Guest Column

Ending the Silence: Bullying in the Curriculum

by PATRICK K. FINNESSY

I hate math. This is true because 30 years ago, a teenager named Mark, used to bully me daily.

He would stand at the door of 5th-period math class and, as I entered the classroom, he would verbally harass me (“Here’s the fag!”), physically assault me (my head often met the frame of the threshold), manipulate the other students through social aggression, and threaten me to a point of social isolation.

When eventually I mustered the courage to speak to the teacher, he told me if I had tried out for the high school football team rather than the choir, I wouldn’t be in this position. This peer abuse haunted me for the entire school year, and I never recovered academically when it came to mathematics. I felt dead inside.

Silence equals death was a slogan that 1980s activists used to challenge the government’s inaction and taciturnity on AIDS research and education. Thirty years later, silence continues to equal death as recipients of bullying struggle with a response that too often leads to emotional and physical suicide.

Both physical and social bullying, as well as the escalating trend of cyberbullying, lead to devastating consequences. The Centers for Disease Control reports that suicide is the third leading cause of death in America for youth between 10 and 24 years old, approximately 4,500 lives lost annually. The National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center says almost 30 percent of U.S. youth are involved as either a bully, a target of bullying, or both.

The U.S. Secret Service points to bullying as a significant factor in many school shootings. The report concludes that efforts should be made to eradicate bullying behavior, including electronic bullying, which targets mostly nonconforming students.

Teacher Actions
While some school districts are being sued for allegedly being silent on bullying, others feebly attempt to adopt policies prohibiting bullying, harassment and intimidation. These policies need to be transformed into practice. Teachers must respond in loco parentis. Few parents would allow their child to be bullied, and educators must address the legal responsibility and take on some of the functions of a parent in regard to physical and emotional safety.

Educators can use instructional practices to stop bullies. While teachers may feel they do not have time to address another social issue, the reality is when teachers give voice to the fact they are aware that bullying exists, they take an important step in diminishing it.

Yet too many teachers remain silent, ignoring signs in hallways, in computer labs and in other school spaces to allow bullying to flourish. What is not taught is as important as what is taught to students. The silence influences, informs and instructs. The silent curriculum becomes as important as the learned curriculum.

A Teaching Tool
Educators need training on how to intervene on issues related to bullying. One useful training resource is “The Trevor Workshop Guide,” a classroom tool used with “Trevor,” a short film about bullying, suicide, personal identity and sexual orientation. Schools also could host a team related to Rachel’s Challenge, a traveling program connected to the Columbine shootings that highlights ways to suppress school violence, bullying and teen suicide, or students could watch Debra Chasnoff’s documentary “Straightlaced” about the pressures to conform to gender norms in schools.

“Straightlaced” features more than 50 teenagers speaking out on gender roles, homophobia and bullying. It offers great insight for teachers and could serve as a teaching tool to recognize that if a student is overweight, peers will label him as gay. If someone is considered to be unattractive, student bullies frequently call her a lesbian. Studies suggest bullying, in its traditional and electronic forms, tends to focus on sexual orientation, with bullies using words and labels related to sexuality as a weapon to attack someone’s burgeoning self-esteem.

Unfortunately, the deafening silence in many schools reinforces the insults.

Patrick Finnessy, an adjunct professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, is executive director of Teaching Out. E-mail: patrick@teaching-out.org