Do anti-bullying programs produce more bullies?

by Janie B. Cheaney

Posted on Monday, October 14, 2013, at 12:16 pm

About five years ago, after a series of well-publicized cases of harassment ending with the suicide of a gay college student named Tyler Clementi, “bullying” became a top priority for educators, authors, and parents. Though bullies and how to deal with them have been a staple of childhood at least since Abraham was growing up in Ur, social networking and a boorish culture have sharpened the edge. Supposed anti-gay bullying has kicked concerns into high gear, and it’s probably no coincidence that October shares status as Bullying Awareness Month with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) History Month and National Coming-Out Day (last Friday). To take one current example, teachers and staff in the Los Angeles school district are being leaned upon to wear badges identifying them as an “LGBT Ally,” with the stated goal of warning bullies.

Setting aside the politicized trappings, bullies can be a real concern. Incidents of students beaten on school buses or dragged around classrooms or found dead by their own hand have captured headlines and shocked Americans into demanding that something be done. That “something” boils down to anti-bullying laws passed in most states and anti-bullying programs incorporated in many schools. 

Here, a conservative thinker is likely to stop and ponder just how effective laws and programs are likely to be. How effective have they ever been, especially in the explosion of behavior-modifying legislation during the last few decades? In spite of our “best” efforts (actually our sloppiest, knee-jerk efforts), the poor are still with us, women still feel disrespected, children are still a low priority, and the hopeless still lack hope.

So it’s no surprise that anti-bullying programs don’t work and may even make the problem worse, as a new study published by the University of Texas at Arlington shows. Students educated about bullying come away with a clearer understanding of what it is, how to do it, and how to use prescribed terms and catchphrases to get away with it. Seokjin Jeong, the UTA criminologist who conducted the study, called it “very disappointing and surprising” and recommended a more sophisticated approach to examining relationships and identifying the dynamics that led to victimization. Then a program could be developed to address them.

Good luck with that. Most programs generated in the university are built on the Enlightenment philosophy of man as a pure being—or at the very least a blank slate—corrupted by society or bad examples. Once taught that “kindness is cool,” he’s more likely to be kind. The idea persists in spite of copious evidence to the contrary. As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” The problem is in the will, not the brain. A sixth-grader in the classroom can check all the right answers on the anti-bullying worksheet, then go out to the playground and beat up a fifth-grader. God had already shown us what is good (Micah 6:8), and it’s the very thing we rebel against. It’s also extremely resistant to programs.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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