Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Oprah covers school bullying and cyberbullying; Bristol Palin stimulates debate on abstinence education

Today (Wednesday, May 6, 2009) the Oprah Winfrey show presented a hard-hitting session on school bullies, both in person and online. The basic link is this. On this report, particularly, I personally encourage visitors to watch all the videos there.

The show started with two mothers telling how their middle school kids had committed suicide suddenly after being bullied for very long times. The video on the site gives the details.

Then a father from New York discussed his son’s suicide in seventh grade after cyberbullying as well as in-person. A girl set him up in chat sessions and pretended to be his girl friend online, in a mirror of the case in Missouri with Lori Drew.

The first expert to appear was Dr. Espelage from the University of Illinois. She pointed out that sexual bullying, particularly calling boys “gay” is more common today than it was in the 1990s. She thinks that media coverage of sexuality is one issue, because many kids do not understand what it means when they encounter it in the media. The other issue is that school systems are so concerned about “no child left behind” and passing test scores that teachers and administrators do not put in the time and effort to stop bullying, particularly in elementary and middle schools.

Then Dr. Lipkin, in an emergency intervention, interviewed a thirteen year old boy, Chase, about how to defend himself and his personal space. Part of the technique is to use body language, which is difficult for many boys (it may be more difficult for boys with Asperger syndrome, for example).

Parents used to tell kids to ignore bullies, that the problem would go away. Experts now say that this no longer acceptable, and the show develops the case for intervention.

I was the target of bullies from about the third grade on and the problem was its most severe in seventh grade (1955). I remember the questions about whether to “hit back.” I rarely did, but one time I scratched a boy with my fingernails and might have scarred him. The bullying came back in ninth grade, and I verbally bullied back (in an incident having to do with an illness in class) and got in trouble toward the end of the year. In tenth grade, in “senior high school” as it was called then, the environment was much better and there were no more such problems.

In the 1950s the reasons were different. World War II was a recent memory, and there was a mentality that boys had to prove themselves “men” able to protect future women and children. There was an idea that someone who did not “do his part” would leave the fighting and “sacrificing” for others. This was a kind of thinking that the Cold War and McCarthyism perpetuated.

When I was a substitute teacher in 2005, in a middle school setting there was an incident where a student in my class was “bullied” by having an anti-Semetic “joke” pasted on her clothes with a sticky pad. I did not see it and could not reasonably have seen it happen. Nevertheless, I was considered ineffective as an authority figure and banned from the school.

At a high school assignment (usually not a problem), in one particular teacher’s classes there seemed to be a lot of gang involvement (generally not a common experience). The resulting complications led to my resignation. This problem is related to social tensions among various groups of people (“haves” and “have-nots” as kids and parents perceive them), and is a political problem, and in some communities a serious problem for law enforcement as well as school officials.

Dr. Espelage mentioned that gangs up the ante on the bullying problem, making “snitches” potential targets, and possibly endangering their families, and become an issue for police.

HRC (Human Rights Campaign) has a link for schools and perceived sexual orientation issues, here.

Earlier today, Bristol Palin supported abstinence on the Today Show when interviewed by Matt Lauer. The Chicago Sun Times blog entry by Kevin Allen is here. Bristol (Sarah Palin's daughter) says "learn from my mistakes."

The conversation continued at 11 AM today on ABC’s “The View” where there was more questioning as to whether it’s logically consistent to talk about abstinence and condoms both. On "The View", the gals emphasized the adverse consequences of unwanted pregnancy. Yet, some conservatives (not the supposed “liberals” in the media) are insisting that having children some day, in marriage, ought to become an expectation.

Update: May 15

Michael Gerson has an op-ed column in the Washington Post, "The Rhetoric of the Rant", link here. Gerson mentions the book "Civility: Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy," in which author Stephen L. Carter defines civility as "the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together." Gerson goes on to expand on bullying as a kind of rudeness that becomes self-generating, in which people lash out at those whom they (incorrectly) perceive as scapegoats because of their own sense of grievance and deprivation because of systemic injustices. But "verbal violence" can be very damaging, as Gerson explains.

Update: June 8, 2009

ABC Good Morning America presented this horrific story, written by Susan Ricci and Lee Ferran, "14-Year-Old Killed by Gang in Suburban Maryland; Mother's Constant Contact With Son Couldn't Prevent Violent Death," link here. The incident occurred near Annapolis, MD. Arrests have been made and hopefully the defendants will be tried as adults. The maximum sentence could be life without parole. This sounds (to me) like the Matthew Shepard murder in Wyoming in 1998 (the Matthew Shepard foundation page is here).

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