When Anti-Bullying Education Becomes Counterproductive

I very recently participated in a “digichat” on twitter. It was a really cool experience; there were a lot of insightful, inspiring responses! Shoutouts go to @westhighbros, @mbfxc, @jlscheffer, and my principal @NMHS_Principal (A fantastic Ryan Seacrest impersonator!)

Thank you all so much for recommending and helping me, and especially for valuing my opinion!

Much of the discussion seemed to center around overcoming bullying, and with what I took away, I realized I had to post about some of the things I found more difficult to fit in 144 characters.

The post below is about my experience with anti-bullying education, which isn’t really about chemistry, but this seems a good place to put it. Thanks Ms. Smith.

When I started elementary school, the anti-bullying campaign wasn’t nearly as powerful as it is now. However,  I had plenty of television, school assemblies, and posters to teach me what bullying is. Well, sort of.

I think the nature of some forms of anti-bullying education can actually cause bullying to happen.

Let’s do a quick image search of “bully” on Google. Most of the first few relevant results look very similar.




All I see are boys! Why don’t we look up “girl bully”?

Images so similar it looks like I’m seeing triple.

Now let’s look at how bullying is represented in the shows I watched as a child:

Lizzie McGuire and her cheerleading arch-nemesis, popular mean girl Kate Sanders, basically shaped my vision of middle school social life.

Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide featured many stereotypical school characters, including the bully trio led by Billy Loomer.

Francis the Bully, a student at Timmy’s school, was one of the main villains of Fairly OddParents. (“Villains” is underlined for emphasis.)

I’ll never forget how these cheerleaders made a whole cheer poking fun at Kim Possible because they didn’t want someone unpopular to join the squad.

How I came to understand bullying:

  1. Boys bully boys. Girls bully girls.
  2. All schools have bullies.
  3. Boy bullies are large and scary.
  4. Girl bullies are pretty, popular, and usually cheerleaders. They form cliques of popular mean girls that “rule the school.”
  5. Boy bullies beat “geeks” up, take their lunch money, and give them wedgies.
  6. Bullies are unintelligent.
  7. Bullies are villains just as evil as stepmothers and Darth Vader.
  8. You have to fight back when you see bullying happen because that’s the right thing to do.
  9. “Standing up” to a bully will basically make you a school hero.
  10. For the most part, bullies and nice people are not friends.

I had these sort of principles hammered into my head and supported by books, movies, school assemblies- you name it.

What do you think I did as a result?

I feared tall, large, scary boys. I once told my mother we had a school bully after meeting a boy named Tony. Tony seemed rather large for his age and not very bright, and thus seemed to fit the description. I hadn’t even talked to Tony once, yet I made a point to tell all my friends to avoid him.

I “stood up” against girls that I thought were way too popular and pretty to possibly be nice. My friend Sandra has always loved fashion- which I now know isn’t a negative thing in the slightest. Although we’ve been friends since kindergarten, I don’t remember talking to her much in elementary school.
She recently enlightened me as to why:

“Do you remember in kindergarten when you wouldn’t talk to me because you said I was a mean popular girl?”

And now, a few principles I was never taught:

That someone small, someone unpopular, one of my friends, or even myself, could act like a bully.

That excluding a boy because he resembles a stereotypical bully is, in fact, bullying.

That “standing up” to the girl who resembles a stereotypical bully is, in fact, bullying.

That someone might bully others not because they wake up in the morning desiring to be villainous and mean, but because they lack understanding. Because they need help understanding others. Because, despite all the assemblies and seminars and books and TV shows–– they don’t know what bullying really is. 

I’ll never forget the guidance counselor that came in once a month to teach us about issues like bullying.

Ms. Grompone was her name. She once used me for an exercise that I remember she was nervous about executing with 3rd graders. I had to leave the room, then return and tell a story. However, upon re-entry, they were all told to ignore me and talk over my story. Some even went into the coat closet.

This was bullying, she said.

This made an ineffaceable mark upon my development because I learned that the hackneyed “stand up to bullying” phrase didn’t mean to attack someone who resembled one of the “WANTED posters” like these hanging around the classroom:

No, standing up to bullying meant speaking up against certain kinds of actions (not certain kinds of people), things that anyone could do and that could hurt anyone’s feelings.

I realize anti-bullying education has changed a lot in recent years, but I think it’s important that kids like my little brother learn to fight against hurtful actions– rather than people who seem likely to commit them–and that someone who seems like a “bully” may just need an understanding friend.

I love how the show Phineas and Ferb conveys Buford the Bully, who, after being treated with understanding and kindness, has become a regular member of the cast and “math geek” Baljeet’s best friend!

Thank you for reading! I hope I said some cool things. Please consider commenting about what you think or have experienced regarding anti-bullying education and how we can all work towards a more understanding world.

-S[hm]arah Almeda


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