A study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics last year found that the prevalence of bullying among fourth to twelve graders declined between 2004 and 2014, while students’ perceptions that adults effectively help stop mistreatment and create a safe school environment rose.
The View brought together a group of middle and high schoolers for a conversation about bullying. They indicated that intimidation remains a regular feature at San Francisco schools, with bullies partially excused for their behavior as being victims of low self-esteem themselves.
Bullying takes many forms, often revolving around group acceptance and teasing. “I’ve experienced some of my friends being disrespectful; and also people have been mean to me who were not my friends,” explained “Alex,” a middle schooler at The Brandeis School of San Francisco. “Once, we were playing basketball, and were supposed to split up into teams, boys versus girls. One of the guys said that one of the boys should play on the girls’ team, because ‘you’re bad and that’s the bad team.’ The boys are often rude to the girls.”
“In my kindergarten, three girls, who I thought were friends, would leave me out of things.” said Edan, a seventh grader at Creative Arts Charter. “People might say, ‘You’re stupid.’ I try to not take it personally, but some people take it harder.”
According to Saffi, another Creative Arts seventh grader, bullying initiated by an individual can quickly be crowdsourced. “One person acting badly can trigger a whole ripple effect,” she said. “Someone calls you fat, then everyone turns against you. People take sides, then the whole school turns against you.”
“Social media can make it worse,” said Edan. “For example, a bunch of people were going to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and I wasn’t invited. I only found out about it through social media.”
“There was a big sleepover party, and one person wasn’t invited,” echoed Saffi. “That didn’t make her feel very good. There’s one girl in my school, we go on and off, but the closer we get the meaner she gets. She’ll text some stuff about me, then she’ll apologize, then it happens again. Stuff will happen and no one else will know about it. With Snapchat it’s easier to bully, it’s more private, you can say whatever you want.”
“Social media can definitely be a tool for evil,” said Sara, a senior at Jewish Community High School of the Bay. “Snapchat can be used to inject poison into different people. You have to treat everything on Instagram as basically a lie, unless proven differently.”
The students expressed mixed feelings about their schools’ response to bullying, with a general belief that teachers and administrators were either ineffective or absent from the fray. A number of students have transferred out of Brandeis over the last several years, in part because of the school’s inability to create a positive environment for its pupils.
“Unstructured times, and PE, are the worst,” said Alex. “If teams get assigned, someone will say, ‘Look who I got! Now we’re going to lose.’ If there are picks, then someone is always last, and has to carry all that baggage. The teachers are pretty much absent during recess and afterschool.”
“In fourth grade, there was a lot of drama, and the school put together a girls group thingy that met once a month to talk about what was going on,” said Saffi. “The next year there was a lot of bullying. A lot of times people don’t talk about it, because they’re embarrassed, don’t want to get anyone in trouble, don’t think they’ll be an effective response, or it could even make things worse.”
“The teachers encourage students to say that ‘I’ did this or that; the ‘I message,’ but that approach doesn’t really change things,” added Edan. “And it can hurt more if it’s less than a sincere apology. In elementary school this boy would take my pencil and throw it on the ground. I’m pretty sure the teacher knew about it, but she didn’t change our seats. My parents asked the school if I could not be in the same class as him. I was both mad and grateful that my parents intervened.”
“There should be more school counselors. It’s hard for people to talk about bullying, there’s never really a time,” advised Saffi. “Teachers tend to ignore the problem, they see it and ignore it. If teachers see things, they should try to guide how it unfolds.”
“I’ve never had an experience when a teacher has come up to me and asked if I was okay. And it’s hard for other students to stand up to bullies, because people are worried that it’ll make them the target,” said Alex. “The PE teacher had us do push-ups one at a time in front of the entire class, but there’s no equivalent public display of intellectual abilities.”
“I see it almost every year I teach fifth grade,” said Heidi, an elementary school teacher in Solano County. “The girls start to divide into those who are developing fast, and those who are left behind, which soon morphs into popular girls, who are at the top of the hierarchy, and often become bullies, and those who are like deer in the headlights. And there’s pretty much nothing we can do about it. As far as boys, there’s always a handful that are extra-disruptive, often because they have learning challenges. In some ways my heart goes out to them, but it would take every minute of my class time to effectively deal with them.”
While the Pediatrics research reported a decline in bullying, another study showed a rise in youth suicides from 1999 to 2014, a period in which schools intensified their efforts to suppress mistreatment, according to a Psychology Today article. The greatest suicide increase was among 10- to 14-year-old girls, which tripled in frequency.
Students also struggle with their own culpability in developing workable relationships with their sometimes difficult peers. “There’s a girl in my friend group who thinks we bully her,” said Sara. “She says we don’t let her speak, we don’t talk to her, we just ignore her, and it makes her feel sad. But, we try to help her out; she just doesn’t talk, or know how to participate in conversations. Once, we brought in a jar that had conversational prompts in it to give her some topics to engage in. That lasted like a day and a half.”
The students had universal sympathy for the bullies themselves, and a reluctance to consider them to blame for their actions.
“Kindness comes from home,” said Edan. “In first grade there was a girl who was pretty mean to me. At the end of the year she apologized, and said there was something going on at home.”
“There’s no such thing as a mean person,” said Alex. “Just someone who does mean actions.”
“When you’re born you’re a blank canvass,” offered Saffi. “Then your family influences you. And a lot of movies show that when you’re mean you become popular. It’d be different if the mean people were on the bottom.”
“You guys are almost out of middle school,” advised Sara. “When you get into high school people start to become more mature. Hang in there; you’ll be fine.”