By Rob Roper
In the wake recent mass school shootings, there is, rightfully so, much concern about how we can keep our classrooms safer from violence, and the role mental health plays in these tragedies. Bullying is a major topic in these discussions as the shooters tend to be victims of outright bullying, perceive themselves to be victims, or just don’t fit in with their peers and feel ostracized as a result.
Therefore, a recent story by Vermont Digger, “Data indicates schools may be underreporting bullying,” should set off alarm bells. The piece highlights the fact that the Vermont Agency of Education had to be forced by a judge after a “years long legal battle” to release public data on bullying in our public schools, and that the data the agency did release indicates the schools are either ignoring or papering over the problem.
According to the article, 123 Vermont middle and high schools reported no bullying incidents at all, and those that did reported few. Yet, “In 2015, 24 percent of middle schoolers and 18 percent of high schoolers reported being bullied, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.” Those two numbers don’t jibe, and, as someone who lived through middle school, I tend to believe the kids.
Karen Richards, the executive director of the state’s Human Rights Commission, is quoted in the Digger article as saying, “We have heard from too many parents who the school has gone through the investigative process, determined that there was no bullying, but the child is still experiencing it and the parents are kind of at their wit’s end.” This can’t be allowed to persist.
The schools have little incentive to do anything about the problem, and in some cases, to be fair, really can’t do anything about it. How do you separate two third graders whose personalities dangerously clash if there is only one third grade class in the school? An administration can’t force kids to accept a social outsider into an organically formed peer group. We, as a community, have to allow for other options.
And, here we get to the school choice solution.
If a child is a victim of bullying, or perceives him or herself to be the victim, then it should be state policy to give that child a tuition voucher to get out of a toxic situation and the chance to find a school environment that works for that child. After all, how can anyone justify forcing a kid into a building every day where he or she does not feel safe, and in too many cases is actually not safe, from physical and/or mental abuse and the anxiety that comes from not fitting in.
Being subject to that kind of stress for an extended period of time — six years of elementary school, three years of middle school, four years of high school — trapped by law with no viable avenue of escape, can and does do lasting damage. Sometimes, but certainly not most times or even, thank goodness, many, to the point of violent eruption. But even for the non-violent victim of bullying the impacts can be devastating. As Bernice Garnett, an associate professor at the University of Vermont and the chair of the state’s Hazing, Harassment, and Bullying Council, said to Digger, “Kids who are bullied – and who bully – do worse in school, and have higher rates of depression and anxiety. The long-term effects are only just starting to be seriously studied.”
Giving students the right and the resources to find the school situation that is right for them will benefit all concerned. The student will be in a better, healthier position to learn if he or she feels happy and safe in the classroom. The school communities will benefit by ridding themselves of otherwise insolvable toxic situations. Society benefits if we can defuse some of these emotional pressure cooker situations before one turns tragically violent.