Bullying: Get the Facts Straight

The topic of bullying in schools is all over the press, and of course the reporting is almost more feverish if “exclusive” private schools are involved. This is not to in any way minimize the importance of addressing the topic and the behavior, but I do fault the press for some bad reporting. I want to point out how misrepresentations can actually hurt the work schools are doing in this area.

A recent op-ed article by NY Times columnist Charles Blow bore the intentionally provocative title of “Private School Civility Gap”. Mr. Blow used a student survey, produced by the Josephson Institute to make the claim that there is a private school civility gap, particularly at religious schools and particularly among boys. He writes: “There is a not-so-little, not-so-secret, dirty little secret among the upper crust”. After postulating that private schools are fundamentally discriminatory, he cites a few survey questions related to topics such as tolerance and bullying. He believes that the Josephson data reveal a climate of intolerance that is pervasive in high schools, particularly in private schools. It is interesting to note that the difference between the public and private school self assessment scores were quite small.

Blow’s analysis suffered from flawed assumptions, and one question lumped bullying and teasing into the same category of behavior. Teasing can certainly be mean-spirited, but it can also be a harmless, sometimes well-intentioned, though unsophisticated method of establishing or maintaining a relationship. According to Blow’s reading of the research, one act of teasing over a 12-month time period, even if directed toward a friend, qualifies a student as a bully. This is an absurdly narrow interpretation.

Doug Lyons, the Executive Director of CAIS, attempted to email a response to the NY Times, which was returned with the message, “We are no longer accepting responses to this article!” But Pat Bassett, president of NAIS did have his letter printed in which he questioned the data presented and mentioned that Mr. Blow might have reported on schools that work on character and proactively address bullying.

Most troubling to me and other independent school heads is that the Josephson Institute is actually a 501C-3 organization housing the “Character Counts” program, which includes workshops and curriculum materials for sale. One is left with the conclusion that disturbing results in the Josephson Survey might be good for their business. Schools in the greater NY area have received post cards and emails from Character Counts, Josephson Institute, in small print, citing their study of more than 43,000 students, claiming that bullying is worse than we could have imagined: “We’re here to help. Book your anti-bullying workshop–here’s the number- customized for your students’ ages and issues”. I have received at least one email weekly from the Josephson Institute selling their program and products such as bumper stickers, wallet cards, posters etc.  So my cautionary tale is about the media trying to write the narrative on a very real problem and not helping schools or kids.

We are trying to be proactive here. The faculty has discussed the topic. We have Rachel Simmons, author of The Odd Girl Out and The Curse of the Good Girl coming in the spring to talk to faculty and also to parents in the evening. We certainly have some mean behavior, usually in the 7th-9th grades, and we take it very seriously. We are also working on getting Elaine Zimmerman, the executive director of the Commission on Children for the State of CT to come in March for our professional day to raise awareness. Bullying behavior among high school kids can be very subtle, so the workshop will give faculty tools and language to help when students approach them with issues, as well as with their dealings in the classrooms and hallways.

Something which I think speaks volumes about our school is that the Upper School Student Council of their own volition wants to come up with a set of guidelines for Internet behavior, especially around online bullying.  Having students watching out for each other is truly something worth reporting.

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