Like many causes, bullying occasionally garners widespread media attention, usually due to tragic incidents that highlight our failure to establish an effective system of prevention. Amanda Todd, the British Columbian schoolgirl who recently committed suicide after posting a video chronicling her experience as a victim of blackmail and physical assault, is one of many young people who fall victim to traumatic experiences at the hands of fellow classmates. Every time an incident like this receives nationwide attention—and there are far more instances than those that receive media attention—commentators and news-readers attempt to find a root cause of the problem or pose an ultimate solution. There are several common issues in these discussions, but a couple of questions stand out: does the school environment cause bullying, and would removal of a child from a regular school environment eradicate that child’s experiences of bullying?
This is a complicated issue, one that tends to defy simplification; as psychological experts and school officials attest, there are many factors that contribute to bullying, among them peer pressure and a toxic school environment. It is not easy to simply dismiss the idea that the school environment itself, which arguably creates a space in which students can form social groups from which to include or exclude fellow students, automatically produces conditions for bullying. I have attended schools in which class size and student demographics have produced ideal conditions of ostracism and group-led and individual harassment.
However, I have also attended schools that have specifically molded the classroom and social experience to promote inclusion, and any instances of bullying have been quickly dealt with in a positive manner that includes the whole school community rather than singling out a bully and a victim. No educational model is fool-proof, but blaming school in general does not address the fact that the school environment is just one of many contributing factors that lead to incidents of bullying.
The discussion of the dangers of a school environment connects directly to the debate over whether children should be home-schooled, and whether public or private schools create a better educational experience. In reality, children may experience bullying in any social setting, but changing the setting can improve certain children’s experiences. Some parents choose to home-school their children specifically due to issues of exclusion and harassment, and some report a successful transition that provides relief from torment yet does not eliminate the opportunity to socialize with one’s peers.
However, the home-school environment also carries the potential for social isolation, especially with regard to school-related extracurricular activities. Additionally, removing the child from the school environment may not eliminate all possible encounters with perpetrators and may send a message to the bullies that their tactics have been successful.
The responsibility to limit instances of bullying, and the devastating effects these interactions can have on both bullies and those who have been bullied, does not rest with children and their caretakers. School officials and teachers have an obligation to work to ensure the safety and success of students. Similarly, government officials have the capacity to create and fund initiatives to prevent bullying, provide support for bullies and their victims, and take other measures to address the issue. When a system fails a person, the blame does not lie on one single factor, and a single solution does not exist.
Instead of seeking to find a single root cause of bullying and exclusively focusing on a single catch-all solution, let’s collaborate with each other to create projects that address all aspects of bullying. Let’s focus on each individual we know who has experienced bullying from one or both positions. Let’s work to help each individual move beyond the experience and possibly even learn something positive from it. After all, our main concern is for each of the children and adults who fall victim to bullying dynamics that have a negative impact on the rest of their lives. For each person, there is someone else who can lend a hand and provide support. Let’s study the factors that contribute to a positive, healthy life after bullying, not just the factors that contribute to loss of health and life after bullying.