime. Schools need to employ more appropriate and effective punishments. The following article can be of help: Principle Number Eight: An Eye for an Eye.
India’s situation was also perfect for Restorative Justice. Because Restorative Justice is an intensive process that takes up considerable time for a number of individuals, I don’t recommend it for dealing with minor affronts like insults, which children can be quickly taught to handle on their own. But when there has been a growing problem leading to physical injury, it is an excellent intervention that, when conducted properly, can lead to growth for both aggressors and victims.
And it is an ideal venue for confronting the idea that being a good student is “acting white.”
What India might have done
When I work in a school, I use role-playing to teach children how to solve their problems using the Golden Rule, which involves treating people like friends even when they treat us like enemies. In a truly dangerous environment, populated with anti-social individuals who enjoy hurting people for the sake of it, this may not always work well. But Hand Middle School doesn’t seem to be such a place.
I act out the scenarios, playing the one who is being victimized, and have a volunteer play the aggressor. First I do it the “natural” way, which is usually counterproductive. This is how I might play India responding to insults for “acting white.”
Taunter: Hey, India, stop acting white already!
India: I am not acting white!
Taunter: Yes, you are. You suck up to the teachers. You’re an Oreo.
India: Don’t call me an Oreo! I’m as black as you are!
Taunter: Only on the outside. On the inside you’re white! You walk and talk white.
India: No, I don’t! There’s nothing wrong with being a good student!
Taunter: What are you talking about? That’s the way the oppressors act. They use their education to keep us down.
India: Leave me alone. I don’t want to be a failure in life.
Taunter: Are you calling me a failure?
This approach, of course, leads to increasing hostility and possibly a physical attack. The taunter does not grow in respect for India, nor does he get convinced it pays to study.
Now, for the Golden Rule approach.
Taunter: Hey, India, stop acting white already!
India: You think I’m acting white?
Taunter: Yeah. Oreos try to do well in school.
India: Why don’t you try to do well?
Taunter: Because I’m an African American. I’m not an oppressor.
India: I know how you feel. I don’t like oppressing people, either. But I like learning and I want to have a good job when I grow up. I want to be a doctor.
Taunter: I’ll be rich without getting an education.
Taunter: I’ll either be a basketball player or a rapper.
India: I’d love to watch you play ball or rap.
Taunter: You would?
Taunter: So come hang out after school. I’ll be playing in the schoolyard.
India: I can’t. I study on weekdays. But maybe on Saturday.
Taunter: You Oreos, always studying. But come on Saturday. If I get hurt, will you give me first aid?
India: Sure. By the way, what should I call you?
Taunter: Show Dog.
India: Okay, Show Dog, maybe I’ll see you on Saturday. And if you need help studying, let me know. I’m a real geek!
Taunter: Thanks, Oreo!
India: Anytime, Show Dog! And you can call me India.
Taunter: Why do you call yourself India?
India: That’s the name my parents gave me.
Taunter: India’s your real name? Cool! Mine is Steve.
India: Steve? How’d you get a white name like that?
Taunter: My parents gave it to me. No imagination!
India: Then I’ll call you Show Dog.
Taunter: Thanks. I hate being called Steve.
India: And I hate being called Oreo!
Taunter: Okay, I’ll call you India.
Much better and safer this way, wouldn’t you say?
In case you think that African American kids could never accept being called Oreos, consider the fact that they refer to each other with the “n” word. Also, there’s a Netfilx movie called Dope that takes place in the ‘hood'. The geeky African American protagonists have a rock band. Know what they call themselves?
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.