Last week Web wrote about a case of a bully fighting back and getting punished for it. This brings up a subject that I’ve written about in the past. I thought I had written a post about it, but if so I can’t find it.

It was the policy of my school system that anybody participating in a fight, regardless of who started it and who “won” it, was to receive equal punishment. The policy in the Redstone school district seems to be similar, though it does appear to leave more discretion in the hands of the administration.

When I was in the 6th grade, I was the target of a 7th grader. In the ebb and flow of growth spurts, I was not at my largest at this point. I was bigger than this kid, but he was taller. He was relentless in the psychological taunts. At one point, I said something relatively meager in response and the next thing I knew I was Target #1. It wasn’t long before I was goaded into what would have been a fight. In the hallway outside the PE room, he and I were lined up and it was obvious what was going to happen.

It was then that red flags started going up in my mind. I realized that, at the core, I couldn’t do this. It wasn’t that I was afraid of getting beaten up. I had no idea who would win. If anything, I was more confident that I could win at the time than I am in retrospect. My main concern was getting in trouble. Getting in trouble with the school, but more importantly getting in trouble with my parents. The notion of the adverse effect it would have on my future was, while not central because what sixth grader is really thinking about such things, nonetheless on the borders of my consciousness.

And that’s the effect of these policies. For good and for ill. Here we had one kid that had no real future to speak of, and you had me. You had one kid whose parents probably didn’t care all that much, and you had parents like mine who would have freaked out. You had one kid for whom suspension is a three-day vacation, and you had me to whom suspension was unthinkable. And, of course, he had friends willing to throw in and I didn’t. In the end, regardless of courage and who would win, he held all the cards. And he knew it.

And it’s this that makes the policy so grossly unfair. It gives one party all of the leverage. Worse than that, it gives the wrong party all the leverage. It places all of the responsibility of avoiding a fight on the kid that is (a) not the instigator and (b) the one more inclined to follow rules.

Yet while the policy was grossly unfair, it had a certain effectiveness. Because I knew that I couldn’t get into a fight, I walked away and paid the social price for it. And I walked on friggin’ eggshells never to be put in that situation again. I took body gloves*. I took depantsing. I took stolen caps, stolen pencils, and all manner of other torment. While that absolutely, positively sucked for me, no fights occurred. Without that policy, they would have. And while it is completely unfair to do so, placing the burden on the more responsible party is effective insofar as the responsible party can be more relied on to defuse the fight. To walk away. To be a coward. What I discovered was that there was almost always a way to avoid a full-on fight, so long as you checked your self-respect at the door. Of course, it also lead me to things which the district would not approve of.

And from the administration’s standpoint, what’s the alternative? Most fights occur outside eyesight, so you take one kid who says “he hit me” and the other saying “no, I didn’t” or “he tried to hit me, first!” and what do you do? Common sense may tell you that Kid A is a generally good kid with good marks and good conduct scores while Kid B is always in trouble, but do you punish kids based on supposition? In my first substitute teaching assignment, I had a first grade class with a particular troublemaker. When the main teacher was there and I was observing and waiting to take over, I saw a couple of occasions where the troublemaker hadn’t actually done anything wrong but was blamed anyway because… well… he was a troublemaker. I felt sorry for the kid right up until I took the reins and discovered exactly why teachers were targeting him.

Back on the first hand, the policy excuses administration/teacher response considerably. They don’t need to stop fights because they don’t have to worry about the fallout. The punishments are send down from on high. No need to figure out the circumstances. No need to figure out who started it and who wasn’t able to walk away. So all of those things that lead up to fights, like verbal taunting, one-off assaults, and so on can be simply ignored or merely tut-tutted. In PE, the body gloves occurred in full view of the coach, who would simply tell the kid to cut it out (which they wouldn’t) and commence. And in a perverse way, you were thankful for this, because the alternative was that the coach would punish the entire class with pushups or laps. And when that happened, who do you think the more powerful within the class targeted? The big kid whom nobody wanted to cross) or the kid who had the temerity to say “ouch”?

And so it becomes a bureaucratic thing. It allows teachers to ignore that which can be ignored. And it absolves them of any involvement (except meting out standardized punishment) of that which cannot be ignored. But it does manage to cut down on the actual number of fights, on the whole. If you’re willing to overlook everything else.

This is where a whole lot of Casey’s support comes from, I think. Having been in the situation that I describe above. I had a pretty good friend in high school, Sam, who became our Casey. One of the more notorious bullies assaulted him (discovering later that his arm was broken in the process). Sam retaliated with a pencil jab near the eye. The bully wore an eyepatch for a couple months after while Sam had to wear a cast for a while. Both were suspended for three days and made complete physical recoveries (though the bully stopped being much of a bully after that). When my friend’s parents objected to his punishment, they actually used the fact that Sam didn’t know that his arm had been broken when he retaliated, and that he didn’t know that the pencil wouldn’t kill the bully (a fairer point).

* – Body gloving is where, when someone is shirtless, you slap them across the back with fingers spread and an open palm. It leaves a hand-shaped mark. And hurts like hell. Needless to say, in any shirts/skins game, I cringed whenever I was put on the skins team.


Category: School

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11 Responses to Bullying: Fairness & Expediency

  1. AC says:

    If administrators feel justified in making these decisions that impact their powerless charges based on personal expediency and not justice*, should we outsiders really care about the well-being and workload of bureaucrats?

    * – It can be difficult to figure out what’s a just outcome from the principal’s desk. But someone who simply doesn’t bother tackling the problem, rather than trying to address the challenge as fairly and as realistically as possible can be fairly said to be unconcerned with the problem. It doesn’t take *that* much extra work to come up with a highly flawed system that is nevertheless more just than the current one – which as you point out is systematically biased in the wrong direction. Scapegoating known troublemakers is more probabilistically just. Heck, flipping a coin is more probabilistically just.

  2. trumwill says:

    Good points, AC.

    should we outsiders really care about the well-being and workload of bureaucrats?

    Perhaps not, but we can expect them to care. And they set the rules, for the most part, and have to administer them. So one way or another, we’re leaving it for them to deal with. How would we work around that? Citizen panels?

    Another factor, of course, is legal liability exposure. As long as it’s automatic, it’s harder to sue on fairness grounds.

    On a sidenote, my recent experiences with teachers is that they are all hip to scapegoating troublemakers. At least they are out here. Web reports a pretty different experience.

  3. Mike Hunt says:

    I was once told by someone that school is prison. As I look back on it, I feel he is correct.

    I think your parents did you a disservice here. They should have told the principal flat out that if the school wouldn’t protect you, then you would have to protect yourself, and that you wouldn’t get into trouble at home for it. If they felt like suspending you, so be it; middle school doesn’t count for shit anyway, and its practioners are generally morons.

    Part of the problem of being from a “good family” is that people can smell it on you and they take advantage. They KNOW that you aren’t going to fight back or act like a savage. As I always say, if you give someone 2.54 centimeters, they will take 1.6109 kilometers.

    In 2011, video surveillance should nip this problem in the bud anyway. Let the kids know that all the common areas are being recorded, and this shit should stop.

  4. Peter says:

    Remember the Three Fears that Define American Life:

    1. Adults are afraid of teenagers.
    2. Whites are afraid of minorities.
    3. Everyone is afraid of Muslims.

    These policies are based entirely on fear #1.

  5. trumwill says:

    Mike, the main sticking point for my folks would have been that I didn’t go to anyone about it. They were under the impression that if I just told them, they could call the parents of the other kid, and it would all be worked out.

  6. Kirk says:

    And it’s this that makes the policy so grossly unfair. It gives one party all of the leverage. Worse than that, it gives the wrong party all the leverage. It places all of the responsibility of avoiding a fight on the kid that is (a) not the instigator and (b) the one more inclined to follow rules.

    At the risk of becoming tedious, I’d say the adult version of this rule is gun control.

  7. Maria says:

    I’m sorry to read about your painful bullying experiences Trumwill. I was bullied also, although the issue is a bit different, because my bullies were usually of the opposite gender, not of my own gender.

    I dealt with it by keeping my head down and sucking it up. I think it really messed me up in my adult relationships, particularly those with men.

    Probably why I didn’t find Mr. Right until I was 33, and also probably why the guy I ended up with eventually was the least threatening, most mild-mannered guy I had ever dated (although seriously high IQ).

  8. rob says:

    Trumwill, you are smack on about zero tolerance policies discouraging only the good kids. In school I always thought that the teachers and administrators were on the bullies’ side. It took me a few years to realize that I was right. Ever hear how an armed society is a polite society (or a society with a high death rate)? The awful kids in school would behave better if they were always afraid that the next goad or punch would lead to righteous pile drive or knocked out eye.

    The video of that runty kid (did he have a speech impediment? He looks and moves like he’s MRDD) having his ass handed to him should go in PSAs for the next anti-bullying campaign. Don’t be a bully: anyone can be goaded in hitting first. Usually whoever hits first wins a fight. Sometimes your asswhomping will end up an international sensation.

    Maria, how does boy-on-girl bullying work? Wouldn’t it go roughly from boy talks shit to girl kicks him in the nuts? Even if the guy wins a physical fight, his status, especially with girls, must take a dive. Do they mostly work in packs and keep it entirely verbal, or what?

  9. trumwill says:

    The only girl who was physically picked on by boys at my school was the one who had the audacity to try to join the football team. It was really kind of weird because she was hot and relatively popular, generally. But not enough to get any slack from the football players, though.

    There was a fair amount of resentment about her joining though. It didn’t seem fair that a girl could play in the “boy’s” sport but boys were not able to join the girl’s volleyball team.

  10. trumwill says:

    Rob, there’s two kinds of “supporting the bullies.” There’s the huggy-feely “They just want some positive attention and affirmation” way, which is explicitly supporting the bullies. Web ran into that at his high school. Mine was supporting the bullies by default. Not any intentional support, but the neutrality in the rules gave them a degree of institutional support. Since real expulsion was off the table, in a *best case scenario* (like they hit you with a tire iron or something*), they’d be back by the next semester (and quite possibly mad that you “got them in trouble”. That was the case in junior high at any rate. By high school they had “alternative schools” where they would cool their heels for longer periods of time.

    * – This actually happened. It was one of my middle school bullies (my worst tormentor, actually, even worse than the guy I mention above). He hit a kid with a tire iron and was gone for a semester, but back by spring. Then in high school he ran over hit a kid with his car and ended up at the alternative school for a while. He was back by my junior year. Though a grade ahead of me in junior high, he was a sophomore when I was a junior. I guess social promotion had its limits. In his defense, he had mellowed out by that point. I even got the tiniest bit of “revenge”, sort of, embarassing him and forcing him to apologize (not that he remembered what he was apologizing for).

    -{Italics and strikethroughs modified for clarity. He didn’t actually run over the other kid}-

  11. trumwill says:

    (not that he remembered what he was apologizing for).

    I’ve mentioned this before, but this is actually part of a larger pattern. I’ve periodically run into people who were relentless enemies of mine (I was a regular at a bar that bully-types would apparently pop up occasionally). They don’t remember. They would approach me and act like we were friends in the old days.

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