Friday, September 28, 2012

A Human Response to Bullying

Last week I wrote about institutional efforts to promote character development and argued that to successfully do so requires both technical and human responses.  This week the SL Tribune ran a story that, for me, perfectly illustrates the power of human responses and the ways in which they can be used to support more technical and formal responses to the challenges faced in schools.

The story reports on an incident of bullying at Sunset Ridge Middle School in West Jordan, Utah and how an entire school community came together to take a stand against bullying in their school.  You can read more about the story here, but here are the highlights:  a new 7th grade student was the victim of bullying, the heartbroken student went to a school counselor for comfort, and the counselor responded.  Up to this point, this story is nearly identical to the other stories about bullying we've heard.  But what makes this particular story unique is the way the counselor responded.  Rather than taking the issue to a faculty meeting where new policies or programs could be discussed, she initiated a very human response.  She sent text messages to 24 "student ambassadors" who then organized a grassroots campaign against bullying for the next day of school.  In response, 1,000 students showed up to school the next day sporting post-it notes bearing anti-bullying messages (e.g. "Stop the hate").  A few days later, friends of the bully turned him in based largely on the response of the school to this incident.  Consider how different this story would have been had the counselor responded with the typical technical response we often see in these situations (e.g. faculty meeting conversations, formal school programming, etc.).

It's important to note that Sunset Ridge Middle School has formal anti-bullying programs (the student ambassadors are a part of the initiative) in place; however, it was a combination of a human and technical response that made the difference.  The lesson here seems to be that the best technical responses are those that create a space for human responses to thrive.  It was the organization of an ambassador program--a somewhat technical response (although it might be a sort of hybrid response straddling the border between technical and human responses) that provided the necessary infrastructure to carry out the very human response that, in the end, made the biggest difference.  Additionally, the formal anti-bullying programming the school had been sponsoring on a regular basis likely made anti-bullying values public and accepted, smoothing the path for a group of student leaders to speak out against a very specific act of bullying in their school.

So, I stand by my argument in last week's post that for schools to make meaningful changes, both technical and human responses are necessary.

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