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The freedom to *not* fit in

…and to be oneself is something every young person deserves, President Obama said this week, when he spoke of his sadness over the suicides of gay youth. “We’ve got to dispel this myth that bullying is a rite of passage, some inevitable part of growing up. It’s not. We have the job of ensuring our schools are safe for all of our kids.” Ensuring that every child not only has that freedom but is cognizant of it and can get help when threatened – is our goal in working against bullying and cyberbullying. It seems complicated because cyberbullying seems to come from nowhere – sometimes from an argument between two students, sometimes from the always-running, adolescent social “drama” that seems more like reality TV than real life – but we (parents and educators) have to keep our eye on the goal. Schools investigating incidents to “get to the bottom of it” so they can suspend the “bully” are only perpetuating the problem, fighting bullying with a societally sanctioned adult form of bullying. If the response is punitive, we are not sending our children the message the President conveyed – “You’re not alone” – if that’s how we handle things. There will continue to be a low level of reporting of cyberbullying (10%, according to one study). Because children who’ve experienced bullying tell us that they fear we’ll make things worse for them, and in too many cases they’re right. Schools need to focus on two things: stop the victimization and restore order – ideally to help targeted children get to that freedom the President spoke of.

In his back-to-school speech to students last month, President Obama said, “I want you to take away the notion that life is precious, and part of what makes it so wonderful is its diversity, that all of us are different, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed by the things that make us different – we should be proud of them….” If we can, as Obama said, increasingly “see the world through other people’s eyes” (our students’), then maybe we can actually help them not only be safe but compassionate as well as successful people.

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