Every now and then the newspaper contains good news. Such was the case this past Thursday, March 4, when the Los Angeles Times carried an article with the headline "Fewer children bullied or beaten up" (page A16).
A study funded by the Justice Department (our tax dollars at work, in a useful way!) and published recently in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine revealed a significant decrease in physical bullying of children between 2003 and 2008. Sociologist David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, cited as a cause the proliferation of school-based programs to combat bullying following the 1999 Columbine High School shootings.
I jumped on the Internet and quickly located that CACRC site -- a great source for anyone interested in additional background information. Among other things, I found a paper on school-based Victimization Prevention Programs (VPP), which detailed the conditions under which such efforts seem to demonstrate success. Among those conditions are: 1) intervention at young ages (if possible, before undesirable behaviors have a chance to develop); 2) active, systematic, and specific skills training; and 3) intensive programs exceeding 20 hours, repeated if possible over a multiple-year period. (Are you surprised by the latter? I'm not. We study English, math, history, etc. every year!) Lecture presentations alone, and the use of fear tactics, tend not to be successful.
It is difficult for me to contemplate anyone arguing that bullying is a useful or healthy activity. There may be some disagreement, however, about the philosophical justification and the logistical feasibility of including VPP in K-12 schools.
In regard to the former, it could be argued that schools are not the proper venue for "social engineering." This is the parents' function, some would say. Well, of course it is! But with 22% of children reporting bullying in 2003 -- and clearly many more subjected to the phenomenon but not reporting it -- maybe the parents need some help. (And some parents, victims of all kinds of negative childhood experiences themselves, are simply not equipped to provide positive role models.) School is a great equalizer, and it is the one social environment that practically every child experiences. Given the negative consequences of bullying on its victims, it seems a shame to me to pass up a proven opportunity to ameliorate a devastating and all-too-common behavior.
Can schools really implement such training effectively in an era when standardized tests have achieved near-deity status? Apparently some of them can, because they do! What's required is funding, teacher training, well-developed instructional modules, and a philosophy that values appropriate social behaviors as well as pure academic knowledge.
What are the consequences of not providing mature social learning environments for our children? Just observe the overgrown children who populate our legislative bodies!