"Just be nice."
This was the message of Archbishop Henry J. Mansell’s homily that was heard by all Catholic school students who attended the Chrism Mass last April. The archbishop talked about the persistent and ever-growing concern over the bullying of school children. He ended with a hopeful message that the philosophy of Catholic school is built upon a commitment to love God and our neighbor.
The good news is that our Catholic schools are perfectly positioned to address the ongoing nuisance of bullying. So why do we continue to hear about bullying from students, parents and school personnel? Teachers create masterful religion lesson plans and our administrators provide current workshops for teachers and staff members to address the issues of the bully as well as the victim.
Yet the issue persists.
I propose that we approach the problem from a fresh perspective and look at the role of the bystander. We know that in most bullying situations, there is a third party present when bullying occurs: the bystander. If we could empower the bystander to say "no" to the actions of the bully, we will have tapped a powerful resource. How often have kindergarten teachers made a profound impression on children to make the Sign of the Cross and pray for the person in need whenever they hear a siren? We need to continue our practice of asking for God’s help as a group of bystanders. In this way, we witness to our belief in God’s unfailing love.
We are well-informed that bullying is the misuse of power by an individual over another who demonstrates weakness. It humiliates or harms a person who is repeatedly singled out by the bully. Bullying does not accidentally occur. It is planned and carried out to berate and harm the victim. It is never funny and must never be excused as "just a joke." Bullies generally have low self-esteem and perhaps have been the victims of bullying themselves. We also know that bystanders are reluctant to challenge the bully for fear that the bully will turn on them. In some cases, the bystanders feel that being regarded as an accepted member of the bully’s social sphere has social status. If the bystander remains silent, he or she becomes a partner of the bully and must maintain the code of silence.
We must empower bystanders to take control and to believe, as they did in kindergarten, that as a group they could effect help for someone in need. We must do the following in our schools:
• Create a culture in our schools, starting with the youngest children, which supports the bystander and gives him or her the courage to speak out against the harmful behaviors of the bully.
• Train bystanders to clearly communicate, using kind and supportive language, that these behaviors must stop.
• Train children to distinguish between tattling and reporting.
• Provide a method to log all complaints of harassment that potentially could become bullying.
• Follow a clear-cut school policy with well-defined consequences.
It is not simple to conquer the problem of bullying. However, we can empower our children to be bystanders with a strong voice through formation in our faith and trust that God is always with us.
For professional training and in-house workshops, you might consider using a facilitator skilled in developing active and vocal bystanders. Information is available by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org for references.
Maria Maynard is assistant superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Hartford.