Apodaca: Don't forget bullying for the nuances

Issues surrounding bullying have taken a front seat in public discourse during the past few years, and the growing awareness has generally been regarded as a positive development.

But in recent months questions have been increasingly raised about the appropriateness and effectiveness of some anti-bullying efforts, and a few observers have even begun to wonder whether some programs do more harm than good.

The suicides of two students in different states last month, for instance, spawned just such a backlash. Both boys were allegedly bullied and killed themselves shortly after they viewed anti-bullying films at school. Some parents questioned whether the videos had the unintended effect of influencing fragile students to harm themselves.

Meanwhile, some California school districts have been sharply criticized for their aggressive monitoring of students' online activities. Glendale Unified School District, for example, hired an outside firm to track students' social media postings in an effort to discover potentially dangerous behavior such as bullying, a controversial move seen by some as infringing on free-speech rights and inviting unfair overreactions.

Here in Newport-Mesa, the school board last month put the brakes on a plan to implement a text-in tip line for students to report concerns over bullying, drugs and other issues. The district's lawyers are studying the proposal, which will be reconsidered at a future board meeting.

Taken together, these developments underscore the point that bullying is a complex, deeply rooted problem that is intrinsically difficult to solve.

At least schools and other institutions have been awakened to the need to better address the toxic effects of bullying, and that's a good thing. Most are now struggling to create environments in which the humane treatment of others is encouraged, inappropriate behavior is dealt with quickly and assertively, and young people feel free to speak up when they feel threatened.

But attempts to find the right mix of punishment vs. reward, openness vs. privacy, and aggressive intervention vs. sensitivity to individual rights can be fraught with slippery issues. Every step that is taken to squelch undesired behavior might also carry the risk of unhappy repercussions.

"How far do we go?" is the rhetorical question posed by Jane Garland, NMUSD's director of outreach and advocacy programs.

Garland, who oversees disciplinary policies, is accustomed to tackling such thorny questions. She came up with the idea for a text-in tip line after an e-mail-based tip line generated virtually no response.

Kids like to text, she figured, so that's how they might feel more comfortable communicating their concerns to her. It's also a means of getting information immediately, so that steps can be taken to diffuse situations before they spiral out of control.

"I think we should do anything we can to get kids to talk to us," she said.

"Anything that people can report to us will help us do our jobs better."

Garland is sensitive to some of the concerns that have been raised about anti-bullying campaigns. When it comes to showing videos or using other outsourced products, careful scrutiny must be given to the information and the message conveyed, she said.

Most important, she stressed, is the need to give students a meaningful context to absorb and understand the material. It's no good to simply show a film, she said; it should be part of a comprehensive program that includes effective follow-up and discussion to ensure that kids are taking away positive and helpful messages, and that they are made fully aware of ways they can find help.

Garland does not believe, however, that educators have the right to monitor all of students' online activities outside the school setting. That is the province of parents, she said, although schools can be strong advocates for teaching children responsible and appropriate uses of electronic media.

Bullying can ruin young lives. And while it's certainly possible that some of the anti-bullying efforts we've seen of late have been misguided or, worse, harmful, it's important that we don't use any missteps as an excuse to downplay the damage that bullying wreaks on children.

And it's not just kids that get hurt. Bullying often continues throughout college and adult lives, and it's only now that we're finally beginning to recognize and understand the extent of such behavior and its consequences.

Just last week, for instance, the Miami Dolphins football organization suspended a player who allegedly harassed and bullied a teammate.

One could argue — and many have — that professional sports is a rough-and-tumble arena that requires thick skins to endure the hazing and locker-room taunts that are an inextricable part of that environment. Indeed, the team initially appeared reluctant to act on the charges of racist threats made by the player in question, dismissing the allegations as "speculation," before later issuing the suspension.

But that kind of denial and excuse-making needs to stop, and the fact that some light is now being shed into the insular, brutal world of football is a positive step.

Yes, it's possible to overreact, and great care needs to be taken to find the most effective and proactive means of discouraging bullying. But the greater danger lies in putting bullying back into the dark closet where it festered unnoticed by too many for too long.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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