Six or seven years ago I came across a prophetic quote from an anonymous teacher regarding the emerging new norm of student conduct in the classroom:
“There are a few more bad apples in the classroom, and a lot more swing voters.”
These swing voters are more commonly known as bystanders who stand for nothing. Bystanders allow simple acts of rudeness, cruelty and hostility to disturb the peace, making it difficult to learn whether it be in the classroom or on the sports field. Bystanders allow the escalation of hostility powered by texting and social media that convinces a child that there is no surviving it.
This is how my dear friend Lisa Ford Berry lost her child, Michael, to suicide on his 17th birthday in September 2008. Prior to his death, Michael (an excellent and well-liked student) endured the perfect horror storm of hate-inspired shunning and shame to a point where could see no way out. Eventually he broke as fellow students, equipped with mobile phones, turned into a mob that used Michael’s faith against him. Someone found out he was saving himself for marriage, and decided it would be funny to start a rumor that he was gay. The gay rumor took root and evolved into a homo-phobic hate campaign so incredibly hostile that it singled out Michael on campus in the flesh and in the network.
According to his mother, review of the cyber communications and the letter he left his parents, revealed that not a single friend stood with him.
And he reached out for help from teachers and school administration to no avail. Michael was not perceived to be a child at risk in any way. He came from a good home with proactive parents. He was a good student with a bright future ahead.
And yet Michael was completely abandoned by his school community and too humiliated by the harassment to bring his trouble to his parents. And so Berry got a call a couple of hours after her son left to go to school on his 17thbirthday that he was on life support in the hospital from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
So how many people upon reading about Michael’s demise immediately think that it was a mental health issue, or that the problem was really that he was able to obtain a firearm?
I implore you; do not be distracted from the heart of the matter when it comes to the level of hostility in our children’s communities. The cyberbully problem is not about weapons or the mentally ill.
The concern here is how are we teaching our children to show up at home, work and school?
Are you showing up as the bully, the bystander, or victim?
Or are you showing up as the free agent who stands for civil liberty as God grants it to us?
This bystander-effect is reinforced at home when we are quick to blame others and not hold ourselves accountable as our own children are experiencing difficulty with teachers or other students. This victim mentality, this surrender of power to the “bully within” disables the hero in each of us. So as bystanders we stand for nothing when others are being attacked. It is learned behavior – starting at home, and is further reinforced by how we govern classrooms and society.
Last month, BRAVE Society, (a non-profit in Carmichael dedicated to peer abuse prevention founded to honor Michael Berry’s memory), in partnership with Capital Christian Center who provided the venue, assembled parents, teachers, law enforcement and students to talk about the state of our children’s communities. Cyber technology and all its applications have ushered in a new norm of hostility that can become unsurvivable to individuals targeted for bully attacks.
Below are just a few of the insights and perspectives shared by participants.
Faith can overcome a broken society
Rick Cole, Senior Pastor at Capital Christian Center in Sacramento, California, opened the BRAVE Society conference with a call to action for the faithful. “The faith community has not always been at the forefront of the bully problem,” he declared. “We must understand that the peril of this indifference to those who are abused among us makes being human, inhuman. When we are indifferent about the bully problem, it is not a response. It is an end. We become a friend of the enemy, and we benefit the aggressor.”
The truth is always simple and brings peace, while the lies are complex and stir negativity. So Pastor Cole asked participants to simply think about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the Golden Rule to do to others what you would have them do to you, and to do for other people what we would want others to do for us. “We must get into the game,” he said. “We must every one of us step up.”
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12
Lisa Ford Berry is the founder of BRAVE Society, and she followed Pastor Cole with her story of a heartache that is a parent’s worst nightmare. “I was caught up in the achieving woman of the 1980’s. I believed I could have it all,” she said. “Then I had my kids and I learned what it meant to love in a way that was never possible before. My children are my greatest joy…We have this inherent check list and I was an over-achiever. My kids are a product of the 1990’s . I mean I read all the books for being a good parent and my boys were and are exceptional.”
Berry further explained that as her sons reached high school, and they had avoided problems with drugs and they were good students and had good friends, she and her husband thought they had succeeded. “We thought we were home free until Michael’s 17th birthday arrived as the most horrific, devastating day.” she said. Berry proceeded to share some of her insights about the social climate of our collective making that led to Michael’s death with the hope that it might save other families from going through the pain and heartache she and her family endures.
- Our children are the public faces of private conversations at home.
- What we are witnessing today is the destruction of children by children. There are unintended consequences when we don’t think about what we say, or how we treat people. There are always consequences.
- We act like the boundaries of decency are fluid and flow as prejudices about weight and sexuality become excuses for treating people badly.
- The same laws that protect us from harassment at work, should protect our children.
- We fail to give acceptance and love unless it meets certain criteria – every one of us yearns to be loved and accepted. When we take that away and tear people down, and ignore the taunting of individuals, we create an environment that is simply not safe for anyone of us.
- Leaders in the faith community could be doing more to stem the tide of the new cruel norms emerging among our youth and our society at large.
“Some people say I raised mama’s boys, and if I had raised Michael to be tougher, he would not have succumbed to the bully pressure,” she said. “My reply is simply that we raised my sons to be the kind of man we would want our daughter to marry. How can we expect to raise the kind of men that make good husbands and fathers if they are not allowed to survive childhood? Michael’s legacy is that we will always do something to confront this level of abuse that robs children of their potential to create a peaceful society.”
Teaching resiliency in the network: Survivors, Victims & Victors
Mindy Russell, Senior Chaplain, Sacramento County Sheriff , spoke about building individual resiliency. “Most of the time we are called in after a serious incident or suicide,” Russell said. “And so we have to look at postvention as prevention. The idea is to help communities learn how to help our children understand their power to control their reaction to people and incidents.”
According to Russell, 90-95% of children experience bullying, and it is our families that set the norm from what we allow our children to watch in media and how we respond to conflict.
Kids are using multiple channels of social media for expressing their feelings: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Kik, etc. “We need to know what is going on in their cyber communities,” Russell said. “It is so important to be involved and engaged in our child’s life, how they are spending their time and with whom.”
Russell asks what makes students say nothing and do nothing when they encounter hostility and relentless harassing attacks that marginalize an individual? “They are worried about their image in their circle of friends,” she said. “They do not want to tattle.” So Russell stresses how important it is to be in a routine conversation about the communications and interactions in their cyber world.
Good kids bully.
Yep they do.
Russell explains that it is easy to blame others and when we are not holding kids accountable for their own part in a conflict, well the stage is set for a bully-victim dynamic.
Bullies are seeking power, and are usually bullied at home or in another situation that makes them feel powerless. Russell asks folks to consider the following ways in which we can view the world:
- Survivors – focus on what they can control
- Victims – focus on what is not in their control
- Victors – focus on who is in control
Hmm. Good food for thought.
To learn more about helping children overcome bully problems at school, go to: BRAVE Society.
Proceed to next article: The bond that trumps biology is essential to the modern parent
Joanna Jullien is an author, educator and speaker on strengthening the parent-child relationship in a cyber powered world. She a mother of two grown sons, the author of The Authority In Me: The Power of Family Life in the Network Culture, produces The Sacramento Cyber Safety Examiner column on Examiner.com, and is the CyberParenting advisor on The Fish 103.9FM. Her new book, A Google World in the Garden of Eden: Five Family-Safe Strategies for Texting and Social Media is now available for PC and all eReader formats including Kindle, Nook, iPad.