Antibullying bill needs a companion bill

/ 17 March 2014 / eunice

David Rask Behling, Star Tribune Commentary, March 17, 2014 – Starting in middle school, I became a target. That’s when the bullies at my school discovered that I was easy prey. I did not stand up for myself. I did not fight back. This was the real world, after all, not a movie with a guaranteed happy ending for the victim. “Coward” is what I called myself back then (and perhaps what others are calling me now as they read this). But I had learned early at home that standing up for myself (and for others) led to consequences. Safety meant bending the head and obeying, no matter what.

But the neighborhood bullies didn’t live with me, so how did they know that? Why was I targeted in the first place? Because I was shy and quiet. Because I preferred reading books and singing over playing basketball and football. Because my family moved a lot and I was an outsider who found friendship difficult to initiate.

Given that history, one might think I would jump at the chance to support the current moves in the Legislature to strengthen Minnesota’s antibullying statutes. Those proposals, we’re told, would help protect kids who are “different” for a whole host of reasons, so they wouldn’t have to survive playgrounds and alleys the way I did — by skulking and passivity.

But I don’t support those efforts, however well-intended they are.

This does not mean that, now that I’m all grown up, bullying is no longer a problem for me. It’s a huge problem, for more than just people who are different because of skin color or sexuality. Bullies haunt our society at every level, from coaches to teachers to pastors to parents to politicians. We never really leave them behind on the playground. Using a position of power to threaten and coerce others is a problem that is difficult to expose and eradicate.

No, I don’t think bullies or bullying have gone away. My opposition to the current proposals lies in a connected issue. The only way I could be persuaded to support those efforts would be if they were concurrent with reform of the way that students are punished when they break the rules.

The story of the football player from Rogers, Minn., is only the most recent example of what school officials do to kids and their families all the time in this state. I know this from reading the news, but also from our own experience when our son broke the rule about bringing sharp objects to school-sponsored activities.

That experience was distressing in many ways. When our son naively took his Swiss Army Knife (the kind with toothpick, tweezers, magnifying glass … and knife blade) on a camping retreat with his school choir, there was an incident in which another student’s finger got cut. While our son needed to accept responsibility and accept punishment for what happened, the only thing that seemed to matter to school officials was school policy. Not the specific situation. Not the character of the people involved. Not even the fact that it was kids getting carried away with stupid pranks. None of those issues mattered. After an interrogation by administrators, without parents present or even being informed, our son was suspended from classes and barred from campus for an entire semester during his senior year. After that level of harshness at the school, there didn’t seem to be any reason for us to impose our own consequences at home.

The main reason I oppose expanding rules and regulations about bullying relate directly to that experience. Without a process that protects the rights of students and families, administrators will have more opportunities to apply their usual “best” practices against those accused of bullying. Which is to say, showing little mercy and providing no rights at all for students and families.

Without a student bill of rights also coming down from the Legislature, the current proposal, if it passes, will make more victims by turning students accused of bullying over to the tender mercies of school officials. It will not solve the problem. It won’t even come close.

David Rask Behling, of Albert Lea, Minn., is a teacher.