I Thought This Was a Religious School: Episcopal Schools Responding to the Problem of Bullying

We’ve all heard that veiled accusation, in one form or another, as someone claims that we are not living up to our name as a religious school. Be it the perceived absence of mercy or the contention that we have failed to maintain high standards, we in Episcopal schools have heard many resort to this form of argument in challenging what the school has done or not done.

The gap between ideals and reality is something we all know. Because of our high ideals, when we fall short of them we feel the gap all the more deeply. Nowhere is this more evident than in the big issue of the day in schools, bullying.

Over the past months we have seen tragic outcomes to situations in schools and colleges where bullying has taken place. Should we find our school communities experiencing such unfortunate occurrences, we can count on people—be they parents, lawyers, the press—raising the sad irony of bullying going on in a school that claims a religious affiliation.

Many schools across the country are reporting a heightened sensitivity to the activity of bullying, due in part to the dramatic stories in the media of late. Occasional or isolated actions can easily be interpreted as examples of bullying. While we cannot dismiss such actions as trivial, it is very important that we remind ourselves—and our school communities—over and over of the proper definitions and conditions of bullying.

Dr. Susan Swearer, of the University of Nebraska, an individual who has worked with many schools on this problem, likes to emphasize the threefold condition of bullying:

  • It is an action that happens repeatedly.
  • The repeated action is a negative, mean behavior.
  • There is a clear imbalance of power between perpetrator(s) and victim.

The repeated, reoccurring nature of bullying is especially important for us to remember. Likewise, in that imbalance of power, the victim feels defenseless, hence is often not likely to seek help in order to break out of the web of verbal intimidation or physical harm.

As Episcopal schools, we must take the possibility of bullying very seriously. In the most recent issue of Network, Ann Mellow, associate director, described some of the resources available to schools facing very real or potential situations of bullying, stressed the importance of anti-bullying policies, and called for our member schools to use NAES as a vehicle through which they can share effective program ideas or helpful curricular materials. We very much hope that we can continue to keep this conversation going, given its urgency and the very real risk of lives being at stake.

It is equally important to remind ourselves that being an Episcopal school is an asset in addressing the issue of bullying, not just something that can be hurled against us when we fall short of addressing the issue in ways that might best reflect our common identity.

I can think of at least three characteristics of Episcopal schools that help us approach and respond to these issues from a point of strength.

Episcopal schools are places that know the complexity of human experience.
In a recent address to schools in the Association of Independent Maryland Schools, Dr. Swearer spoke of how complex the issue of bullying can be. It is something we often do not, as adults, see going on (her references to the actual physical places where bullying, on the average, commonly takes place in a school clearly support this). Complex, as well, because its roots are so often to be found in the family from which the bully comes, as well as the degree to which a bully actually gains notoriety and popularity among peers by virtue of this activity. It can be aggressive, both physically and verbally, but it can also surface in activities where students feel excluded. Add to this the increasing amount of bullying being done in cyberspace and it is not hard to see just how multi-layered the reasons for and activity of bullying can be. It is not likely to be addressed effectively with simplistic techniques or admonitions; our responses need to be as multi-layered as the sources of it are in the first place.

Episcopal schools, deeply aware of the complex character of being human, are in an enviable position to begin to approach bullying in ways that can most effectively combat it.

Episcopal schools take school climate seriously.
While practical approaches and curricular materials are vital to identifying the symptoms of bullying, as well as putting it in its harmful and tragic context, there is nothing more important both to preventing bullying as well as responding to it when it does surface than constant attention to the climate of a school.

It is the climate of a school that can encourage bullying, ignore it, or instill within students, faculty, and staff a heightened awareness of its symptoms as well as build up a common standard of disapproval. A keen attention to how students are included, how respect for differences is emphasized, how students who feel isolated or on the margins of the school can be noticed, what language and imagery is condoned and not condoned, and how individuals who see injustice being done are encouraged to speak up and/or report incidents all ultimately stem from an intentional focus on school culture. A school’s “cultural literacy,” in this respect, developed over time, allows for a calmer, firmer, and conviction-driven response to bullying when it does occur, not to mention may well serve as the most important vehicle for discouraging it from happening in the first place.

Episcopal schools have an advantage in this regard, in that they are places where, almost instinctively, people view actions or patterns as a reflection of the climate and ethos the school cultivates. Problems are not seen as isolated from a larger context. Rather, the cultivation of those all-important “eyes to see” how bullying can develop and flourish stem from the ongoing hard work of a school community in tending to the climate and culture of the school.

Episcopal schools are places of hope.
While Episcopal schools are attuned to the finite and sometimes tragic nature of human experience, due to our theological understandings of human nature, they are also places of hope. We believe that things can be done to better the lot of an individual or a community, and that the actions of an individual do indeed make a difference in the world. Thus, there is encouragement of individuals to speak up, there are opportunities pointed out where students may come and speak with attentive adults, and practical advice is offered not only as a means of recourse but as a sign that actions taken mean something.

Furthermore, disciplinary responses are viewed not simply in terms of “coming down hard” on someone, but as the first step in helping, for example, those who do engage in bullying to amend their attitudes and actions and get on with their lives by relating to others in less destructive and self-defeating ways.

Without hope, particularly hope that one can do something important that will help better the lives all concerned, practical initiatives and teaching against bullying will seem rote and, at best, driven only by anger and resentment over what has occurred or could potentially occur.

So many of us have had the experience of hearing of a bullying situation in another school and knowing, all too well, how easily such a similar situation could occur in our own school communities. Being an Episcopal school does not exempt us from the possibility of this occurring, and we can count on being accused of great hypocrisy if and when it does occur. Due to the nature of our schools, however, we are positioned to address these issues—both before and after they occur—in a way that is both effective and may well bring out the best of who we are.