By: Seth Rockman, LMSW
Sometimes, what has become “normal” simply shouldn’t be. And while there may not be a “fix” for this dangerous new normal, we can, at the very least, make an ongoing commitment to standing up against it. Violence and aggression, in all their forms, have in many ways become the language in which young people communicate with each other.
Public high schools have reputations, especially inner-city schools. Despite the reality that my 2,600-student Brooklyn, New York high school has produced professional athletes, Nobel prize winners, and world renowned performers, it is still perceived as a breeding ground for bullying and violence. And this perception is both true, and limited.
As we all know, bullying continues to plague our young people. Kids are committing suicide as a way out of the enduring pain of being harassed, and they’re turning to drugs and alcohol as a way of numbing their pain. The targets of bullying are finding ways to become bullies themselves, feeding a cycle of violence that has created this “new normal” for our teenagers. Today, the qualities of kindness, thoughtfulness, and consideration for others have been silenced by selfishness, teasing, harassment, and aggression. And this is the climate many of our students and faculty are compelled to navigate, making teaching and learning even more daunting tasks.
But this does not tell the whole story. Our students, our clients, and our children are not this cruel, and there are far more inspired and caring young people than there are the ones who make the negative headlines. The basic decency fundamental to us all continues to breathe inside every child. It’s just that the courage to manifest it has deferred to the fear of expressing it. They did not develop these habits of divisiveness, justification of negativity, airs of superiority, and stereotyping from thin air (think... political figures and their propensities to show “leadership” through arrogance and complete disregard for the impact of their words).There is nothing in the DNA of today’s young people driving their mistreatment and hurtful inclinations, although it has become almost “natural” for them to spew harsh words, “jokes,” and judgments about every distinguishing characteristic or quality.
Appearances, religions, styles, accents, ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, financial situations, and body shapes—they’re all considered fair game when it comes to adolescent “natural selection.” Young people today try to weed out “weaker” kids by targeting their insecurities and vulnerabilities, just to avoid having their own frailties targeted. And the scariest elements of this new climate of violence and aggression are the justifications that come out of the mouths of young people so fluidly and reflexively. “We were just playing around,” they say. “We’re friends, it’s no big deal,” they’ll tell the adults. “We didn’t mean anything by it,” they’ll claim. Or the most common and saddest justification, “This is just how we are.” The streams of minimizations, arguments, and excuses are constant, as if the adults are thinking wishfully and over-reacting for trying to promote more thoughtful action.
All through our schools, our kids are burying their inclinations to be the good kids that they are, because the “new normal” stipulates that toughness is synonymous with disrespectful. And dangerously, many teachers and faculty are starting to go limp with exhaustion from battling such a steady barrage of meanness, bringing them into the early stages of “accepting” this “new normal.”
But at our school, we tried something different. Recognizing the atrophying decency that exists, but is often muted, in our young people, a few professionals and students decided to “Take a Stand.”
What was realized was that the need of young people to feel some sense of power was feeding their hurtful actions. What was recognized was that our kids were incorrectly interpreting shows of aggression as shows of confidence and courage. And what we saw was that it was fear that was fueling our young people’s inability to “stand” in defiance of the growing trend of causing others pain to protect themselves from such pain.
And so a collection of young and grown people role modeled “the courage to be kind” and decided to make “Take a Stand” our new mantra. Tables were set up in our cafeteria so all our students could take part. Posters with statistics of the frequency, severity, and prevalence of bullying and harassment were plastered behind the tables. Posters with the images of some of our students were made, illustrating the choice all young people have to be “the bully” or “the victim” or “the hero.” Simple silicon wristbands were printed up with our school name and the phrase “Take a Stand” on them. Easily carried business cards with the “Do’s and Don’ts” of standing up to bullies and harassers were handed out to all participants. And all students who signed up, with their e-mail, were asked to earn the bracelets by sharing one story of their own in which they experienced bullying, teasing, or harassment. Connections to others were created. Reflection was promoted. And compassion for others was stirred. And although our efforts have in no way deluded us into thinking that meanness to others has been eradicated altogether, changes have most definitely been visible, evidenced by the hundreds of students walking the halls and raising their wristband adorned wrists.
Our school’s efforts weren’t grandiose. They weren’t flashy or high tech. In fact, our school’s efforts were quite basic and human. Simply, it was our efforts that stirred our students, not the magnitude of our expenses. This is what changed the direction of momentum—the willingness to be seen “as corny” and the courage to be kind.
Next on our list of efforts are e-mail blasts that hundreds, and eventually thousands, of our students will receive weekly articulating inspirational and thought-provoking messages. We will continue to hand out bracelets, for all kids to wear, to students who share a new story, although this time, not about a time when they were bullied. This time, they are to share a story about a time when they were heroic. We are subtly pursuing change by planting the idea that real power comes from picking others up, rather than putting others down.
And with these efforts, eventually, our walls will be covered with stories of resiliency and heroism. Eventually, our students will open up their e-mails to quick reminders of their basic kindness and challenges to be the best versions of themselves. And eventually, because of simple efforts, a climate created and influenced by the presence of thousands of disparate demographics will transition from one of aggression and separation to one of basic decency and unity. And if it doesn’t, we’ll keep taking our stands anyway until it does.
Seth Rockman, LMSW, is a licensed social worker and has been working with at-risk youth and families for more than 16 years. He has worked in inner-city high schools, suspension centers, and intermediate schools, after-school programs, transitional residences, residential facilities, and emergency shelters. He has provided individual counseling, group counseling, crisis management, and case management services to youth ranging from age six months to 21 years old. He has supported and empowered every demographic.