Monday, October 4, 2010


We talk a great deal about harassment, bullying and meanness in school.  We have worked with students to help them solve problems with others before little things turn into big things.  Overall, we have been pretty successful at controlling the problems of bullying in our school.  Things are not perfect, they probably never will be perfect, but we continue to work under the premise that one incident of bullying is one too many.

Kids, schools and parents have dealt with bullying for years.  If you went to school you either, a. were treated poorly by someone, b. treated someone poorly or c. saw someone being treated poorly.  Put hundreds of kids in one space for a large amount of time and these things are inevitable.  While many things have stayed the same, things have also changed a great deal since "the good old days" when you were a kid.

Unless you have been a member of a sequestered jury for the past week, you have heard about the incident that took place at Rutgers University.  You can read the story from September 29th's Star Ledger.

Two students used a web cam to broadcast a sexual encounter between a male roommate and another male.  The results were tragic.  Freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide after the encounter was broadcast by his roommate over the Internet.  Authorities are still trying to sort out the charges against the two students responsible for the broadcast.  Whatever the law does to these two young people, it will pale in comparison to the fact that they will have to live for the rest of their lives with what they did and the outcome.

The two students responsible for the invasion of privacy were not who most people would picture.  They were strong students.  They came from seemingly solid families.  They grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood.  They attended a good high school.  In fact, they could have been any one of the kids that go to our schools right now.

While their actions on that day were reprehensible, they weren't all that much different than the actions of thousands of young people around the country on any given day.  Young people treat each other poorly every day.  They resort to name-calling, mocking, exclusion, bullying, harassment for a variety of reasons.  They usually don't do these things when authorities (parents and teachers) are around.  They often claim to be "kidding around" when confronted about their inappropriate actions.  The biggest difference between the Tyler Clementi case and most of the rest was the outcome. 

While the actions of the two students who broadcast this sexual encounter were horrible, I would venture to say that neither woke up that morning and thought to themselves, "I'm going to push someone to commit suicide today."  These two students were not horrible monsters, they were normal young people.  These two students were not stupid, they were good students at one of the nations top academic institutions.  They may not have set out to kill someone, but they certainly set out to ridicule someone.  So how does this happen?  How do we prevent it from happening again.  I wish I had all the answers, but I don't.

Kids today have access to technology that is very useful.  It is also very powerful and very dangerous.  We often allow our kids to use these tools with very little guidance and almost no direct instruction.  We hand them cell phones with cameras and Internet access.  We give them smart phones with downloadable "apps," many of which you and I don't even know exist.  We buy them laptop computers with web cams and programs like Skype and ooVoo.  We provide these things, but we often don't take the time to teach them how to use them properly.  We often don't take the time to monitor their usage closely.  Computers and the Internet have taken humiliation to never before seen levels.  What once was local, now is global.  What once was personal and identifiable, is now, for the most part, faceless and anonymous.

What are the answers?  Like I said, I'm not exactly sure.  We have introduced a "Digital Citizenship" course to seventh graders as part of our computer curriculum.  During this marking-period class, students will grapple with issues of privacy, search engines, plagiarism, cybersafety and cyberbullying.  We have aligned what we are doing with the NJ Core Content Standards for technology.  The government is now getting involved with laws specifically aimed at cyberbullying.  Check out this example in an article from Fox News:  While passing legislation sounds like a good and reasonable thing to do here, it is not likely to solve the problem.  Haven't there been laws on the books about murder, robbery and assault for years?  None of these problems have disappeared because of legislation against them.

The real solutions lie in the constant effort to teach our children to be more than anything else, decent human beings.  I'd like to say that all children are taught from the very beginning to be kind, caring and sympathetic.  I'd like to say that all children are taught about the importance of caring about and for others.  I'd like to say that all children internalized the lessons that have been taught at home and school.  As a principal, I'd like to say that this is all the parents' fault.  As a parent, I'd like to say that this is all the schools' fault.  As a taxpayer, I'd like to say that this is all the government's fault.  Truth of the matter is it is everyone's fault, or, more appropriately put, it is everyone's responsibility.

As parents and teachers and administrators and citizens, we all shoulder the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.  Our parents and their parents before them faced the same challenge.  I know that everyone says the right things.  All parents tell their children to be nice.  All teachers tell students to be kind.  Everyone tells others to be sympathetic to those in need.  Each year, I meet with students and tell them that the most important rule at Woodglen School is to treat others the way you want to be treated - not necessarily the way they treat you.  This all sounds great, but talk is cheep.

Are we all just talking the talk and not walking the walk?  The examples we set may be subtle.  Do we display the "niceness" we preach when we are driving in our cars, particularly when someone cuts us off?  Are we displaying the "kindness" when we put others down for their views, choices or lifestyles behind their backs?  Are we displaying the "sympathy" when we see others in need and walk by because we are too busy to get involved?  Do I always treat others the way I want to be treated?

The other piece of the puzzle is accountability.  How many times have we tried to justify our own actions when we did not treat someone well.  "He did it to me first," "She deserved it," "They had it coming to them," are all-to-often-heard phrases used to justify actions.  What about when our kids are involved in treating others poorly.  "Well, that kid did something to my kid first."  "My child would never do something like that."  Do those phrases sound familiar?  If we want our children to be nice, to be kind, to be sympathetic and to treat others the way they wish to be treated, it has to be independent of the actions of others.  That being said, I don't want the nice kids to become punching bags or victims.  We have put procedures in place at Woodglen School for positive ways to address meanness, bullying and harassment.  I've explained them many times before, but the focus is on teaching kids to solve problems with others and dealing with problems early - before they get out of control.

What Dahrun Ravi and Molly Wei did to Tyler Clementi was reprehsible.  While many people are looking at this as a bias incident, I look at this more as an anti-human being issue.  Susan Jacoby, in her Washington Post Blog put it this way,  "It is about immoral and amoral cruelty" ...  "and about a culture that prefers to assign responsibility to tools rather than the young people who used them for evil. Yes, evil. As the late Russian poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky once wrote, evil doesn't necessarily announce itself by walking in the door and saying, "Hi, I'm evil." It can just as likely manifest itself in two privileged young people whose bright, white smiles--the best expensive dentistry can provide!--concealed the moral vacuum that led them to use a web cam to torment a vulnerable fellow creature." 

Dahrun Ravi and Molly Wei were probably, when they were in middle school, told to be nice.  They were probably told to be kind.  They were probably urged to have sympathy for others.  They were almost certainly told to treat others the way they wanted to be treated.  What happened?  I'm not sure, I think the message we should all get about bullying and cyberbulling is pretty clear.
  1. We need to educate our children about the power, both constructive and destructive, of technology - cell phones, computers, Internet and whatever else is developed down the road.
  2. We need to monitor what our children are doing with the technology available to them.  That means that parents and educators need to stay abreast of the latest programs, trends and technologies.  That also means that parents need to spend time keeping tabs of how their kids are using technology.  It is difficult to do and it will take time, but it is crucial.
  3. We need to stress the importance of respect and responsibility.  Our kids need to respect others and be responsible for their actions.  With all of the stress put on high stakes standardized testing, AYP, and report cards, we may be leaving out the importance of developing quality human beings who care about others and want to treat others with kindness and respect.  We also need to be sure that kids are aware of the possible ramifications of their actions.  When they fall short of these expectations, we need to let them know about it, and work with them on how to make better decisions.
  4. We need to walk the walk.  If we want our kids to treat others well, to be respectful, to be sympathetic, and to care about those in need, we have to do more than talk about it.  We need to live it.
The issues in the Rutgers case are significant - invasion of privacy, anti-gay, suicide.  The issues that your children face every day are no less significant.  They don't wake up in the morning thinking about pushing someone to suicide.  They don't think, if I make fun of someone they may kill themselves.  They don't log onto the computer to humiliate someone in hopes that they will end a life.  Neither did Dahrun Ravi and Molly Wei, two well educated kids from good families in a nice neighborhood, but a young man is still dead.  It could happen to anyone at any time if we lose focus about the importance of being nice, kind and caring people.


Dana Fosburgh said...

Well stated. However, I think that one critically important piece of the puzzle was left out. In addition to the students receiving an education with respect to this issue, I think it is of utmost importance that parents receive the same education.

At this exact point in time along the evolution of the internet as the primary form of communication, there are many parents who have been left behind by the very technology that has become second nature to our children.

Morals aside, I think this is an issue of mutual education for both the parent and the student.

This technology is not going away. In fact, it will only become more important for parents to remain diligent in their attempts to monitor the latest technologies, as well as the activities of their children, as it relates to that technology.

New technologies are typically accompanied by growing pains. What happened at Rutgers is inexcusable.
My heart goes out to all the families involved.

At the end of the day, I think the responsibility is that of the parents. To that extent, I think it is imperative that we all stay up to date with the latest shiny objects that our children are ever so quick to adopt.

Michael Rubright said...

I agree with you, Mrs. Fosburgh, about the importance of staying current. Last spring we sponsored a parent program on internet and cell phone safety through the NJ State Police and Hunterdon County Prosecutor's office. It was well attended and very well received.

You are correct, keeping current is not easy, it takes time and effort. One of the best ways to do this is to ask your kids to show you what they are doing. Instead of "banning" facebook, create an account and use it - you can keep tabs on your kids that way! Instead of giving them a puzzled look when they tell you they are going to ooVoo with someone, sit down and ooVoo together! It takes time and it's not easy, but it will help you to understand the world that your kids thrive in.

In the end, though, it isn't the technology that mocks, humiliates and harasses, it is the people using it. If we can focus on how we treat others, we can embrace technology more for what it can do for us than what it does to us.

- Mike

Denise Dalmas said...

In my son's school, Stepping Stone, when a situation occures, both students, alleged bully and victim are sent to a room with 2 counselors. They are given a worksheet that basically has them write out their perception of what happened. They they are read aloud and discussed between the students and counselors. In most cases the kids do have their own perceptions and sometimes find out they were mistaken and a friendship develops. Other cases they know they will never get along but will not bother each other anymore.

Can Valley View and Woodglen use this treatment for problems between students? It will not solve the bullying problem, because as you said these are kids and this is what they do. But, I think it's a progressive solution.

Thank you,

Denise Dalmas

Michael Rubright said...

I can only speak for Woodglen, but when we have an issue we do bring the two parties together with the school counselor and sometimes the principal.
Our goal is to help students solve their problems, so we have each student sit quietly and listen to the other's side of the story. Students are encouraged to explain how they feel about the situation as well.
This is basically a peer mediation model, but it is directed by the counselor instead of a peer.
Recently, we have also started using writing assignments to help students to empathize with the "victims" of meanness.
It isn't exactly what they are doing at Stepping Stone, but it is similar. We'll look into maybe seeing if we can tweak what we do in an effort to improve ourselves and student life.
Thanks for the input!
- Mike Rubright