This past year has seen a renewed focus on the problem of bullying in our nation's schools. Our earlier societal belief that bullying is a rite of passage and a normal experience while growing up has evolved to a better understanding that it destroys human dignity and potential for both the bully and the bullied.
Bullies believe that the route to status, success and ascent in the social hierarchy comes with demeaning and coercing others. They need to learn that healthy relationships are built on empathy, respect and responsibility, not on hurting others. They need to be taught skills to develop positive, caring relationships.
Parents, educators, and community members must model and teach the values, skills and dispositions that will put young people on positive life trajectories. We must give our youth a hopeful vision of the future by presenting many examples of the different kinds of contributions people make, and the adults they could become on their best day.
When tragic events strike as a result of bullying, schools often rush to pick up the latest anti-bullying program, though a better solution exists. Americans are divided on many issues, but there is still a core of values, principles and ideals that defines and unites us as Americans, and educating all young people in a safe, supportive and caring school community is a core value that all can rally around.
Though adopting a high quality anti-bullying program is sometimes necessary, the first and most important approach is recognizing and engaging in the work of every generation building the human community and laying a foundation for success by educating for character.
After the tragic Columbine school shooting, in informal focus groups with high school students around the country, students consistently said that the thing they feared most was that their schools would be uncaring places where lack of respect is the norm.
We also know that the level of caring and support within a school is a powerful indicator of positive outcomes for youth. Educators must make it clear that bullying in any form will not be tolerated, and must follow through so that young people know they are safe. Students must have multiple, safe ways to report bullying to adults without fear of reprisal, and students need to know what their options for reporting are. Research shows that adults often believe there isn't any bullying going on in the school, when students in the same building will often say that there is.
The ongoing work of schools, in partnership with parents and the community, is to lay the groundwork for a caring school culture that is safe, inclusive and that respects the worth and dignity of every person in the school community. This is intentional work that doesn't just happen because everyone has good intentions. It requires the community to model and plan for how to weave core civic and ethical values throughout school life. It requires teaching the skills and dispositions that competent, caring adults need to negotiate life successfully.
Expecting, modeling and teaching respect, responsibility and kindness to others is the work of every educator, because it supports young people to not only learn better and achieve academically, but to develop socially, emotionally and ethically as well. We want our young people to exit school ready for college, career and civic life. But we also want them to take their place in society as decent human beings.
We can do this! We must do this.
Kristie Fink has been the state character education specialist, director of a national character education program and of a state coalition for civic, character and service learning. She teaches at Utah State University's Salt Lake Center.