Bullying in Schools / Need for Empathy
by Gustavo Ramirez, Guidance Counselor / Education Consultant /www.belizeguidance.blogspot.com"Bullying... a public degradation ceremony in which the victimís capabilities are debased and his or her identity is ridiculed." Alan McEvoy, Ph.D.
October is recognized as National Bullying Prevention month each year in the USA. The entire month is dedicated to combating bullying in Primary/Elementary and Secondary schools -- by placing a spotlight on, and educating others about bullying, in all its ugly forms. Whether physical, emotional, or digital, i.e. via online social media, bullying envelops its victims with many negative and harmful academic, social, and lifetime consequences. Is the pervasive problem of bullying in schools ever accidental, or fully intentional? Does it ever rear its ugly head in schools in Belize today? If it does, is bullying a reflection of our society and/or living conditions?
Belize is a small country and is made up of a blended mix of under 350,000 multicultural/multiracial peoples and ethnic groups. In some tourist brochures we boast to the world that in Belize our varied cultures and ethnic groups of people coexist peacefully, and live harmoniously side by side. That is quite a proud claim. But, do our schools have "working" and effective (not just written) policies and responses to reports of abusive behavior by bullies, regardless of whether they be peers (other students) or perhaps even staff? What educational or social research project has ever been carried out in Belize, or published, to document the nature and extent of bullying, or absence of bullying, in our schools? Do we have policies on bullying in all our schools, or offer continuous staff training to deal with bullying of/by student peers, or provide any intervention or prevention programs in primary and secondary schools throughout our multicultural and multiracial jewel, Belize?
During my first year of high school in British Honduras, in 1965, I experienced and suffered hurtful emotional bullying. I will not hide or bury that fact. Perhaps, because I started studying at an all-boys high school at the young age of 12, when most of my student peers were much older than I was then, that set me up as an easy target for (older) bullies. Nonetheless, bullying against me back then went mostly ignored by everyone else, including staff; so, my only choice back then was to try adjusting and studying in what at times felt like an insecure and untrustworthy place. Thankfully, long sessions each weekend, to study and practice the art of meditation and Judo, did eventually prove to be of great help, and encouraged me to be comfortable with my young self. (Kudos to Dr. D. F., my Judo instructor then, and also my very first ESL student/client in Belize -- student teaching student!) Because I once was a victim of bullying, I have always made every possible effort, as educator and administrator, to immediately step in and stop any perceived bullying of a student, male or female, by another or by various others. Moreover, I have provided workshops to students, where each student had to live in a stranger's shoes for an entire day. These workshops have been extremely helpful in introducing the concept of empathy to students.
However, based on my experience since 1978 as a professional educator, what is even sadder than observing a total lack of empathy in some students, is observing how many times students and staff opt to ignore public bullying at schools. Unfortunately, indifference and neglect by student peers or staff can be just as damaging to a victim of bullying as the very abusive and degrading act itself of public bullying! Many times students/staff choose inaction (i.e. not my problem, so why get involved) or at times even outright complicity. I feel strongly that by providing continuous education to students about the root causes and negative effects of bullying, we can help students to better understand and accept each other, and combat bullying and discord in schools.
I contend that whenever a male student, regardless of his age, is being publicly bullied, whether at school or anywhere in the community, that is NOT the time or place for anyone to encourage him to "learn to fight back like a man", or "work it out". Too often, bullied students (victims) throughout the world have gotten these type messages thrown in their faces; and unfortunately, in trying to "fight back" or "work it out" too many victims of bullies have ended up slaughtering dozens of innocent others, including their very own selves. We are now living in the 21st. Century, not in Ancient Sparta where young boys (Spartans), starting from the earliest age possible, were purposefully raised in environs of uncompromising brutality so that they could learn how to become ruthless and vicious killers and gladiators. It is illegal to raise dogs to fight viciously today, even though some heartless owners do it anyhow -- for their own sickening entertainment and betting purposes; so, why suggest learning to "fight back" as an option for young boys who are victims of bullying?
Many world-renown neuroscientists, psychologists and educators have pointed out that it is possible to reduce bullying and other kinds of violence. How? After conducting many scientific research studies of students and societies, these professionals conclude that we should introduce empathy to our children at a very early age -- starting in infancy. Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in another person's shoes, in order to be able to comprehend what that person may be feeling, or going through, at various times. I have stated in previous articles/blogs, that I fully support the findings and conclusions of these professionals: empathy is not only helpful for, but a basic requisite of productive human social interaction. Practicing empathy helps us to develop a sense of morality, as opposed to living like wild animals or gladiators.
So, if indeed we all do co exist so peacefully, side by side in this jewel of ours, Belize, then WHY are our violent crime and murder rates up so high? Do people always murder, steal, or refuse to trust one another as a direct result of having to live under/with high poverty and unemployment rates? Is the bullying of young people and students (unlike many past/present major political or public scandals in Belize) a "lee sea breeze" that can/will quickly pass over and eventually be forgotten? Repeated bullying of a student can lead to his/her very severe and negative sense of hurt and depression; and, as we have seen many times before, some victims (who feel totally unaided and ignored) ultimately and hopelessly seek revengeful destruction of property or life -- and suicide to end their pain. So, in addition to reacting to public bullying of young people in our schools and communities, lets try to prevent it from ever occurring.
In addition to introducing and encouraging empathy in our children from an early age, what else can/should we parents and educators do to minimize bullying or bad behavior of children? Are there preventive measures that we could introduce from in early childhood to stop bullies from ever emerging to physically or emotionally abuse their peers, or those who are different from them? I have said it before, and say it again: In order for Education (learning) to be successful, we parents and educators should first make every effort to try to understand and accept our youth for who they are; more importantly, we need to also strive to teach and encourage them to understand and accept themselves. Perhaps, when/if our youth feel accepted, they will be likelier to make an effort to understand and/or accept behaviors of other "different" persons -- no matter how different in age, physical size, race, sex, etc. others may be. In simple words, we parents, educators, and entire communities could set the examples for our youth today, by first walking the walk with them, instead of merely talking the talk down to them.