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Why "Just Say No" Won't Prevent Bullying

EducationWorld is pleased to present this opinion piece by Debra Chasnoff, founder of Groundspark, which produces and distributes films and educational resources that aim to inspire social change. The article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

My concerns are mounting about some of the emerging messaging and organizing around the issue of bullying, especially connected to the film Bully. President Obama himself has hailed the director of the film, and Mitt Romney's anti-gay high school violent behavior made national news. When you factor in the increasing attention to so-called zero-tolerance policies and the frequent announcement of new anti-bullying initiatives, it is clear that the manner in which our national discourse evolves on this issue couldn't be more timely--or critical.

Don't get me wrong. Bully is a moving documentary that deserved the attention it received, and I would urge parents, in particular, to see it. But I left the theater wondering about what message the film is leaving with viewers, particularly with students, its primary target audience.

The closing scene in Bully showcased a rally where people touched by youth-on-youth harassment released balloons and called for an end to bullying. While heart-warming, this gesture is far too simple a solution to a phenomenon that is steeped in and abetted by unexamined bias.

In our quick-fix, short-attention-span culture, shaking a finger is not enough. Just like the much-parodied '80s and '90s mantra of "Just Say No" to drugs, simply saying "Stop bullying" will never change deeply entrenched cultural attitudes.

Similarly, harsh "zero-tolerance" policies fail to take on the complex nature of the motives of those who are doing the bullying. They do nothing to develop compassion and respectful understanding of differences among students or staff. What's more, the students primarily disciplined by zero tolerance rules are disproportionately LGBT youth, students of color and students with disabilities, ironically the same groups that are often the most targeted. Criminalizing and expelling students who bully, without looking at the underlying causes of their behavior, only creates more pain in their lives and the lives of others.

My concern is even more urgent for young Bully viewers who themselves are harassed every day traveling to and from school, in their classrooms or in the hallways. The bleak picture Bully portrays of what life is like for students like them is the opposite of a lifeline. Waiting for one's community, church or family to become more loving and less abusive, without any roadmap on how to get there, will take too long. To a targeted teen who's on the edge, that's an impossible dream.

I worry that someone who is subjected to endless abuse every day, with no adults standing up to challenge the culture of bias-based harassment, will choose the route of the youth who are (finally) honored and celebrated in Bully--but only after they took their own lives. With suicide, someone finally pays attention, holds a sign in their honor, and chants their name with respect and love. That sends a horrible message, one that can, in some ways, make the option of taking one's life appealing, and prompt what has been documented as "suicide contagion" by experts in the field.

We saw some of that after the tragic death of Tyler Clementi and others; only after losing them did those around them pay closer attention to the school, church and family cultures that contribute to so many bullying-related suicides. For example, Tyler's own parents, devout Christians who used to believe homosexuality is a sin, are now publicly saying we need to challenge our cultural assumptions about being gay.

Fortunately, the director of Bully has started to talk more about what needs to happen next after screenings of his film. But I want to urge him, and everyone else jumping on the anti-bullying bandwagon, to take their calls for action one step further.

We should be asking how it's possible for high-achieving students like Dharun Ravi, the roommate who videotaped Tyler's tryst, to arrive at college still thinking it's perfectly normal to humiliate a classmate for being gay. What was missing in his K-12 education that would allow a high school student to graduate with that assumption? And how can we make sure that doesn't happen again?

Simply put, there is no way we will stop bullying unless we insist that the curricula in our schools addresses anti-gay stigma and the pressures to conform to gender norms.

Yet Bully and other programs and policies like it stop far short of demanding that our schools adopt curricula that is inclusive and respectful of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. They fail to make a strong enough case that parents and educators could transform school climates dramatically if they took the courageous step of challenging behavioral norms for children based on gender. They rarely ask parents to question their own biased attitudes, which they pass down to their children, who then turn against their peers.

So administrators, please: be very thoughtful before signing onto an anti-bullying campaign. Don't do it unless you are ready to insist that there be changes in your curriculum.

Teachers, be very careful if you screen Bully for students or launch an anti-bullying initiative. Don't do it unless you can take the next step to begin addressing gender pressures and homophobia in your classrooms and hallways. Please consider how students who are already on the edge may feel after watching this film.

The best thing that could come out of the mass attention to Bully and other new anti-bullying efforts would be that parents, politicians and educators joined together and did far more than put up posters saying "No Bullies Allowed" or offer speeches and incomplete policies that don't really do the job. We need to roll up our sleeves, take some risks, and open up real dialogue in our school communities about deeply entrenched, and often politically sanctioned, biases.

Related resources

Edgy “Bully” Movie Aims to Spur Change
While this documentary's mature content depicts the harsh realities of bullying, it is intended to educate and motivate both adults and youth.

Join the Discussion on Bullying
Our educator community featured a lively discussion on the topic of bullying. Learn about best practices and jump into the conversation.

Speak Up: A Video Lesson on Bullying
Students in grades 6-12 watch Cartoon Network's "Speak Up" video on bullying, take structured notes, answer questions and participate in related class discussion.

Public Speaking Lesson: The Impact of Bullying
Students in grades 9-12 gain public speaking and presentation skills as they educate peers about the important topic of bullying.

Lesson Plan Booster: How Can Students Help a Bullied Peer?
This discussion guide for middle- and high-school students helps youth consider the impact of bullying on the school as a whole, and learn about safe ways to help a student who has been mistreated.


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