April 15, 2008
The harassment of teachers and the intimidation of students by classroom bullies is nothing new.
Seeing it. That is what's new.
Video of a student beating a teacher at a Baltimore high school and of a gang of girls pounding a classmate in Florida to teach her a lesson is posted on the Internet, where the grown-ups -- parents and administrators alike -- can see it.
And that might be the beginning of a solution.
"The fact that we are able to see it, that we are forced to face up to the fact, that's a good thing," said Michael Josephson, ethicist and creator of the Character Counts educational program for young people.
"It is so ugly, so inhumane, so enormously powerful. I would play it in my class again and again and be absolutely unequivocal about how unacceptable this is," he said.
Teachers have been trying to convince us for years that classrooms are unstable and unsafe. No one dares argue with them now.
And parents have been blissfully unaware of the toxic group dynamics to which their children are exposed -- as co-conspirators or as victims.
There is nothing like a video of violent children to wake everybody up.
"Because this was physical, it is easy to get outraged," said Josephson. "But kids have been inflicting serious damage on each other for a long time. 'You're fat. You're flat.' On and on."
The artificial world of the Internet in which our children live only compounds their lack of understanding, their lack of empathy, their lack of compassion.
These qualities don't just spring out of our children like body hair in adolescence. They have to be taught -- by parents, teachers, coaches. Any adult who spends any time with children shares this responsibility.
And it takes more than a simple conversation: "Honey, listen up. Our family doesn't believe in the beating of teachers or fellow students and the broadcast of those beatings as if they were something to be proud of."
As horrible as those videos are -- and there are hundreds like them out there -- they are the ultimate teachable moment.
"The formation of values and the controlling of behavior is way more complicated than a lecture," said Josephson. "You can talk to kids about bullying. But seeing it, watching it, that changes the conversation."
It is easy to blame the parents here -- if they'd done their job, this wouldn't have happened.
But the fact is, children spend more time in school than they do in the company of their parents. And their need to belong, to fit in with the dominant peers in the group can be powerful.
"That can mean gangs or it can mean Christian athletes," said Josephson.
"But in the final analysis, a kid is not a hot potato, where only one person holds it at a time. There is mutual accountability here."
The antidote for this inhuman behavior is not simple.
"Two things the adults can do," said Josephson. "Do their best to build their consciences, to calibrate their compass, as it were. And to stop this behavior. To say, 'There will be no hazing on my team or you will be off my team.'
"Whether it is persuasion or coercion, it is the job of the adults to stop it."
In the end, that's what makes these shocking videos so -- in a sense -- valuable.
"That's the healthiest part of this. The power of the picture. It doesn't change the reality. But it gave us all an understanding of reality we didn't have before."
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