Sunday, January 12, 2014

3 Ways to Know If Your School or District Engages in Bullying Behavior

"Systems can bully as much as individuals." Sharon Salzberg & Robert Thurman, Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit & Be a Whole Lot Happier
I began reading Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit & Be a Whole Lot Happier by Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman today, and I stumbled on a section that focuses on bullying and dealing with those who bully. In that reading, Salzberg and Thurman mention that systems and social institutions can bully people as much as individuals. While I have understood and believed that the "culture" of a school can facilitate bullying and make it easier to happen, I had not ever fully made the leap to the idea of a school being a bully. The truth is, schools can be bullies in an even more insidious way: they can belittle students and staff in ways that are more covert than overt. 

How do we know when a school or school system is engaging in bullying behavior? According to Salzberg and Thurman, institutions bully through their social structures such as stereotyping, hierarchy and through thought control. It is rather obvious that schools can promote stereotyping through its school rituals, rules, and in its ways of dealing with students.

  • They can also clearly promote stereotyping by fostering false hierarchies of students through its clubs, sports, and other student organizations. 
  • They can really be guilty of bullying students and staff through methods of trying to control students' thoughts and by being intolerant of diversity of thought and beliefs. 
In a word, schools can be one of the most powerful bullying factors in a student's life.

How then do we know a bullying school when we see it? How can I tell if my school engages in bullying students? Here's some ideas of where to begin your examination of your school.

1. Does your school promote stereotyping through its academic, social, and other rituals and practices? For example, does your school have a habit of valuing one group of students over another? Does it through its practices place students in stereotypical groups? Does it, for example, make a big deal about being on the football team, but ignore those students who are band students or who are in the art club? You can probably know whether your school promotes stereotyping by looking at its values. What it values, it promotes the most. All school rituals and practices are based on these, so if your school values one group much more than another, you can be sure it might be covertly bullying those groups it values less by neglect and by default. Take time today with your staff and examine all those rituals, practices, processes, and values your school uses and has. Look at them carefully to determine whether they are creating bully victims. Then change them.

2. Does your school have staff who are bullies?  For example, in many schools where I have worked as an administrator, there are often staff members who bully students with put-downs, mistreatment, and ridicule. Often, these are the same individuals who refer kids to the office the most, and just can't figure out why they have so many behavior problems in their classrooms. By not dealing directly with these bullying staff members, schools become bullies by default. Be aware of how your staff, and yourself, treats others in the building and deal with bullying behavior directly and decisively.

3. Is your school more about controlling students rather than allowing students to grow and explore? Some of the worst bully offenders are schools that are more about controlling students than about teaching them. For example, while rules and procedures are necessary to protect students, they can be coercive and controlling when their goal is to try to tell students what they should think, believe, feel, etc. That's why values education programs can sometimes be dangerous waters to wade into. That's also why some schools are struggling with tolerance and acceptance of diversity. Schools that strive too hard to standardize its students often engage in mind control and bullying too. In their efforts to be "fair" to all students, they do not engage in "just" behavior, which is especially true of things like dress codes and efforts to control what students read. It is important to reflect and examine whether your school is more about "control" or "teaching." If it more about the former, it might be engaging in bullying behaviors.

In all our talk about dealing with bullying, we seldom talk about schools being bullies, but as Salzberg and Thurman point out, they can be. Schools that bully turn students off to learning and life. We as school leaders have a responsibility to perpetually reflect and examine our schools to make sure they do not engage in bullying their students.


  1. A good point to also expand upon and perhaps explain things like this is whether or not the community and its culture encourage this bullying type of behavior. Why is the football team the most lauded thing in my area? Well, maybe it's "Friday Night Fury," the 30-minute weekly local high school football show. Why do teachers and students feel afraid to speak out? Maybe it's because parents aren't afraid to accuse teachers of "liberal brainwashing" or complain when things don't seem to mesh with their white, Christian, hetero-normative values. Why are certain discipline policies in place or why is there an emphasis on testing? Perhaps the school board or whatever governing body has the power of budgeting and taxation demands certain things from the school district or school and will withhold money when they don't get their way.

    1. Excellent point. We might perhaps even get our bullying values from national culture as well. Our knowing why we do the things we do is an excellent exercise in self-reflection to get all these concerns out in the open. Thanks for joining in the conversation.

    2. I also think self-preservation dictates quite a bit of building and district policy. I'm sure there are more than a handful of policies and actions that I can point at and say they came about because someone threatened a lawsuit.