Tuesday, October 11, 2011

School Bullying - There IS an EASY fix

School bullying has becoming a near obsession to the point of Anderson Cooper making a national campaign against it and CNN reporting endlessly on it along with other media. There is reason for it if children lose their lives to it.

However, to a person raised outside the US it is surprising that for all the research on victims and aggressors, mea culpas by talking heads and school administrators the dynamics and the solution are so difficult to understand.  I can already hear the chorus of dissent and dismissal for lack of complicated paradigms and formal research papers.

Nonetheless there is a simple remedy that could be tested at minimal or no cost with virtually no lead time.  It is probably too simple to be credible to many, but let's look at it just in case.


Most would agree that bullying, in its many manifestations, reflects a fight for social dominance and status within a group and may be acted out by individuals or groups.  I will leave it to researchers of primates to explain why humans have such a need. I accept that we do to varying degrees and give various displays of it.

The first notable thing to a newcomer to this land (40 years ago) that enters a US middle school or high school is the strong social dynamics of popularity. In American schools popularity is the all absorbing priority of students except for those contrarians that on purpose reject it and create alternative counter cultural groups with varying degrees of alienation.  Popularity can be built by many means from the jersey of an athlete-jock to the pom-poms of a cheerleader to the wallet of a big spender and by the kid that has easy access to the family's medicine  or bar cabinet.  Looks and clothes and the right vehicle (including the one a parent drives them to school in) are key components to the social climb.

So, just as for everything in society, there are the haves and the have-nots.  As in any group from social and sport clubs, to greek houses, to trade unions to military elites, exclusion and limitation of membership is the means to increase the value of the membership and its benefits for those accepted: thus hazing rituals, separate and exclusive gatherings, country club fees, special handshakes, etc.

In schools the same group dynamics evolve and are fed by differences in economic means, athletic skill, gift for jokesterism, access to drugs and transportation.  Group membership is further amplified and managed by social media tools, cell phones, etc.  as tools of inclusion, exclusion and social attack.

The Fix

To that same newcomer that went to school abroad in a country where students attend from 8am to 1pm, then go home, never eat lunch at school, and study on their own in he afternoons, the fix is obvious.  School group dynamics are driven not only, but heavily by the ability of kids to group (read include exclude others) at lunch time.  In the cafeteria and in the school yard the whole population can see who belongs where and with whom building the necessary envy, desire for membership, superiority by exclusion. Just as for primates violence, psychological or physical,  enforce the group membership and relative dominance.

So an easy fix is to test in schools is to break up or weaken the cycle of group creation and control by  inclusion/exclusion: Require students to sit at assigned (randomly drawn and periodically rotated) seats at every opportunity in classes in cafeterias,  auditoriums, etc.

Forced one on one contact is not as desirable as voluntary contact, but it would teach tolerance for societal rules (for sure and also need) and eventually tolerance for people that one would have not chosen to come in contact with.  Initially such school requirement would be most unpopular, but discovering that people outside a chosen group are not dorks or geeks or dumb or poor or useless would eventually prevail.

Similarly, school uniforms have for ages demonstrated their ability to unify a student body by minimizing  aesthetic and economic differences.

This whole idea is probably anathema to a population and culture that for the last 50 to 100 years has been schooled in the American way of school cafeterias and schoolyards.  But there is reason for optimism: school uniforms have started making a come back in many public schools, with great results, for similar reasons a despite the best efforts of vested interests intent in commercializing our children into ever changing fashion objects (sidebar: Anderson Cooper and CNN  might research how many countries that score above the US in middle and high school achievement require uniforms in their schools - care to bet?).

This is only a small step that probably would take some years to have serious impact on the culture, but rivers change course according to one small grain of sand being displaced one way or another. This is one grain that would require very little to test.

Marco Messina