“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” (Frederick Douglas)
Recently, it seems that you can’t pick up a local or national paper without some new report of bullying, or in some cases, a suicide resulting from bullying. Squamish has also been dealing with bullying incidents at our local schools which have resulted in parents, and students initiating various efforts to try to address and curb these serious incidents. Many parents are understandably, and rightfully, concerned for the safety of their children and so along with some student groups, have started various petitions, or proposed solutions in response to these bullying incidents. Although these are all well-intended efforts by many impassioned and concerned parents and students, any long-term solution to bullying should ultimately be based on reliable scientific evidence to ensure the highest likelihood of success. If our goal is to reduce the incidents of bullying and ensure a safe and healthy learning environment for our children in the long-term, we would be well-served by considering the vast amount of scientific research which has evaluated both successful and unsuccessful approaches to bullying. Fortunately, there has been a great deal of research from around the world, which can provide direction and valuable information with regards to how Squamish might begin to address the issue of bullying. We certainly owe it to our children to be diligent and thorough in our approach to seeking a long-term and successful approach to bullying. At the very least we should ensure that any approach taken is fully supported in the scientific literature. This would ensure that we have the greatest chance of actually making schools safer for our children in the long-term.
“Adolescence is society’s permission slip for combining physical maturity with psychological irresponsibility.” (Terri Apter)
The Facebook Group, “Bully Free Howe Sound” is one local group which has been working hard to engage the community, parents, school district and others in trying to find a solution to our local bullying issues. We should all acknowledge, commend and support the efforts of parents, educators and even the youth who are working very hard to find a solution which will allow kids to remain safe in our schools. The organizers of the Bully Free Howe Sound Facebook Group are proposing changes to the “Code of Conduct” for all school’s in Sea to Sky School District 48” which would include more immediate, punitive and zero tolerance measures towards perpetrators of bullying as young as 12 years.
“Any threatening or physical assault involving students 12 years or older on or off school grounds shall be immediately turned over to police for investigation. Threatening and physical assault is a crime.“
Many believe that schools, parents and especially youth, should have (properly researched and implemented) zero tolerance policies when it comes to bullying and they should be consistently enforced. However, there is no evidence in the scientific literature (that I am aware of) which suggests that punitive, criminal or zero tolerance approaches do anything to reduce incidents of bullying or violence. In some cases, these measures have even been found to be counter-productive 4 and much of the research actually suggests that punitive methods have the opposite effect. This is why groups such as the American Psychological Association and Association of School Psychologists (and others) have “…issued research-based opinion papers recommending that schools shun punitive approaches…because they cause more harm than good“.5 If the well-intended solutions put forth as a solution are not supported by the research, or such reputable and recognized groups, we cannot expect them to succeed and we will have failed in our most important goal — keeping children safe. And if we try to convince school administrators to implement changes which have been shunned by these reputable groups since they have been found to “cause more harm than good“, what chance do we have of working collectively towards a REAL solution supported by the scientific evidence and which actually makes our kids safer?
“…there are surprisingly few data that could directly test the assumptions of a zero tolerance approach to school discipline, and the data that are available tend to contradict those assumptions. Moreover, zero tolerance policies may negatively affect the relationship of education with juvenile justice and appear to conflict to some degree with current best knowledge concerning adolescent development.” 6
When seeking out solutions to bullying, we should be encouraging an approach which is solidly based on the scientific literature and the many programs around the world which have already demonstrated measurable success. There are no “silver bullet” solutions, nor is there evidence in the research literature (that I am aware of) which shows that increased punitive measures actually serve as a deterrent to bullying. In fact, there is actually evidence to the contrary and that taking a punitive approach, or zero tolerance policies, may increase the likelihood of youth carrying on with an adult criminal lifestyle4. If we trade the unsupported possibility of increasing protection of our children, by treating all incidents of bullying as criminal offences with adult-levels of punishment, for an increased level of adults leading a criminal or violent life-style, have we really improved things?
“…zero tolerance may shift the locus of discipline from relatively inexpensive actions in the school setting to the highly costly processes of arrest and incarceration. In so doing, zero tolerance policies have created unintended consequences for students, families, and communities.” 6
Most parents will recall at least a few public examples of where youth appear to be given light sentences by the courts. There is a simple reason for the courts often dropping serious charges, avoiding incarceration of youth or tossing them into the criminal justice system until it is absolutely necessary. The minds of adolescents are NOT like the minds of adults. No doubt it is a natural response to want to protect our children from harm, and to lash out at those who do harm our kids. However, it is also important to consider whether there is any evidence to suggest that treating children as “small adults”, applying the same expectations of adult-level responsibility and accountability, and applying the same standard of legal action or penalties, are actually going to reduce bullying. There is no research or support (that I am aware of) which suggests that toughening our laws, treating all acts of bullying as criminal offences, charging bullies with assault etc, actually reduces bullying. There is no doubt that it feels good to see those who harm our children, charged with offences and held fully accountable under adult criminal laws. But we need to work towards solutions which do more than simply make us feel good at having the perpetrators treated like criminal offenders. What the research shows is that youth who enter the criminal justice system are much more likely to continue with a life of crime as adults. There are also decades of research which have shown that we should not view, or treat adolescent conduct in the same way we view and respond to adult conduct.
“Adolescents lack the emotional and mental maturity of adults and this needs to be considered when making decisions about culpability and punishment…Therefore, punitive policies often do not deter juveniles from crime because the same factors that lead adolescents to commit crimes in the first place make them less likely to be deterred by punitive sanctions.” 1
“First, the scientific evidence indicates that teens are simply less competent decision-makers than adults, largely because typical features of adolescent psycho-social development contribute to immature judgment. Second, adolescence is a developmental period in which personal identity and character are in flux and begin to take shape through a process of exploration and experimentation. Youthful involvement in crime is often a part of this process, and, as such, it reflects the values and preferences of a transitory stage, rather than those of an individual with a settled identity…” 2
“…scientific evidence supports that most adolescents are less mature than adults in ways that distinguish their criminal choices, and that this youthful immaturity mitigates culpability but does not excuse young law violators from criminal responsibility” 2
“…many feel that it is inhumane to impose adult punishments on young people who have not had time to develop the complex moral judgments expected of adults.” 5
If we start down the path of immediately treating incidents of bullying as “criminal offences” with all perpetrators handed over to police, we risk the possibility of creating more adults with behavioural or social problems, if not criminals. We may also risk ignoring the evidence which supports the need for considering the bully’s, as much as the victims, when trying to come up with solutions that actually work.
Bullying is NOT simply a criminal problem requiring an adult form of intervention, accountability and punishment. Bullying is a complex behavioural, psycho-social problem involving the perpetrators, victims, parents, family and bystanders as well as the home and school environments. Both the perpetrators and the victims of bullying need to be protected, and considered, when we look for solutions. And there is no evidence to support that increased punitive measures lead to reduced incidents of bullying. In fact, some researchers, and many bullying programs, suggest the opposite.
“… when appropriate, high schools should adopt a non-punitive approach to managing bullying” 3
In trying to come up with a solution to bullying, we need to be certain that we are taking the “right” approach. Any approach should have evidence (research) to back it up. Otherwise we risk spending time, money and resources making changes or implementing solutions which may not work to reduce bullying. Or, worse yet, we may introduce “solutions” or changes which actually make matters worse for our youth by putting them at a higher risk of further behavioral problems, or legal system involvement, in the future.
“…contact with the formal criminal justice system can be detrimental. Although the shock of a formal process at an early age might be expected to deter young people from re-offending, research shows it, all too often can have the opposite effect. Contact with the formal juvenile justice system has been shown to have a reasonable likelihood of increasing the level of criminal activity in early adulthood.” 4
In no way am I discouraging efforts to hold youth accountable for repeated or extreme forms of bullying or violence. I am only suggesting that we consider approaches which support the scientific literature and take into account all aspects of adolescent development from both the victims and the perpetrators perspective. Whether they are victims or perpetrators of bullying, both groups of kids are under our care as parents and a society and so we owe it to ourselves, and our children, to develop programs and solutions which will work best for ALL youth. What we need most of all right now are calm, deliberate and collaborative efforts from all aspects of this issue starting with a review of the programs and evidence-based approaches that are known to reduce bullying.
Note: As indicated in on the Bully Free Howe Sound (BFHS) Facebook Group, I am currently researching the current evidence and scientific literature on bullying, and bullying programs. I hope to write, and post, at least three articles on this topic, with the first one completed by October 18 2010. They will be posted on the BFHS site as well as here.
“How beautiful is youth! how bright it gleams With its illusions, aspirations, dreams! Book of Beginnings, Story without End, Each maid a heroine, and each man a friend!” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
“If we would listen to our kids, we’d discover that they are largely self-explanatory.” (Robert Brault)
“In the United States today, there is a pervasive tendency to treat children as adults, and adults as children. The options of children are thus steadily expanded, while those of adults are progressively constricted. The result is unruly children and childish adults.” (Thomas Szasz)
“In early youth, as we contemplate our coming life, we are like children in a theatre before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly waiting for the play to begin.” (Arthur Schopenhauer)
“It is essential that we enable young people to see themselves as participants in one of the most exciting eras in history, and to have a sense of purpose in relation to it.” (Nelson Rockefeller)
“The ‘teenager’ seems to have replaced the Communist as the appropriate target for public controversy and foreboding.” (Edgar Z. Friedenberg)
“Everyone believes in his youth that the world really began with him, and that all merely exists for his sake.” (Goethe)
(1) Donahue, Elisabeth (2010). FOC Research Supports Supreme Court Decision Rejecting Life without Parole for Juvenile Offenders.The Future of Children – Juvenile Justice. Accessed 10/12/2010. http://blogs.princeton.edu/futureofchildren/juvenile_justice/
(2) Scott, Elizabeth S. (2002). Blaming Youth. Social Science Research Network Electronic Paper Collection. University of Virginia School of Law. #02-14, Accessed 10/12/2010. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=332080
(3) Rigby, K. & Bagshaw, D. (2003). Prospects of adolescent students collaborating with teachers in addressing issues of bullying and conflict in schools. Educational Psychology, 32, 535-546
(4) Becroft, Andrew. (2008). How to turn young offenders into adult criminals, in just ten easy steps. Principle Youth Court Judge for New Zealand. Prison Fellowship 25th Anniversary National Conference “New Approaches to Crime and Justice”. Accessed 10/12/2010.
(5) Juvenile Justice Delinquency Act (1974). Enotes. Accessed 10/12/2010. http://www.enotes.com/major-acts-congress/juvenile-justice-delinquency-prevention-act
(6) Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? (2008) American Psychologist. Vol. 63, No. 9, 852-862