Let me preface this post by saying that I have complete sympathy for any student who is genuinely being bullied. Now, I realize the word “genuinely” is a loaded term, and I put it there deliberately. What may seem petty and meaningless to someone on the outside may, in fact, be deeply painful to a student. The concept of bullying is incredibly subjective. I realize this. Part of being a teacher is validating students’ problems. These problems may not seem earth-shattering, but being a good teacher means recognizing that, in the mind of a sixteen-year old, something like a minor argument in the hallway with an ex-boyfriend or a snide comment posted on Twitter can have an enormous impact. I realize this. I spend a lot of my time listening to my students tell me things that are going on outside the walls of my classroom, sympathizing with them, guiding them, advising them when I can, maybe hugging it out, maybe secretly putting a Post-It note with a smiley face and a reminder that I care about them on their binder during Independent Reading. If these problems go beyond my reach or abilities, I take them to the students’ guidance counselor, or email their parents, or even contact the administration. Always. That’s my responsibility as their teacher.
But. There was an article today in the local newspaper about a student that I had in class last year. In the article, she talks about being bullied all year by a group of girls, and how they made her life awful, and how she went to the administration but they didn’t do anything, and how she decided not to walk at graduation to protest their lack of effort. There’s this dramatic conclusion, where she talks about going in to our principal’s office and saying, “You’re letting me get bullied and you’re watching, and I’ve approached you and done all the steps and you’ve done nothing. I think you’re a bully.” And apparently, she storms out, and I guess this is supposed to be a triumphant and affirming moment. And if you knew nothing about the situation, you would think, “Wow. This poor girl. She’s so strong and brave to speak up like this. Why didn’t the school do more to help her?”
The problem is that most of the article isn’t true. The lines between fact and fiction are so blurred. The lines between who’s bullying and who’s being bullied are blurred as well (because yes, some girls taunted her, but there’s also a very tangled backstory involving cheating and boyfriends and jealousy on all sides.) The administration did everything they could— calling in the parents, meeting with guidance counselors, arranging mediation between this girl and the others; our AP even essentially became this girl’s therapist for the better part of the year. How is that doing nothing? As I read the article, I started to wonder: where is the line? Schools must keep students safe, absolutely, without a doubt. But they cannot take responsibility for every single situation- every passive aggressive Twitter status, every mean girl who steals another girl’s boyfriend, every friend group that inevitably falls apart and turns against each other in the four years of high school, every snide comment in the hallway. The lines are so hazy. What is the school’s responsibility? What is the parents’ responsibility? And most importantly, what responsibility should fall on the student?
This article makes me worry. It makes me worry that, behind many of these stories in the news, there is a real back story, just like this one, painted in half truths and dramatizations. It makes me worry that the idea of opening up about having been “bullied” has become strangely trendy in the past year or two. And it makes me worry that, for all the attention-seeking students who make empty claims, there are students who are truly being bullied and are suffering in silence.