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Bullying And Social Hierarchy in Schools


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#1 Don Jeffries

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Posted 28 October 2011 - 08:42 AM

As an American, I've grown all too accustomed in recent years to news of tragic school shootings. The most obvious common demoninator in all these incidents is the fact that all students who were led to acts of violence were "outsiders," and had been picked on by their classmates. While I don't think this is the sole reason for such horrific events, and it certainly wouldn't excuse anything even if it were, I do think it's an important contributing factor and needs to be acknowledged by those who adminster our school systems.

In America, we also have a terrific problem with bullying in the schools. This is happening all over the world, as was witnessed by the wildly popular, viral you tube video earlier this year of an overweight Australian boy who finally had enough and retaliated against his tormentor. Bullying is related to school shootings, in that once again we have a sect of students who persist in harrassing those who are vulnerable (weight, some kind of perceived physical abnormality, sexual orientation, etc.), and victims who, in the case of bullying, too often now are driven to suicide. So, in a rather direct way, the social hierarchy that exists in every one of our middle and high schools is responsible for driving some of those who are at the very bottom of that hierarchy into violence, either by harming themselves or, in rare instances, opening fire on others.

Anti-bullying campaigns have been trumpeted for several years, and most school systems boast about having a "zero tolerance" for it. Nevertheless, bullying seems to be increasing dramatically. What is never mentioned, however, is the role the social hierarcy-the dividing of students into cliques and groups-plays in all this. In all schools, there is a "popular" crowd, and every student is aware of who belongs to it. The teachers unconsciously participate by showering attention and awards on many in this group, while neglecting to note the impact that has on those at the other end of the social spectrum, whose school days are usually spent in misery. To the vast majority of students, high school is pretty boring and they attend because they have to. They are basically the "audience" that effectively permits the bullying, harrassment and social hierarchy to exist. Without them, the precious few at the top could not be literal celebrities in their little environment, and the small numbers of those being harrassed wouldn't be enduring a living hell.

I've long advocated that our schools stop devoting so much money and attention to sports like football and basketball, and instead devote their resources to things that would benefit all students (more computers, for instance). I seem to be in a distinct minority on this issue, however. The social hierarchy is emopowered by long traditions (the same ones existed when I was in high school in the 1970s) like sports "pep" rallies, encouraging the football players to wear their jerseys to school on Fridays, allowing the cheerleaders to wear their uniforms on Fridays and on game days during basketball season. These practices surely promote self-esteem to those who play football and basketball and make the cheerleading team, but it also sets them up on a pedestal, contributes to their youthful arrogance and is a crucial factor in the "success" of the social hierarchy. The "Letterman" jacket has long been a symbol of power and popularity for high school boys, and it serves to differentiate them from their less popular peers.

Our educators, like our political leaders, seem incapable of thinking outside the box on these issues. How many more young children will take their own lives because they feel inadequate, or because the school administration didn't respond to their complaints about being bullied and harrassed? The story is always the same- the bereaved parents report that the school was made aware of the problem, on multiple occasions, yet for some unfathomable reason didn't confront and punish the tormentors. Why the consistent failure to react logically, especially when these same school officials routinely overreact to minor trangressions with severe penalties? In many school systems now, for instance, a child can be expelled for bringing an aspirin to school! What kind of thinking goes into these decisions?

I'm curious as to how high schools around the world are structured socially. I'd love some input from those in the U.K. and other areas; are students divided into easily indentifable groups, as they are in the U.S.? Do boys that play football (what we call soccer here) or some other sport thereby achieve a special standing among the student body? Are there cheerleaders, to distinguish the most popular girls? Are the most academically advanced students popular, unlike in America, where they are often scorned as "nerds?" I'm wondering if this is a worldwide phenomenon, or merely an American issue. Thanks for any and all comments.

Edited by Don Jeffries, 22 March 2013 - 04:36 AM.


#2 Greg Burnham

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Posted 28 October 2011 - 08:58 PM

Don,

Evaluating this issue is long overdue, IMO. Thanks for bringing it up. When I was in school, particularly in Junior High, I was the victim of bullying. My mother had chosen to send me to first grade (I skipped kindergarten) when I was barely 5 years old. So, I had two disadvantages. The first: I was less accustomed to being in "social" environments than were the other children in my class who had attended kindergarten, and second, I was always going to be the smallest boy in the class because, not only did I start school younger than the rest, but I "skipped" the first step. Those who were my own age (or even a little bit older) went into kindergarten when I entered 1st grade. It was difficult at that age, but it really became difficult in Junior High. Obviously, I survived it and have flourished. However, it was a very painful period of my life. Bottom line: my height and weight as an adolescent should have had no bearing on my social stature in school. I am unsure as to how I would have faired if I hadn't grown to 6' tall my sophomore year in high school under those circumstances.

I could make an argument that the experience made me a better person...etc., but it also could have potentially turned out quite differently. I'm grateful that it didn't.

I think it's an interesting phenomenon that sometimes even the teachers want to be in the "clique" of the most "popular" students. That is a very sad commentary as to the judgment of many teachers, not to mention their own lack of self esteem.

#3 John Dolva

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Posted 29 October 2011 - 02:52 PM

Don,

Evaluating this issue is long overdue, IMO. Thanks for bringing it up. When I was in school, particularly in Junior High, I was the victim of bullying. My mother had chosen to send me to first grade (I skipped kindergarten) when I was barely 5 years old. So, I had two disadvantages. The first: I was less accustomed to being in "social" environments than were the other children in my class who had attended kindergarten, and second, I was always going to be the smallest boy in the class because, not only did I start school younger than the rest, but I "skipped" the first step. Those who were my own age (or even a little bit older) went into kindergarten when I entered 1st grade. It was difficult at that age, but it really became difficult in Junior High. Obviously, I survived it and have flourished. However, it was a very painful period of my life. Bottom line: my height and weight as an adolescent should have had no bearing on my social stature in school. I am unsure as to how I would have faired if I hadn't grown to 6' tall my sophomore year in high school under those circumstances.

I could make an argument that the experience made me a better person...etc., but it also could have potentially turned out quite differently. I'm grateful that it didn't.

I think it's an interesting phenomenon that sometimes even the teachers want to be in the "clique" of the most "popular" students. That is a very sad commentary as to the judgment of many teachers, not to mention their own lack of self esteem.


I hope some of the senior educators on this forum will contribute here.

What can I contribute? We all have different experiences. I can't say I've been unfairly bullied. sure people try at times. Some put great effort into it. Strangely enough I've found that the relations with the most persistent ones, become if not friendly, at least tainted by some degree of respect. I was small and got into a lot of scraps. Ultimately I see myself in others and I cannot condemn them. On that note I think self awareness is crucial and therefore a system that teaches it by example and by curriculum.

That aside, my dads story is probably more pertinent.

As a student in Hitlers Germany, followed by a north eastern posting, he experienced the regimental format of NAZI education. Pretty tragic stuff really.
You got a large group where the most brutal is held up as a role model and the teachers participating in brutalising the meek, presumably to make them brutal too.

#4 John Dolva

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Posted 31 October 2011 - 05:22 PM

I think it quite sad that such eminent educators that can post on this forum have nothing to say on this matter. I personally think it is one of the most important topics possible given that youth that are shaped by the education systems will inherit the earth and they ultimately in their formative years look to their adult role models for guidance in life. If they don't find it...well..? Maybe the thinking is that what they find is sufficient? Is bullying a good thing? I don't think so.

#5 Don Jeffries

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Posted 01 November 2011 - 06:46 AM

Thanks for sharing your own experiences, Greg. I'm glad it doesn't appear to have had a negative impact on you. I was a fat kid, but fortunately survived what could have been a real ordeal, because I was still good at all sports and always managed to make people laugh. I'm not sure why this issue intrigues me so much, because I wasn't popular or unpopular, wasn't bullied and didn't bully anyone. I guess the egalitarian in me is offended by the way students are categorized and perceived by seemingly everyone in every school. There is just such a blatant inequity to it. Popularity and athletic ability shouldn't cause a few fortunate kids to be lauded so extravagently and a few unfortunate kids to be emotionally battered.

John, I share your disappointment- it would very interesting to hear the thoughts of educators on this subject. We'd all love to have the input of those who deal with these issues directly on a daily basis.

I've raised the issue of the social hierarchy in schools before, on other forums, and received the same lack of response. I can't believe I'm the only one who sees the problem here. Are we okay as a society with teenagers (and sometimes preteens) killing themselves because of the way their peers make them feel? Is it any wonder that so mamy adults are shallow and have their priorities confused, considering that each and every one of them is told, during their most impressionable years, that the most important things in life are physical looks, athletic ability, clothes and money?

Educators, please share your perspectives on this subject.

#6 Jean Walker

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Posted 14 November 2011 - 05:15 AM

I haven't been into this site for quite a long time as I retired a few years ago and my interest had slowly waned. The weather here is bad today so out of sheer boredom I wandered in and found your comments.

I was a high school teacher here in Tasmania for 35 years and then ended my career as full time State President of our teachers' union for seven years and have kept up with things via friends who are still teaching or who are union officers. As you say, bullying seems to be on the increase everywhere including here - Tasmania is tiny and we haven't had any major tragedies yet but it will probably happen.

My own belief is that we don't have the same emphasis here on sport and glorifying its participants as you do in the US. I can only speak for the public system here but we certainly don't have "lettermen" and the raz that appears to go with it and although being in a school or college team is considered a worthy goal it doesn't carry with it the glamour and hype I've read about in the US. From what I've seen here, the popular/unpopular groupings within schools are more likely to be based in pop/media and teen culture than sporting prowess. Outside the school gate it's likely to come from groups with clashing economic or socio-cultural divides.

We have a very strange public/private system here with the private school sector being the biggest in the world with over 33% of students in it and highly subsidised by our federal and state govts. This system results in the best students being more and more creamed off to low-fee but still private schools, leaving the public system to largely educate only those whocannot afford anything else. Supporters of the private system may disagree but that's my take. However, the private system does have to abide by the national curriculum and other requirements to get their subsidies so they often turn out to be not that much different except parents can boast their kids are privately educated. It's the last bulwark of class distinction in Australia.

If I had to lay the blame (and I'm well aware like you that there are many causes) I would put it more heavily on the media and the celebrity cult than sport. Our current media culture has taught kids that being famous is the most important thing one can achieve but that anyone can do it and it doesn't require talent or ability - you just have to be top dog somehow - anyhow. The media and IT in all its forms including news reports, have legitimised and promoted aggression and violence and made it non-real. This whole generation is more selfish, more egocentric, more isolated, and less truly connected despite FB, iphones and the like. And our political systems tells them that lying, cheating, aggression and bullying are OK if you want to get anywhere in life.

We are having a media discussion here currently about the Junior Master Chef reality shows - one of our local teenagers won and has become an overnight 12 year old celebrity - how stupid is that! Women's magazines which once held stories and articles, are wall to wall celebrity worship. Anyone can get to the top and id overrules super-ego.

How can teachers stand up against all this? It's near impossible. When dealing with many parents, all you get is more grief and from both sides. Parents nowadays won't believe anything bad about their kids, won't accept responsibility for their actions and then the kid watching this, sees no point in behaving rationally either. Of course there are still good parents and good kids but they are fast becoming a minority instead of the majority as they once were. Do I sound pessimistic? Yes, I'm afraid I am at the moment. Cycles come and go and this one isn't a good one.

#7 Don Jeffries

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Posted 14 November 2011 - 11:37 AM

Thanks so much for your insight, Jean. It's very interesting to hear how this works in other parts of the world.

I meant to expand on what I said about social hierarchy, and address the colleges. Here in the U.S., there is a long tradition of exclusive male fraternities and, to a lesser extent, sororities for girls. Those who join the most popular of these frat clubs stay connected throughout their lives, in much the same manner that some alums become powerful athletic boosters and place an incomprehensible emphasis on the success of their old university's football and basketball teams. All this spills over into initiation rituals and hazing, which are at least tangentially related to bullying.

To Jean, and/or (hopefully) other educators who will care to address this topic, are there prestigious fraternities in your colleges, which earn their members a distinction that lasts their entire lives? Do they have initiation or hazing rituals that border on being sadistic? Are there any athletic boosters that support the athletic programs with an extremely generous amount of money? Is there a fanatical core of students and alums that live and die with the soccer teams, or whatever sport is popular in your part of the world, the way American students and alums do with college football and basketball teams? I haven't really experienced it personally, but I've been told by many who have that you have to see it to believe it, especially in southern states here like Alabama or Texas.

I really think this issue needs to be discussed openly in America. We've never considered just what kind of impact the social tiering in high schools, and further class distinctions in colleges have on society at large. Do "Gifted and Talented" designations, which begin as early as first grade, and "Honors" or "Advanced Placement" classes in high schools lead to a different kind of fragmentation, which is more akin to the "Alphas" and "Betas" which Aldous Huxley described in Brave New World? Anyhow, all your comments are welcomed.

Edited by Don Jeffries, 22 March 2013 - 05:21 AM.


#8 John Dolva

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Posted 14 November 2011 - 03:00 PM

Just a point for consideration. As a student in this matter I look forward to reading more of the input from Educators. It's great to read this stuff.
Point. : re Oz and sport. Oz sport stars also achieve celebrity status but it much more just one avenue, ... except for the First Nation Peoples. For them it is often one of few choices and unfortunately, even though the greats are often FNPs, in football in particular, the mortality rate of these gifted young men is disproportionally high.

#9 Jean Walker

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Posted 15 November 2011 - 04:13 AM

I guess you first have to remember that in Australia our system is very similar to the UK only with less of the class system and rather more egalitarianism. In five of our States kids do years 11 and 12 at their high school like 6th forms in the UK, although Tasmania and the ACT have the separate two-year "6th form college" system. So, generally speaking they spend 6 years in high school from 12 to 17. Then they go to either university or a technical college or to work.

So there is less separation of younger and older students which probably helps prevent the sort of elitism you're describing. Our Unis are much more like their UK counterparts and don't place too much emphasis on sport - although team sport is encouraged it's not at the forefront of university life in the same way as yours. I have friends who were university hockey players and after graduating they generally go on to play in local amateur teams which aren't connected to the university.

There are no fraternities or sororities - the nearest thing you might find is the Golden Key club which students with honours grades are invited to join but it's not that much of a big deal. I have a couple of friends whose daughters are/were members but it doesn't appear to have much influence on them except as a reference for job seeking and a bit of extra social life!

We are a small population and we have one national sports academy for promising sports men/women although it advertises itself as being mainly a provider of training for the sports industry. I don't know much about how it works but I suspect it's quite low key as it's never publicised much. I believe it's largely govt financed.

As John says Australian sports stars obviously do achieve celebrity status but it's not usually via their college/uni backgrounds or connections. We have a fair proportion of "footy fans" as we call them here (I'm not one but my partner is) which is mainly directed towards Australian Rules at State and/or national level. Australian Rules is not a "university game" in the sense that I suspect your football is. Our celebs come from all walks of life and background and usually make their own way via school teams through amateur clubs and sports associations.

On the while I wouldn't lay the blame for our bullying problems with sport or sporting elitism.

#10 Jean Walker

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Posted 15 November 2011 - 04:20 AM

PS I meant to also say that we do not go in as much for gifted and talented designations either, or segregating academic achievement. The vast majority of our high schools and all our colleges are comprehensive in intake and although some G & T programs are available it's always been a very Australian thing that kids shouldn't be labelled or singled out - in fact we take it to extremes sometimes and we call it the tall poppy syndrome - cutting down to size those who aspire to too much. It's not always a hood thing but a very Australian attitude.

#11 John Dolva

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Posted 28 November 2011 - 02:07 PM

27 November 2011 Last updated at 12:37 GMT
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Lady Gaga emails fan to praise anti-bullying campaign
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Gaga's hit single Born This Way was a call for tolerance Continue reading the main story
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Lady Gaga has surprised one of her Canadian fans by recording a personal video message in support of his campaign against school bullies.

The pop star emailed 17-year-old Jacques St Pierre, praising his efforts to "spread tolerance" by asking pupils to make pledges against bullying.

"It is important that we push the boundaries of love and acceptance," she said in the video.

The pop star has long been an advocate for anti-bullying laws.

She addressed President Obama on the issue earlier this year, highlighting the case of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, a US student who took his life after being taunted at school.

This month, she announced the formation of a not-for-profit organisation to tackle issues of bullying and abandonment.

In her video message to Jacques, she reiterated: "I'm going to be working as hard as I can to make bullying a hate crime".

Speaking to Toronto's CBC News, the teenager said he had not been expecting a direct email from the pop star.

"The subject line said 'To Jacques from Lady Gaga,'" he told the broadcaster.

"It said 'click on the link below to download the video for your assembly'.

"I watched it and I started crying. I'm a huge fan. It's kind of embarrassing because I love her so much. I couldn't believe it."

'Tolerance and equality' Jacques said he had been bullied in elementary school, when fellow pupils called him gay for wanting to take part in school plays.

After moving to the Etobicoke School of the Arts in Toronto, he ran for the student council and organised a series of events to raise awareness of bullying.

As part of his campaign, he emailed several celebrities to ask for their support.

In her response, which Jacques has uploaded to his YouTube account, Gaga said: "I just wanted to tell you how proud I am of you for being such a strong advocate of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community in your school.

"My father always saves all the fan letters that I receive and I read yours very recently and wanted to send this video to you.

"It is important that we spread tolerance and equality for all students."

According to CBC, pupils at Jacque's school were impressed by the video's message.

"I'm starting to actually realise how big this problem is and I just want to make a difference now," said one male student.



#12 Jean Walker

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Posted 01 December 2011 - 05:53 AM

She will probably have more effect than any amount of policies and programs.

#13 John Dolva

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Posted 01 December 2011 - 02:18 PM

Yes it could be. I think that this action is empowering and will spread so that in the end it is people like the young man who will contribute to a growing 'community' that will then make the difference.

#14 Don Jeffries

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Posted 29 February 2012 - 06:05 AM

I am extremely disappointed that no educator outside of Jean Walker has seen fit to comment on this important issue. With the tragic shooting in Ohio this week, that has now claimed the lives of three high school students, I thought I'd try and revive this thread.

The alleged gunman at Chardon High School, T.J. Lane, was bullied and a clear outcast, like all the other school shooters. The official response to the shooting suggests, however, that once again those in positions of authority are just not addressing the core problem here. Geauga County prosecutor David Joyce stated, "He chose his victims at random. This is not about bullying. This is not about drugs. This is someone who is not well and I'm sure in our court case we'll prove that." No, Mr. Joyce, according to all early reports, this kid Lane WAS bullied and WAS made to feel an outcast.

There is no excuse for what Lane, or any other school shooter has done. But if we want to understand why these incidents happen, we have to address the underlying factors that lead to such acts of violence. The vast majority of bullied kids will never pick up a gun and bring it to school. But all those who do decide to take out their frustrations in some sort of twisted "revenge" have been victims of relentless bullying and invariably outcasts in the high school social hierarchy. Yet no matter how many times it happens, the media doesn't address it, and as we see here from the prosecutor's clueless comments, our legal system is only concerned, as
always, with wins and losses in court.

Again, I would love to hear some thoughts on this issue from those who work in educational systems.

Edited by Don Jeffries, 26 April 2012 - 11:52 AM.
misspellings


#15 Jean Walker

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Posted 25 April 2012 - 09:36 AM

Hi Don

I've been away for a while and only just looked in today and saw your comments. This site might interest you - Australia has created a Safe Schools national framework and this is their website.

http://www.bullyingnoway.gov.au/




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