My current Tablet magazine column is on cyberbullying. My editor Liel and I strove for a Jewy take on the subject, but for better or worse, the piece is pretty universal. Right now one of the bullies we mentioned is tangling in the always-lively comments section. It is, um, not so civil!
Meanwhile, New York City’s Department of Education just proposed a change to the city schools’ Discipline Code: now cyberbullying (defined as “intimidating and bullying behavior through electronic communication”) will be subject to a disciplinary beat-down. According to our indispensable local resource Inside Schools, the new version of the code will also put more emphasis on “guidance measures (counseling, peer mediation, and parent outreach) when addressing student misconduct” — in other words, schools won’t rely as much on suspensions. Which I think sounds good — does anyone learn anything from a suspension, beyond “don’t get caught”? I can see counseling and perhaps parent outreach (though sadly not in the Beverly Hills case I wrote about, since the dad is as big a bully as his kid) having more impact than mediation — current research on bullying is that mediation is exactly the wrong way to go. Mediation assumes that both parties have a valid point of view, and bullying is closer to child abuse: it’s just WRONG. But Zero Tolerance policies aren’t a good approach either; if the punishment for bullying is always huge (longtime suspension or expulsion) kids may hesitate to report bullying for fear of retaliation, and kids who bully won’t learn strategies to change their behavior — they’ll just get booted.
Anyway, no kind of Discipline Code language would have had any impact in the Beverly Hills case, since the judge ruled that the YouTube video didn’t cause “substantial disruption” in school.
But the whole kerfuffle in Tablet’s comment section (I know, mah nishtanah) made me think about Gary Schmidt’s recent, wonderful middle grade novel The Wednesday Wars. (Get it for your kids! It won a Newbery Honor!) A boy has to figure out for himself what his definition of morality is in a very turbulent time (in his case, the Vietnam war…but today’s electronic frontier is pretty turbulent too). The book is fun, with lots of baseball and friendship and humor, but there’s a seriousness to it: part of growing up, for the hero, means realizing that he isn’t going to learn about morality from his rigid, blustery, intolerant father or weak mother. Sadly, that’s a lesson a lot of bullies — including the ones we wrote about at Tablet — could benefit from.