Invisible - NOT CYBER - Bullying in School: Part II - The Cafeteria

The average adult, even those who work in the schools, cannot grasp the degree to which a bullied child's life during a school day can be a living Hell. Following President and Mrs. Obama's statements about bullying recently, we are already hearing disparaging comments being made to trivialize both their comments, and more importantly, a daily thing which is filled with fear and dread on the part of those being bullied- going to school, staying all day, and coming home. Having to just get to school, travel the hallways, eat in the cafeteria, dress in the locker room, sit in the classroom, and get home incident free each day is frightening to the child being bullied. We again assert that much of it happens completely in plain sight. As you read the article, keep a mental list of all of the ways in which bullying can occur in plain sight- you will be amazed at how the bad guys know the best time to strike- namely with people around. We mentioned in the first article of this three part series about Invisible Bullying. We asserted that much of the bullying occurs in plain sight of the people who have the responsibility to supervise and hopefully prevent most of the bullying. The reason given for the lack of success in controlling bullying in the school was that much of the supervision is performed in a decontextualized manner. Let's explain Decontextualized Supervision by providing an example. If you had brothers or sisters, you can see that your parents were guilty of this most of the time.

You are 12 years old and you are in your bedroom working on an important school geography project where you are gluing figures and trees and other scenery on, say, a shadow box. Alternatively, let's say you are working diligently with your stamp collection. Your little brother or sister sneaks up behind you and makes a fake sneeze and blows air from their mouth, perhaps bumping your arm, and causing your work to go flying all over the place. You turn around and punch your brother who runs out of your room screaming bloody murder to your parents who are downstairs relaxing after a trying day. Your Mother or Father screams up at you to "get down here!", and asks you, "what have I told you about hitting your brother", (who is standing there looking especially pathetic in front of Mom!)... you know the rest... you say, he messed up my project, which is followed by a string of "did nots" and "did toos."Your Mother/Father ends this "discussion" with the warning that she/he better not hear a peep out of either of you the rest of the night or you both will be grounded for a week, and you are told to go clean up your project and not to hit your brother and how you should know better since you are older- all of which goes in one ear and out the other- because its another language like when the adults speak in the Charlie Brown Special (Wanh-wanh wah). Your brother smiles at you as you both are walking away, and you shake a fist at him. This is an example of decontextualized supervision because your parents did not have the slightest interest in getting to the real facts of the story- they are tired and this is the last thing they want to make a federal case of.

Do you remember anything like that either when you were a child, or in your role as a parent- with fellow workers with your boss using the false equivalency tactic, or when you were a student in school? It is decontextualized supervision that may keep people from serious bodily injury and save you in the event of a fire, but because it ends with the ambiguity of the well-known lazy man's tactic known as "False equivalency", your problem goes unresolved. Recalling Bill Cosby's words from the 80's one man show he did on parenting, "Parents are not interested in justice, they are interested in quiet!"Unfortunately, this is the case with school supervisory people. Because this is the judicial process in schools- maintaining the appearance of law and order- victims concerns often go unaddressed, but quiet is maintained, and nobody get seriously, physically, noticeably, hurt.

In the school building, when a child is traumatized each day and comes to you the supervisor in the hallway, cafeteria, playground and tells you that someone is always, hitting- pushing- calling me names, you call the other person over and correct him. He says he was minding his own business and the reporter of the incident bothered him first. This is followed by the mandatory few minutes of "did toos/did nots, and the innocent party as well as the assailant are given the warning to behave properly in the hallway- classroom-cafeteria, or next time everybody gets detention. The concern of the person being bullied goes unaddressed, the bully lives to bully another day, perhaps pursuing the victim with even greater enthusiasm, and the teacher feels good about being loud and "right on top of things," just like a good supervisor of children is supposed to be. The victim soon learns that there is no real help to be obtained through the school process and therefore, he or she stops reporting it, choosing to suffer in silence. Besides, even if the victim does report it and a bully gets some school related discipline for his actions, the victim will become even a bigger target. In such a zeitgeist, how hard is it to understand a child reaching a decision to be sick, to be late for the bus or class to avoid the bullies, to never go to the lavatory, never eat by "helping" the librarian every lunch period instead of facing the daily gauntlet, or finally and sadly, to commit suicide?

Let's take things into the cafeteria. The first thing you notice about lunch time in, for example, a middle school, is that students run to the cafeteria. This causes pushing and shoving which is never seen because the supervising teacher is still 3-5 minutes from assuming their duty as cafeteria monitor. Butting in line also is a regular occurrence, but actual bullying generally has not started yet because even the bullies have food on their mind at this point. However, as students stand in line for lunch they are, on a daily basis, threatened, intimidated, hit, fondled, pinched, and being asked to "lend " someone money. The "lending" of money comes with the message that 1) I will be your friend if you do it, or 2) I WON'T beat you up if you do it, or 3) I will beat you up if you don't give me the money, etc. The person supervising the lunch period is supervising in a legal sense only. Most people find that job distasteful anyway. They usually are not looking for "mismatches" in the lunch line, meaning, identifying who the assailant and the victim are likely to be and how they always seem to be in the line together, and therefore separating them. They want quiet, not justice.

Next, the students are eating and food is always being thrown in the cafeteria, generally at the same person or group of persons. Desserts are squooshed, pizza is placed in a child's new Social Studies Book (Because, to save time, the student brings his books to a table then gets in line.) food is taken, with the warning that, "if you tell anybody you are dead", or, it is taken if the student goes to the lavatory and when he returns the food is gone and nobody says a thing-and when this is reported to a monitor (something that most victims are frightened about doing) the accused might say, "What dessert?", "It wasn't me?" "Aw, we were just kidding around..."

ALL of this can happen with a cafeteria person being a mere 5 feet away. Imagine you are on duty. A child tells you that his food was taken again by a certain student. You ask that student where the food is. He says, "I don't have it- what food?"Now what do you say? Probably some muted warning about how you will be "keeping your eye on this person and how this better not happen again, etc." To the exploited child, there is nothing you can say that will fix things. Often, a victim is given some heartless piece of advice like, "You need to stay away from these idiots anyway- why don't you sit somewhere else and this kind of thing would not happen..." the "you should know better admonition" is a familiar refrain- just ask rape victims from earlier times who "should have known better" or "What did they expect to happen dressed like THAT?"

Sometimes, the monitor's less than motivated approach to ending inappropriate behavior is to make the entire table stay after to clean the cafeteria for a day or perhaps a week. Once again, this does not bring any succor to the abused and bullied child. Things will continue as before with perhaps even more abuse occurring because the table being punished will pursue the victim or victims with even greater enthusiasm. The bullies are not stupid. In the cafeteria they know how to create distractions by making an apparent fuss in one place that distracts the free-from-context monitor who then turns his or her back on the place where the real issue is taking place.

Is there a solution? We offered some possible strategies in a previous article. All of them centered around getting to know your students and enlisting the help of some of the ones that are most likely to be on the wrong end of an incident. Not everyone will speak to you. However, some of them will tell you even more than you ever wanted to know about the things you are unable to see. Also, once a bully is identified, they must feel a bit of pain as well. No, we are not speaking about physical abuse, but if the child's parents (especially Mom) is willing to be involved, then she comes in and accompanies her child through the school day- especially at lunch where she sits next to her child. When other, would-be bullies see this, their ardor for picking on others will be somewhat diminished. Most students would rather have root canal than have their Mom or Dad accompany them through the school day.

Machiavelli, spoke of a leader "making a few signal examples" to affect people's attitudes. A signal example is one accomplished with as much of a spectacle as possible- thus making a "signal" to others that this type of behavior is not permitted. In a more gruesome example- there are countries in the middle east that execute people by cutting off their heads- this is a deed not done in secret, but with as many people watching as possible. Sometimes ending the bad behavior is the only concern. It's a signal to others who might be contemplating such a bad behavior. To reiterate, Mom coming to school is step one in the list of useful "signal examples.". The next level may involve the police coming to school and arresting the student, and escorting him out of the building with many people watching. This can be very helpful - like the police do in Law and Order where the speaker is taken out of a public meeting in handcuffs-if not done to excess. Students who see that the school will really have someone's Mom come in as an escort change their minds quickly about bullying. All the while, counselors and county mental health specialists can be doing what they do best to change behaviors and attitudes. The rules of golf allow a player to have 14 clubs in his or her bag. Similarly, the school needs more than the constant use of the Big Bertha Driver or the small innocuous putter. The bullies must always be kept guessing- their working environment needs many disruptions. What they do must be made less attractive to them with subtle as well as signal strategies. Standing there and scolding the whole table in general or telling the victim that he should be smart enough to move his seat is the stuff you parents usually did. It was only good for general peace and quiet- it did not solve the problem of the victim.

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