Image: Luke Bott

These days, high school bullying is a topic of endless debate both in schools and in the media, which has coined terms such as “cyberbullying” and “bullycide” (suicide in which bullying is a contributing factor) to keep up with depressing new variations on an old problem. Celebrities have spearheaded initiatives to combat bullying too, even as not a month goes by without a horrific tale of a teen hounded to death either in person or online by a pack of jeering adolescents. What is happening, and what is the proper role of the school when it comes to bullying?

“In recent years we’ve become better at identifying it and putting a face to it,” says Phillip Hickman, HISD’s assistant superintendent for Student Support Services. “We certainly pay more attention to it now. Kids were bullied back when we were in school, but it was sort of ingrained as okay in our culture. Now we don’t always accept it as ‘boys will be boys,’ or ‘mean girls.’” 

Still, schools admit that there’s the risk of overcorrecting, of adults helicoptering in on ordinary high school spats—robbing kids of the chance to learn conflict resolution on their own. Indeed, some experts believe that the pendulum has swung too far in that direction. But if HISD’s training of kids, faculty, and staff works the way it is intended, their anti-bullying protocols actually empower kids.

Hickman says HISD strives to create school cultures in which bullying is taboo. Recent studies show that around a quarter of students are either bullies or bullied—sometimes both. Getting the other 75 percent, the apathetic majority, to act, is key. “Kids need to be more proactive,” he says. “Often, passively watching amounts to approval.” Teaching students to step in makes them—and not the bullies—masters of their domain.

Certain forms of bullying are easier for faculty and staff to recognize than others, explains Hickman. Beatings, thefts, lunch-money extortion—those forms of bullying are cut-and-dried no-brainers when it comes to intervention. (HISD policy specifies that bullies may be transferred to other classrooms or even other schools in the district.)

Psychological torments, including cyberbullying, on the other hand, can be harder to detect and combat. And if two kids get in a name-calling spat once or twice, is that necessarily bullying? No, Hickman says. True bullying behavior almost always increases in persistence and severity over time.

In those cases, faculty and staff need to be alert and proactive. “They should be sensitive to factors—like if the kid is avoiding certain areas, if his grades or attendance drop. And they have to start a conversation,” says Hickman. “Don’t walk away—investigate.”

And all parties need to be made aware of the dangers of bullying, even the bullies themselves. As Hickman points out, it’s not just bullied kids who can suffer negative long-term effects if no action is taken; bullies can, too. “They have a higher incidence of not finishing school and a higher incidence of criminal behavior as adults.”

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