A recent case from Pennsylvania teaches us an important lesson about why bullying is such a serious and persistent problem in public schools in the United States. Teachers and principals often allow bullies to say and do appalling things, day after day. A reasonable person may imagine that those teachers and principals fail to intervene because they are weak and permissive. Yet those supposedly weak and permissive adults can come down like a ton of bricks if one of the children who are being targeted by the bullies tries to defend him- or herself, even nonviolently. In other words, many teachers and principals actually condone bullying. Some of them actually participate in the bullying, while others simply take the bullies’ side. Education and human rights activists need to understand why an adult might behave that way.
In the case from Pennsylvania, a 15-year-old boy used his iPad, which he was allowed to bring to class, to record evidence of the living hell that his math class had become. When the principal heard the recording, he did not discipline the teacher or the bullies. Instead, the principal reported the bullies’ target to the police. The bullies got off scot-free, but principal saw to it that their target ended up facing a felony wiretapping charge, even though the recording was made in self-defense and only after the school authorities had ignored repeated requests to solve the problem. The wiretapping charge did not stick, because the principal had destroyed the recording. (The principal’s need to hide how bad things were at his school outweighed his desire for vengeance against a child who dared to defend himself.) So a judge convicted the boy for disorderly conduct instead. Fortunately, the boy’s mother had transcribed the recording before it was destroyed. She wants the judge to drop the charges and the school district officials to apologize.
Why would a principal have criminal charges brought against a child who simply provided evidence that he was being bullied at school? Why didn’t he stick up for the rights of the abused student, as any decent person would have done? To understand the principal’s reaction, you need to understand something about the nature of social hierarchy. Like a flock of hens, a human society tends to organize itself into a social hierarchy. High-ranking hens police the behavior of lower-ranking hens by pecking them, thus creating a pecking order. The children who are being bullied at school are similarly at the bottom of the school’s pecking order. Anyone can attack them: the principal, the teachers, and even other children.
People with an authoritarian personality seem to feel that as long as the strong are attacking the weak, God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world. But they perceive any attempt at self-defense by someone on the bottom rung of society as a threat to the entire social order. The high-ranking people will thus instinctively attack the underdog for defending himself, in order to preserve the social hierarchy and thus their own exalted rank within it.
When a flock of hens is badly managed, the higher-ranking hens may gang up on a lower-ranking hen and peck her to death. The usual cause of this problem is overcrowding. The lower-ranking hen simply cannot escape from her tormenters. Unfortunately, schools create precisely the same situation. Bullying is rampant in classrooms, on playgrounds, and especially on school buses because the lower-ranking children simply cannot escape. Like a prison, a school provides a bully with targets and an audience. But even if a teacher does not have the skills to manage this problem in the classroom, the principal can solve it by putting physical distance between the bullies and their targets, such as by reassigning one or more of the children to a different class.
That student in Pennsylvania felt that he has a basic human right to walk through the hallways without being tripped, slammed into lockers, or burned with a cigarette lighter by his fellow students. He felt that he has a right to have a math class where no one threatens to pull his pants down, shouts obscene insults at and about him, or “just tries to scare him” by slamming a book on his desk. The teacher and the principal and even the judge in this case evidently had a different opinion. By ruling that the boy was guilty of disorderly conduct, the judge sent the message that the boy had no right to record evidence of the offenses being committed against him, that he has no right to defend himself.
Fortunately, a judge in a higher court withdrew the disorderly conduct charge. State lawmakers then promised to amend the wiretapping law to provide protection for whistleblowers.
The boy in this case is described as having special needs. According to published accounts, he has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and processes some kinds of information slowly. Yet who could focus on math problems in that kind of setting? Would this boy have had any trouble with learning if he were not being treated like Piggy in The Lord of the Flies? Maybe the real diagnosis in his case should be post-traumatic stress disorder, not a learning disability. In a classroom like that, children learn very little math, but they learn a lot about social oppression. The bullies in that school learned that they can get away with all sorts of horrible behavior, and their target eventually found out that the oppression gets even worse if he takes reasonable steps to defend himself.
Hens may live within a pecking order, but we human beings have other options. We do not have to peck each other mercilessly, even when we are penned up like animals. We can understand and apply such concepts as compassion, equality, and human rights. Those of us who are not birdbrains can use our conscience as our guide.
One of the most important public responsibilities of private citizens is to ensure that people who act like birdbrains do not remain for long in a position of public trust. People show indifference to a student’s basic human rights should not be teaching and should certainly not be working as a principal. Anyone who would convict a 15-year-old of a crime for simply documenting the abuse to which he is subjected on a daily basis in a public school classroom should not be a judge.
Photo by Chesi — Fotos CC