One of the Biggest Bullies
The vast majority of our work at the National School Climate Center (NSCC) revolves around three core efforts:
- Assessment of school climate;
- Transformational work with schools and districts to promote school climate improvement; and
- Sustainability efforts that promote policy, encourage and empower new leaders, and support research.
Yet, when I first speak to people about what we do, the inevitable conclusion or connection made is that "you're the guys that do bully prevention." Indeed, NSCC has robust and comprehensive bully-prevention resources that are student centered, aligned with core curriculum standards, and (amazingly!) free. And we work arduously and continuously to make sure our bully-prevention efforts align with a larger framework to promote safe, supportive, welcoming, civically engaging, challenging, and joyous schools for all students. One metaphor I use to capture the idea that bully prevention is part of a broader school climate effort is to compare bullying to the proverbial "canary in a coal mine." I tend to believe that if there are bullying issues present in a school community, it is a symptom of other deeper issues.
This was my standard response and my abiding truth ... until recently. Now there is a pretty big and very powerful bully that impedes our positive efforts of assessment, transformation, and sustainability. This bully is increasingly more and more threatening, making it very difficult to align school-climate improvement efforts with bully-prevention work. In fact, this bully is so disruptive that it is hard to view its presence as a symptom rather than a root cause. That's because, in a growing number of schools where I collaborate nationwide, the greatest bully that students have to face is poverty.
The heightened awareness of the presence of bullying has led some to argue that "when everything is bullying, nothing is bullying." In fact, there is even the argument that we should simply stop using the word "bullying" in schools. If we focus on mean-spirited or cruel behavior, we might stand a better chance to foster empathy, inclusion, and compassion. However, the poverty I witness as being increasingly more debilitating to students actually fits the classic definition of bullying.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, bullying is identified by an imbalance of power with the intent to control or harm others. It is aggressive in nature and continues as such over time. There are presently a staggering 23 percent of students living in poverty nationwide. The aggressive and abusive effects of poverty that show themselves in the inequities of homelessness, hunger, and sickness are certainly signs of a powerful bully. Just like distress brought on from the consequences of flesh-and-blood bullies, students shaken by poverty miss more school, perform well below average, have lower graduation rates, tend to have more disciplinary issues, and show deleterious consequences long after schooling ends.
How can we tolerate this "imbalance of power"? How can we guide students to stand up to this damaging bully who destroys over time?
This depiction of poverty as a serious and threatening bully even casts other "players" into recognizable roles. In any bullying occurrence, there are always bystanders. A bystander is typically defined as a person or group who observes or hears about bullying behavior. An active bystander supports or encourages the bully with words, gestures, or actions. A passive bystander supports the bully by ignoring or doing nothing in response to the bullying. It is no different in the situation where poverty is the presenting bully. How often can we point to the passive bystanders (which might include us) that are determined to push a child through standardized tests, rote memory work, unchallenging instructional methods, and disengaged learning with no regard for social and emotional—let alone physical—needs? And how frequently do we witness at-risk students falling through safety net after safety net with barely a murmur on the part of a complicit silent majority?
We know that bullying can manifest itself verbally, socially, and physically. However, we need to focus increasingly on the systemic manifestations of bullying. The horrifying effects of poverty truly do shadow the damage caused by "sticks and stones."
At NSCC, we are honored to collaborate with youth who inspire us by taking the role of Upstanders. These are youth who see an opportunity to be socially responsible and take that challenge to "be the change." Additionally, we continually promote students as both co-learners and coteachers with us in all school-related endeavors. Let's commit ourselves to learning from our Upstanders. What can we do to break the power of poverty as it continues to bully its way into our students' lives? How can we be present and available to our youth? And, most importantly, how can we stand up for youth and advocate for them in battling one of the biggest bullies they face?
Richard Cardillo is the education director for whole child partner organization National School Climate Center. He has more than two decades of experience as a classroom teacher, rural community organizer, public spokesperson, founder and administrator for social-emotional learning and character education programs, senior member of community-based organizations, fundraiser, college teacher in Peru, and developer of community service-learning programs. Additionally, Cardillo served on two separate subcommittees of a special task force of the New Jersey State Department of Education to create regulations for the new anti-bullying bill of rights enacted into law this past year.