To reduce bullying, give students common goals
A Sept. 30 article in the Star-Bulletin dealt with an important issue concerning education in our state. The Safe Schools Community Advisory Committee identified bullying as a serious problem in our schools. Of course it is. It was a problem when I attended public schools in Honolulu in the late 1940s, and the teachers and administrators seemed to accept it as normal behavior among children and adolescents. Conceivably, it might have worsened since then.
Logically, bullying is symptomatic of a larger societal problem where a person or a group utilizes power to dominate others. Bullying, fighting and extortion of lunch money are all reflections of student-on-student aggression as it exists in our schools. I believe that such acts of aggression have seriously damaged Hawaii's public school system over the years by contributing to the prevalent belief among many residents that private schools offer better education due in part to a safer environment. This is not an irrational belief.
Various studies suggest that students learn less in schools that are characterized by violence and other forms of conflict as opposed to schools that provide a more orderly environment. Not surprisingly, teacher morale and retention also are influenced by the school's climate; more orderly schools reflect positive morale and lower turnover among the staff.
Given this brief synopsis of the problems generated by school conflict, what can be done? The solutions offered by the committee -- to hold assemblies and workshops and to conduct peer group discussions with the victims sharing their stories -- probably do not go far enough to make an appreciable change.
More fundamental efforts are needed to create a harmonious school environment. It is necessary to change the attitudes and behaviors of students, teachers, staff and administrators.
Students with varied backgrounds usually work together harmoniously on most athletic teams. Unfortunately, nonathletic activities like the student government, newspaper and yearbook often do not reflect the school's diversity, and tend to be dominated by a narrow segment of the student body -- those students who anticipate attending a university or college after graduation. The result is that those who are not college-bound often feel marginalized in school unless they receive notice as athletes, and it is these marginalized students who are often involved in conflicts with other students.
School personnel, therefore, need to foster cooperative relationships among students by encouraging them to identify, create and then implement projects that enable students of differing backgrounds and orientations to work together. Teachers or parents can serve as advisers to students who are willing to organize and implement activities such as a school picnic, campus or beach cleanup, fundraising for charity, volunteer work in hospitals, youth centers or elderly-care facilities, and so on.
Care should be taken to rotate leadership among the students. Local businesses and service organizations can be asked to support some of the activities so that members of the community can be involved.
Schools that actively promote cooperative activities are likely to have less conflict than schools that are less proactive. This possibility certainly merits serious investigation by the committee as a way to reduce bullying and harassment in our schools beyond holding workshops and organizing discussions.
Yoshimitsu Takei is an affiliate graduate faculty member of the Educational Foundations Department in the College of Education, University of Hawaii-Manoa.