Bully prevention programs typically put kids in three categories: bullies, victims, and bystanders. Labeling children in these ways denies what we know to be true: We are all complex beings with the capacity to do harm and to do good, sometimes within the same hour. It also makes the child the problem, which downplays the important role of parents, teachers, the school system, an increasingly provocative and powerful media culture, and societal injustices children experience every day. Labeling kids bullies, for that matter, contributes to the negative climate and name-calling we're trying to address.
If it's sexual harassment, call it sexual harassment; if it's homophobia, call it homophobia, and so forth. To lump disparate behaviors under the generic "bullying" is to efface real differences that affect young people's lives. Bullying is a broad term that de-genders, de-races, de-everythings school safety. Because of this, as sexual harassment expert Nan Stein explains, embracing anti-bullying legislation can actually undermine the legal rights and protections offered by anti-harassment laws. Calling behaviors what they are helps us educate children about their rights, affirms their realities, encourages more complex and meaningful solutions, opens up a dialogue, invites children to participate in social change, and ultimately protects them.
Children's behaviors are greatly affected by their life histories and social contexts. To understand why a child uses aggression toward others, it's important to understand what impact race, ethnicity, social class, gender, religion, and ability has on his or her daily experiences in school?that is, how do these realities affect the kinds of attention and resources the child receives, where he fits in, whether she feels marginal or privileged in the school. Such differen-ces in social capital, cultural capital, and power relations deeply affect a child's psychological and relational experiences in school.
Many schools across the country have adopted an approach developed by the Norwegian educator Dan Olweus, the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, even though it has not been effectively evaluated with U.S. samples. Described as a "universal intervention for the reduction and prevention of bully/victim problems," the Olweus program downplays those differences that make a difference. But even when bully prevention programs have been adequately evaluated, the University of Illinois' Dorothy Espelage argues, they often show less-than-positive results in urban schools or with minority populations. "We do not have a one-size-fits-all school system," she reminds us. Because the United States has a diversity of race, ethnicity, language, and inequalities between schools, bully-prevention efforts here need to address that reality.
We hold kids to ideals and expectations that we as adults could never meet. We expect girls to ingest a steady diet of media "mean girls" and always be nice and kind, and for boys to engage a culture of violence and never lash out. We expect kids never to express anger to adults, never to act in mean or hurtful ways to one another, even though they may spend much of the day in schools they don't feel safe in, and with teachers and other students who treat them with disrespect. Moreover, we expect kids to behave in ways most of us don't even value very much: to obey all the rules (regardless of their perceived or real unfairness), to never resist, refuse, or fight back.