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Books, Blogs, Ideas: Emily Bazelon

Investigative journalist Emily Bazelon on the complicated issue of bullying—and what it means for schools.

Emily Bazelon’s new book, Sticks and Stones, comes on the heels of a yearlong spotlight on bullying—some of it nuanced, some not so much. Bazelon’s book falls into the former category, an empathic, in-depth look at one of the more complicated issues facing schools today.

Q Why should bullying be a major priority for schools?
A First, they should decide whether bullying is a problem for them. Schools do an average of nine different violence prevention programs, and that’s eight more than they can do effectively. It’s really a question of whether a targeted bullying program is the right fit or whether you can do things that might have a broader impact.

Q What about schools struggling with multiple problems?
A High-poverty schools often have real issues with a chaotic school climate, so it’s especially important for them to foster the kind of environment that helps kids learn. Bullying is one way into that. It may not be the only thing they have to address, but it can be a useful lens for looking at the school.

Q What are the three most important things schools can do to combat bullying?
A Number one is to foster connections between adults and students. Adults are constantly exhorting kids to come forward, but if that isn’t going to make things better, it’s an empty demand.

Second is to create a culture where there’s less social reward for being mean.

Third, bystanders need to feel safe coming forward. In more than four out of five cases, bullying happens in front of other kids, but they step in only 20 percent of the time. However, when they do step in, they stop bullying half the time.

Q What are the pitfalls of a rush to punish, as in the well-known case of Phoebe Prince, the Massachusetts teen who committed suicide?
A We end up with this very disproportionate response, in which we single out a few kids as examples and turn them into social pariahs. This distracts communities from coming up with solutions because everyone’s focus is on revenge and blaming as opposed to figuring out how to prevent and help.

Q Is teaching resilience the flip side of teaching empathy. Are they equally essential?
A Yes! We need to promote the impulse that most kids have toward kindness by helping them create environments in which kindness is rewarded. On the other hand, we have to foster resilience, because kids’ lives are going to include adversity, and they must learn how to confront it.

Q Is a tech-oriented society less empathic?
A That is a potential pitfall of the Internet. Stanford professor Clifford Nass looked at kids who were very heavy social-media users and he found they reported fewer good feelings about their friendships. We need to be cognizant of what the implications are for kids’ empathy skills. They’re missing visual cues and tone of voice when they text or post things.

Q How can we most effectively combat the ill effects of social media sites where bullying is rampant?
A We have a lot of power as consumers. When people protest the way sites like Facebook and Twitter work, they change. Sites are set up to report bullying, but they could do more by actually working with schools, which none of them does now. None of them has an easy way for schools to report violations. They could also use some of their influence with kids to get them to behave better. Facebook in particular has seen that when it threatens to take down a post or deny privileges for breaking a rule, most kids don’t reoffend.

Q How can legislation best be used to address bullying in schools?
A This is not a problem that’s easy to legislate away. One of the most effective things states can do is to tell schools they need to address this not in a one-shot way but more comprehensively. I wouldn’t want state legislatures to require a targeted bullying program. However, telling schools they should go through a process of assessing how to improve the school climate, and taking that issue seriously, could be very helpful.

 ****

“Sticks and Stones”
Bullying is a black-and-white issue, right? You have a victim; you have a bully. Not quite, says author Emily Bazelon. Digging deeper into recent incidents, she shows that the dynamics behind bullying are complex—and our responses should be as well.

Three instructive case studies form the bulk of the book: that of Monique McClain, in which missteps were made by the media, school administrators, and the family; the case of Jacob Lasher, a gay teen up against a bumbling principal and uncaring administrators; and that of Flannery Mullins, one of several teens accused of “bullying to death” Phoebe Prince, a deeply troubled girl whose suicide prompted a distorted and damaging media campaign.

What we come away with is this: Bullying is anything but simple, and it’s complicated even more by the unpoliced world of social media. Bazelon helps by offering don’t-do-this examples and expert advice that lead us through the maze.

—Spring 2013—

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