Bullying is not a new phenomenon. There have always been bullies in school settings. But bullying is not a rite-of-passage. It is learned behavior that is neither acceptable nor justifiable. If not addressed immediately and appropriately, bullying can have fatal and unintended results. Now is the time for the community to come together and act.
Ask yourself: Why is 13-year-old Johnny is in detention every day for aggressive behavior against his teachers and classmates? Could it be that he can't read and doesn't want to be exposed? Why is 14-year-old Rico suspended from school, again, for fighting? Could it be that he never grasped the basic arithmetic concepts and feels "dumb"? Why does 15-year-old Keisha always come to school angry and picks a fight with kids who have done nothing to provoke her? Is it because she is being abused at home and thinks violence IS normal behavior? It goes back to that adage: Hurting people hurt people.
There are so many stories that could be told that lead one to believe that bullying is NOT the problem, but a symptom of underlying anger and frustration. The reality is that some kids come to school every day angry and frustrated about the hand life has dealt them. The end result is that we, as a nation, are witnessing a deterioration of our ability to teach our children, a degeneration of inclusion where many students receive significantly inferior attention to their needs than other students, and a surge of epidemic proportions in child-to-child bullying and peer-on-peer violence unprecedented in our history.
We call these kids who act out "bullies", but many are just plain angry for various reasons and some have not been taught the importance of exercising empathy and compassion within their peer groups. In some cases, the adults who are supposed to support and protect them are either missing-in-action or acting irresponsibly. These hurting kids are being labeled as "bullies", when they need guidance and correction. But no one is engaging them in meaningful dialogue to find out what's really going on at the individual level. Some of their stories will break your heart.
Bullies come in all races, colors and socio-economic classes. Jocks and mean girls from the suburbs are just as vicious as thugs and BaBa's kids from the hood.
Fifteen-year-old Lisa never talks to her parents because they are too busy trying to keep up appearances. She was raised to feel entitled and owed. Her desire for power and popularity lead her to mistreat others who she feels are inferior to her. Her parents and friends feed this demon spirit.
Ten-year-old Brennan has always been told by his family that they have high expectations of him, but he feels unsure of himself, so he creates a bullying demeanor that has become his personality. Now, he sees nothing wrong with picking on kids who he can intimidate. He always has a group of "cool-friend wanna-bees" reinforcing his bad behavior.
The teachers and administrators refuse to deal with these kids because of the social status of their parents – "They come from good homes in good communities." Unless there is a school shooting or suicide due to bullying, their crimes and misdeeds are rarely publicized.
It may seem as if we are witnessing a generation of youth who have no respect for anyone, including themselves, their parents, teachers or the police. In most cases, things are not as they seem. The MAJORITY of kids are not bullies, but even good kids cave-in to peer pressure when they want to be accepted by their peers.
The traditional roles of family and community in child rearing are gone. There used to be a time when parents actually taught their children principles such as the Golden Rule over meals. Today, music and entertainment figures are feeding our children values that encourage rebellious and violent behaviors. There used to be a time when the separation between the roles of parent and child was clear. Today, many parents are working two jobs and the only time the child gets their undivided attention is when they are in trouble. There used to be a time when children feared their parents more than their friends. Today, some kids will "cuss out" their parents as quickly as they will a stranger. There used to be a time when adults in the neighborhood actually knew kids by name and had no problem telling parents when their child was misbehaving or being disrespectful. Today, some parents will "cuss out" any adult if you even speak to their child about their violent behavior.
As adults, we are too quick to point to today's youth and want to write them off as a "lost generation". But, it's really the adults who have the problem. We complain about their saggin' pants, scanty clothing, and bad mouths, but let's take a walk back down memory lane to our mini-skirts, hot pants, polyester bell-bottom suits, and "jive turkey" lingo. Many of our parents thought we were rebellious and had bad attitudes. Surely, you haven't forgotten? Some of the outfits they wear today, they could have borrowed from us yesterday.
So, before we write this generation off as lost, let's come together with our kids, as a community and talk. Our kids are worth fighting for! We, as the village elders, have to stop talking about "those bad kids" and start working to get them back on track. This is not negotiable – it's our responsiblility to prepare our children, the most valuable resources this nation has, to be able to pick up and carry the Star-Spangled Banner that our forefathers paid for in blood, sweat, and tears.
It's time for us to say, "Enough is enough! Bullying and violence will not be tolerated – NOT ON OUR WATCH!" As the village elders, we must ensure that each child is given the attention they need, the care they are deprived of both at home and in school, and make certain their basic educational and psychological needs are met so they can excel and flourish.
To this end, we have launched "The Last Straw" campaign to end all forms of bullying and peer-on-peer violence that has reached epidemic proportions in every community across our nation. Our campaign mandate is to restore dignity, revive hope, and reclaim the destinies of our children in our "War on Terrorism in Our Schools and Communities." We are the catalyst for the change we want to see in our children.
(Dr. Clara West is founder and president of KoKo and Friends Foundation. "The Last Straw" campaign is designed to address at-risk behavior, including bullying and suicide, in the Memphis-area community. The effort is a collaboration involving the Shelby County Office of Early Childhood & Youth's Ask First Campaign; the KoKo Friends Foundation; Dress for Success Memphis' Professional Women's Group; and Pursuit of God's 7 P's ministry.)