Perpetrators, Witnesses, Targets, and Lady Gaga
By Philip J. Lazarus
“Never be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
We as school psychologists must never be silent. We are all advocates. During my keynote in Philadelphia, I asked, “How many of you believe that we as a nation are doing a good job of nurturing the emotional wellbeing of our nation's youth?” Not one hand was raised. In the aftermath of the school shooting in Chardon, Ohio, we are again reminded of the unmet mental health needs of our students.
After scores of tragic school shootings and countless teen suicides, actions have been taken by state legislators to develop policies and procedures to prevent bullying and to intervene when it happens. The impetus for 44 states to develop antibullying legislation was partially based on the finding of the U.S. Secret Service that determined that in more than two thirds of the targeted school shooting incidents studied, the attackers felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, or injured by others prior to the rampage. It was also fueled by the knowledge that young people were taking their lives after being bullied in person and/or in cyberspace by their classmates.
Yet, I believe that focusing our attention on bullying prevention treats symptoms and is a secondorder priority. The first priority must be to ensure that all our schools are safe, supportive, and caring communities and that social–emotional competencies and character education are infused in the curricula in all our schools. The emphasis must be placed on ensuring that good things happen (e.g., students develop empathy, respect for others, tolerance, positive social skills, courage, and compassion and learn to celebrate diversity and protect the most vulnerable). Instead, our present focus is on helping make sure that bad things don't happen. Our current emphasis is on developing policies and procedures to prevent harassment, intimidation, and bullying and to punish those who engage in these negative behaviors. This is a sticks approach, and though well intentioned and at times effective, it is reactionary and focuses on the symptoms rather than the causes of the problem.
Moreover, as part of this approach, we are labeling students as bullies, bystanders, and victims. This is not helpful at all. By doing this, we inadvertently infer that students are bad, indifferent, or ineffective. This becomes a trait or an identity and can be perceived as immutable. It is also insulting. Current research shows that students play multiple roles at different times and the dynamics of bullying behavior are much more complex.
In conducting workshops on bullying and cyberbullying, I use these terms: perpetrator, witness, and target. These terms are not character traits, are more respectful, and emphasize an action in time. The term perpetrator focuses on a behavior and does not label a student as a bully. If one witnesses an incident, then one has the responsibility to take action. Another term that I particularly like is up stander, which perhaps more forcefully requires an individual to intervene. Anyone can be a target. The term is value neutral. In contrast, the term victim can have a pejorative meaning. Words are important and we need to use them carefully.
Our current emphasis in legislative action is on the bully, but as school psychologists know, it is not about the bully. Instead, it is about changing the culture of the school; changing the attitudes of the teachers, staff, and students; and converting witnesses or up standers into a caring majority who will not tolerate bullying. The emphasis must be on creating a positive school culture with a focus on empowering the witnesses. These potential up standers comprise 70% to 85% of the students in the school. They often remain inactive and silent and are aware of the bullying. Frequently, they do not know how, or are ambivalent about taking a stand. Consequently, they need both skills and permission to intervene when bullying occurs.
School psychologists can work with all school staff and students to create a culture of respect and caring. They can do this by helping students who witness bullying normalize their fears and concerns, emphasize that strength comes in numbers, communicate the expectations to take action, teach skills and strategies to take a stand, and acknowledge and reward caring behaviors.
Recently, Lady Gaga founded the Born This Way Foundation to help prevent bullying. She decided to use her followers to start a bottom-up movement to make it cooler for young people to be nice. This is consistent with the approach used by Lincoln High School students in Oregon. In consultation with their school psychologist, Jim Hanson, they have taken the lead to change the culture of their school. They noted that “you can be sure how someone will treat you over time by watching how they treat other people ... what you give out to the world comes back to you.” We need both bottom-up and top-down approaches to generate the synergy necessary to foster and sustain caring and respectful school climates.
Martin Luther King Jr. once noted, “It is not malicious acts that will do us in, but the appalling silence of good people.” School psychologists cannot be silent. We must lead the charge to create schools in which cruelty is not permitted nor seen as cool. By this action, we can take one more step toward nurturing the emotional well-being of our nation's youth.
Philip J. Lazarus, PhD, is president of the National Association of School Psychologists.