The date of the seminar is significant because Dr. Smith is on a crisis team that responds to mass shootings, and has done considerable research on school shooters. So while he was in Louisville for this conference, he had been on the phone all night with the crisis care first responders. And when he spoke with us, a roomful of Kentucky educators, at 8:30 the next morning, his exhortation that we STOP THE HATE by instilling compassion in our students reached fever pitch.
He shared his own story of being victimized by bullies - of being moved from a caring, one-room schoolhouse in walking distance of his ranch to a consolidated school 90 minutes away as a sophomore and being beaten and bloodied by the school's seniors while teachers shrugged it off as a rite of passage. He shared his story of being labeled as a special education kid (because he had given up) and of the merciless teasing the SPED kids endured. He shared his story of the one friend who believed in him, stood up for him, and, unbeknownst to him, completed the application and wrote the essay that got him into college. Where he became a special education teacher and then a professor of education so that kids under his influence would never endure what he had endured.
We discussed the definition of bullying:
1. Intent to harm.
2. Interferes with one's civil rights. (We discussed this in the context of the right to an education free from fear, but there was additional post-seminar discussion about what characterizes civil rights in America.)
3. Imbalance of power.
This is the same definition of bullying we use at our school. Understanding the definition - knowing what is and is not bullying - helps us to know how to discipline. Is the kid sitting next to you who WON'T STOP making faces and annoying noises bullying you or is he socially immature?* Are the girls who won't let you play at recess unless you wear a particular brand of headband bullying you or are they just being fashion-conscious girly-girls?**
The imbalance of power element drew a lot of discussion. The power may be real or perceived, and may involve gender, culture, race, social class, etcetera.
The seminar and discussions meshed beautifully with the connection, compassion, safety and discipline (teaching not punishment) that we continue to refine and attempt to implement at school.
But it also tagged into conversations and articles and tweets and Facebook posts that have popped up over the last week and a half. What is free speech versus hate speech? Is the Confederate flag a symbol of heritage or hate? Are we "speaking the truth in love" or are we intolerant bigots? The definition of bullying provides a good benchmark in answering those questions.
(Full disclosure, I believe the Confederate flags as symbols fit all three criteria and as such should hang in a museum where we learn, contemplate and repent of our racist history rather than on public, government grounds. I also believe that people should have the freedom to wear, display, fly the flag on their own persons or private property, and I encourage them to do so prominently so I know with whom I'm dealing.)
Dr. Smith reiterated that victim safety must be paramount and outlined a four-step process for disciplining bullies, one that we also use in our school. Before returning to class, activity, etcetera
1. The student must take responsibility for his/her behavior and explain why it was wrong.
2. The student must be able to discuss and/or act out alternative behaviors that he/she could have used.
3. The student must try to understand the victim's point of view and feelings (empathy).
4. The student must atone or make amends. Saying "Sorry" isn't enough.
What if we, in our adult dealings and interactions and laws and decisions and Facebook posts did the same?
*the annoying face-making kid is socially immature, not bullying, because there is no intent nor is there a power imbalance.
**the headband clique is bullying because there is intent to exclude, interference of an emotionally safe educational environment, and a social/class power imbalance