I didn’t have shorts in my luggage when I moved from Iran to Canada, and my family didn’t have money set aside to buy some. That wasn’t a problem until I enrolled in school and was marched off to P.E. My mom, who is very economical, gave me Speedos instead of shorts. I was hesitant to strap on the beachwear and questioned whether she was sure that a Speedo was a suitable surrogate. She nodded approvingly, and her smile gave me the confidence to put on my Speedo and attend my first day of P.E. By the time I got to the gym and noticed that everyone’s shorts were slightly longer, it was too late. Even the P.E. teacher was disturbed by the sight of a second-grader walking the balance beam in attire that only a younger version of David Hasselhoff could pull off.
That was the worst month of my academic career. I was an easy target for bullies. Even after I convinced my parents to get me shorts, the memory of my debut carried on in the classrooms, corridors and locker rooms. I was the butt of every joke, and my name became infamous. I started to detest school and became introverted. I was lucky when my family moved a month later, providing me with a new beginning.
Even though my story is unique, the reality of bullying is as inseparable from growing up as macaroni and cheese. We all either bullied, got bullied or stood by in an incident involving the two. Most of us learned early on to avoid altercations and came out unscathed. However, some of us never had the social circles or the social tact to circumvent such incidents and were a part of the 10 percent of schoolchildren who report being bullied at school weekly.
The problem is most persistent in elementary and middle school, when the onset of puberty leaves some students bigger than their peers. Those students can then prey on the not-so-hormone-fortunate. The problem is often ignored by policymakers because it doesn’t ring with the same seriousness as racism, drugs or sex. However, according to surveys conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 86 percent of students feel that it’s a more prevalent issue.
So what can be done to alleviate the problem? Before we answer, we should ask what has not worked: the traditional anti-bullying policies of elementary and middle schools. The main policy is centered on the naïve assumption that punishing the bully in the short run will release the victim from bullying in the long run. In reality, the bully will become vindictive and will, with the aid of his friends, ensure that a mark is constantly pinned on the victim.
The victim’s situation is exacerbated when he has to “snitch” out a bully who usually has the popularity to ensure that the victim becomes even more of an outcast. Other methods encourage victims to walk away or ignore the bully, but anyone who can remember the dynamics of their early schooling can attest that the last two methods only embolden the bully. The problem with current policies is that they are divorced from the reality of the power structure that exists among the bully, the student body and the victim.
The more sensible approach to dealing with the problem is proactively integrating the victim into the student body via subtle methods that aim to overlap the interests of the bully with those of the victim. These methods require the participation of parents and the school and are radical in that they don’t involve the reactionary punishment of the bully. For example, an elementary school can feign a random lottery that “wins” the bully and the victim a paid trip, with the supervision of a teacher, to a local restaurant. During the meal, the teacher can facilitate a conversation between the two. Conversing over an extended period of time will introduce the victim to the bully and reduce the likelihood that the bullying will continue.
Subsequent team-building games conducted in the classroom that “randomly” assign the bully and victim to the same group will again force the two to work together. If there is more collaboration and positive interaction between the bully and victim, there will be a more proactive outcome. Resorting to traditional methods of retaliation and punishment is no more effective than dressing the victim in a Speedo while telling him to pretend it is a pair of shorts.
Ali Saadi is a second-year biological sciences major. He can be reached at email@example.com.