April 26, 2012

Bullying is a Problem (Even When it is Religiously Motivated)

BullyingAs an educator, one of the things that really gets under my skin is bullying. I strongly believe that every child has the right to a safe learning environment, relatively free from distraction, where he or she can actively participate in the educational process. Bullying is extremely disruptive and ends up depriving the victims and some of the witnesses from such an opportunity. It is a difficult set of behaviors to for schools to handle, as it requires systemic approaches for effective management.

My Personal Experience With Bullying

I first encountered bullying through personal experience. When my family moved during my elementary school years, I remember being picked on for awhile simply because I was the new kid. It did not last long, but it was not a pleasant experience. It made me hate school for awhile, precisely at a time when I should have been starting to enjoy it.

Even when it wasn't directed at me, I remember seeing bullying taking place all around me during elementary school and junior high. The kids who were different from the majority in any way - even through no fault of their own - were picked on. Maybe it was that the child's parents could not afford the "right kind" of clothes. Or perhaps the child had some sort of speech impairment. And for boys, there was the worst crime of all: behaving in a somewhat effeminate manner. That one was not to be wished on anyone.

I would be treated to a second round of bullying in my first year of high school. I was too tall, too thin, too awkward, and not sufficiently knowledgable about sports. Worse yet, I was beginning to rebel ever so slightly against the pressure to conform to the redneck mainstream of the small town in which I lived. I didn't care for country music, didn't drive a big truck, liked to read, earned good grades in school, and it never would have occurred to me to chant "USA! USA!" for no apparent reason at athletic events. I had little interest in fitting in, and I was made to pay for it. But again, it didn't last long. I was one of the lucky ones.

My Professional Experience With Bullying

When I begin teaching college, it never occurred to me that I might see bullying taking place among college students. It did not take me long to learn otherwise. Many of the behaviors look different, but there is no mistaking it. I've seen it in the classroom, and I've heard about it from tearful students in my office.

Bullying in the college environment is less likely to be physical in nature. Kids aren't necessarily being shoved up against lockers or challenged to a fight after school. But the verbal insults, public humiliation, social exclusion, and efforts to damage one's reputation are still evident.

I'll admit that when I first encountered this, my reaction was something like: these kids are virtually adults, and they've got to be able to brush this crap off at this point in their lives. Then I talked to some LGBT students here in Mississippi and realized how terribly wrong I had been. And more recently, I've heard much of the same from atheist students.

As a result of what I've learned, I've revised my syllabi to reflect the importance of maintaining a safe learning environment and spelling out that certain behaviors will not be tolerated. I've also completed trainings on recognizing some of the challenges faced by LGBT students, added myself to a list of faculty these students should approach to report problems and receive help, and gotten more active with student groups. I hope to be able to do the same for atheist students.

Religious Bullying

I recognize that not all bullying is religiously motivated. Much of what I faced as a student had little to do with religion. But I have also seen that quite a bit of what LGBT and/or atheist students face is driven by religion. I have also discovered that the primary opponent of efforts to combat bullying has been the religious right. Needless to say, I'm more determined than ever to be a source of support and understanding to those who are victimized by these asshats. Bullying is wrong, and the fact that it is sometimes done in the name of religion does not change that.

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