Friday, November 11, 2011

Stopping Bullies Requires Everyone's Help

The subject of bullying and how to prevent it has recently gotten lots of attention. The suicides of LGBT youth led to the introduction of the “It Gets Better” campaign. Internet-based bullying finally has begun to be taken seriously. Legislation to combat the practice is now under debate in Michigan and will likely spread to others. It would seem that now people are willing to be honest with each other. In response to what has always been a substantial problem, for the first time, well-reasoned, targeted strategies have been advanced to end the practice.

Travis Brown is a Lafayette, Indiana, based motivational speaker and anti-bullying coach. He has adopted the stage name Mr. MOJO for use during his stops at high schools across the country. Mr. Brown and I recently spoke at some length about his work and what he intends to accomplish. As Mr. MOJO, he offers schools and school systems the ability to extensively participate in his multi-tiered system.

In an ideal setting, he speaks to students, teachers, administrators, and parents. In addition to motivational talks, his program incorporates a written tool-kit of specific areas for discussion. A large aspect of his work seeks to empower student leadership, identifying leaders from within the student body, who are influential forces on the greater body. These leaders formulate strategies in which teenagers can recognize instance of bullying and draw immediate, effective attention to them.

Brown knows well that the problems of bullying are not usually simplistic in origin, nor are the resolutions. Only through collaborative effort and teamwork can real progress be made, especially when a culture of leniency exists. In that situation, bullies recognize that they can continue the practice unimpeded, knowing that they will never get into trouble. Having discussed the nature of anti-bullying practices, it is worthwhile knowing what motivates students to prey on others.

Most bullying between adolescents can be boiled down to matters of rivalry and competition. Girls bully. Boys bully. Each gender, however, takes a slightly different approach and focuses on separate variables. For example, bullying behaviors include a constant need to jockey for position. The ultimate end is to see, by the end of the day, who is number one. A well-defined pecking order exists, as well as a constant need to measure up to some arbitrary, shifting standard. Girls often fight with each other based on physical appearance, body image, who they date, how they dress, and similar other factors. The anonymity and prevalence of the internet has been a great leveler, and not exactly for the best. Girls have grown recently more empowered to bully and when they do, they regularly resort to online character attacks.

Boys bully each other for different, but somewhat related reasons. Young men are judged for being appropriately masculine enough, scrutinized for how effectively they fit into identity groups, ranked based the type of car they drive, and held accountable for their success or lack of success in dating. An aspect of policing, gender or otherwise, does also exist here. Part of bullying involves a group aspect of demanded conformity, and those who stick out or cannot help but stick out are much more likely to be the focus.

There’s a certain kind of competition here, an aspect of playing king of the hill. The goal is to win the right to be the alpha male. In another era, this sort of rivalry might be consigned to a fist-fight after school, but that ancient aspect of resolving disputes grows less and less commonplace with time. Boys are now using more passive-aggressive tactics, many times resorting to similar aspects of shame and blame. Physical violence has now given way to psychological violence, the sort of which often produces suicide attempts and self-harm. One can always argue that we are a less violent society, at least in one regard, but violence seems to have shape-shifted over the decades.

How do we stop this from happening? Travis Brown has his own perspective. His work on the ground leads him to believe that parents are the single most important aspect in whether or not a teenager becomes a bully. Inadequate parenting breeds bullying tactics. Teachers are also a factor, since they observe and choose whether not to report incidents of bullying. Additionally, he believes that there must be a competent, decisive, proactive administrative staff present within a school or school district. Within a high school, specifically, strong leadership must be clearly visible from the principal on down the chain. Schools where administration makes a point to be regularly seen are more successful. Some principals and administrative staff conduct their work in isolation; these are often the schools where bullying is prevalent.

It takes everyone’s involvement to stop bullying. Lacking the commitment and support of one aspect of the problem complicates the solution. Brown often has to work within the parameters set for him. Some schools only want a one-time-only talk in front of the student body. Other schools agree to have him return several times, as he would prefer, so that he can implement more specific strategies. Today’s teenagers are very different from those in earlier generations. Like we ourselves, they are still trying to make sense of a rapidly changing world, while still absorbing the insight and history of the generations which came before them.

Brown acknowledges that he is always learning. The Mr. MOJO program has been subtly tweaked and modified with time, this often because of student feedback. He concedes he will probably always have to stay current to stay relevant, but is up for the challenge. Every year, young people deal with problems that have never previously existed. Whether we are parents, teachers, administrative faculty, or regular citizens, we all shoulder some of the blame. Recent events in the news have shown the tragedy of silent complicity and the unwillingness to report crimes in a timely fashion. It may not take a village to protect a child, but we could always use a few more vigilant villagers.

For more information about Travis Brown and Mr. MOJO, follow this link.

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