And Words Can Hurt Forever; How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence
By James Garbarino, Ph.D., Ellen deLara, Ph.D.
Myths of all kinds shroud the experience of kids at school, standing in the way of our efforts to see and hear the reality of what children encounter on a daily basis. Sometimes myths have their root in nostalgia-rose-colored memories of how things once were. Other times, they are grounded in comforting misinformation distributed by self-serving parties about the decline of juvenile crime in general (which doesn't address emotional violence in schools) or the inevitability of bullying and its insignificant impact on most kids. Sometimes these myths have their root in our own need to minimize and rationalize what happened to us as children, because accurate memories of our pain and shame can be too much to bear. And sometimes they have their basis in inappropriately generalizing the experience of some kids to all kids.
Parental response and school policy are, to an extent, often founded on one or more myths. Rather than comforting parents and children who are hurting or even excusing bad behavior, myths about adolescents contribute to hostile school environments. They substitute for reality, and in so doing displace actions and undermine good intentions that would improve the situation. We have identified seven myths that are particularly insidious.
Myth #1: Our Schools Are Safe
Reality: A majority of middle and high school students do not feel safe at their schools. They do not expect to be shot or stabbed every day, yet they feel vulnerable to physical attack or verbal assault (regarding themselves or the things they care about, like coats, shoes, bags, cell phones, or money). In general, our schools as psychological systems are not safe, yet the myth of school safety is perpetuated from one generation to the next. One way this happens is when adults pre-emptively decide their local school is safe, leaving the students no say in the matter. If we want to get to the reality of the situation, we always have to ask, how is "safe" defined, and by whom?
Even people who have years of experience working with children can sometimes fall into the trap of asking simple questions about schools without preparation, or without first establishing a climate designed to encourage disclosure. They ask questions like, "Do you feel safe at school?" or "Is this a safe school?" Many kids will give adults the answer they think adults want to hear. One school administrator admitted to us that he does not spend much time exploring those questions with the kids in his high school, because he is afraid to hear the real answers.
Without digging a bit, adults miss the nuances that prevail in adolescents' perceptions about safety. Researchers, teachers, counselors, and principals can be equally inept at asking the right questions in the right way at the right time. Teenagers can articulate subtle distinctions that adults often miss.
Tyrone, age seventeen, put it this way: "You might feel that the situation is unsafe, like someone could get hurt. But not like you'll be the one to get hurt. You might see something from a distance away that is potentially dangerous-a fight starting or what looks like a weapon-but not think that the danger will be aimed at you." Part of this boy's attitude can be attributed to adolescent invincibility, the common belief that "nothing will happen to me." But Tyrone raises an important point. In investigating kids' feelings of safety at school, we can't stop with surface questions and responses. There will be some who need to explain further, who know the school is safe for them but not for others.
It is one thing for adults to determine that a school environment is safe based on their experience of it or their perceptions of day-to-day life. It is quite another thing for the students to declare that same school to be safe. The adults may feel safe, for instance, because they have power. Students overwhelmingly report that teachers and other adults on the school grounds do not have any clue about how many actual incidents of physical and emotional violence and harassment occur in the course of a day.
For many students, the hallways represent a particularly problematic section of the school. In our study, 55 percent of the students thought their peers were disrespectful toward one another in the halls. The comments below express other aspects of feelings of insecurity.
I feel unsafe when I'm walking through a hall and older people I don't know are there. (Jenny, 14)
The number of people in the hallways [makes me feel unsafe]. You get lost and can't be seen. (Janeen, 14)
Rob, age sixteen, from a suburban California school, discussed some of the dilemmas he and other students experience about the hallways. When he was asked, "Do you think the adults pretty much know what is going on in your school?" his answer was an adamant "No!" The rest of his report is interesting:
Most of the time the teachers are in their classrooms, so they are not really in the halls-and that's where everything takes place. So they don't find out.
What's happening in the hallways?
Sometimes, you have people who hate each other, or people who accidentally bump into each other.
From that, you're saying something could happen?
How do you feel about it?
It feels weird that the kids notice these things and the teachers don't.
Would it be better if the adults noticed more?