A few days before Christmas, I, like many others, was shocked to see Facebook videos purportedly showing an Ateneo high school student using his martial arts skill to assault and humiliate a schoolmate inside a restroom. The videos were disturbing not only because of the humiliation and physical harm inflicted on the victim, but more so because of the way the young man appeared to take pride in bullying his schoolmate not only in plain sight of others but also on video.
Shortly after, Ateneo administrators announced the dismissal of the student following its internal policies and after due investigation. Rightly, I think, the school administration extended its support to the families of both the victim and the perpetrator to help them move forward after the incident and its aftermath. After all, why be mean-spirited to a young man who has been shown the error of his ways and now has the rest of his life to undo his mistake and improve himself?
What happens now? It will take more than the very public punishment of one high school student in a high-profile case to change the bullying cultures that exist in many schools. Admittedly, bullying is a systemic and complicated problem with many causes working together. Thus, it cannot be totally prevented in schools because students have their own minds and can choose to be abusive when they please.
However, school leaders (teachers and administrators) have a critical role in making the school culture as inhospitable to bullying as possible. Bullying undermines the essential mission of schools to form well-adjusted and productive citizens. Victims usually develop mental health problems for life, including low self-esteem, depression, and, in some cases, suicidal tendencies. Also, young people who behave as bullies in school can very well become bullies later on in their workplaces, from the frontlines all the way to corporate boardrooms.
Bullying can happen in all schools. Students differ in abilities, personalities, appearance, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Some with power over others (say, due to physical superiority or membership in a popular group) may treat those unlike them in demeaning and hurtful ways, whether in person or over social media. Thus, school leaders have to think carefully about how their approach may be enabling or preventing bullying. To believe that bullying is not a problem because the administration does not receive reports is a mistake. The culture of silence among students is so powerful that most cases are never reported to any adult.
The worst thing leaders can do is to condone bullying. Sweeping bullying under the rug sends the worst message young people can get from their school: “Bullies can get away with anything because the leaders are more interested in keeping up appearances than making the school safe for everyone.” This betrays the trust of the students and their parents, who count on the school as a haven for learning and development. The bad effects of such a betrayal on young people cannot be exaggerated.
Needless to say, leaders must ensure compliance with the Anti-Bullying Act. This means having an anti-bullying policy, reporting and discipline systems, and formal educational programs for all on the dynamics of bullying. However, leaders should avoid doing this mechanically because doing so sends a weak message that can be drowned out by the other operational concerns of the school. After a while, the compliance approach could become just another “program” to be trotted out during accreditation or to convince parents and the public of the school’s concern.
Beyond compliance, leaders need to add strong leadership to make sure that substance wins over form. They must visibly and consistently build a culture of positive relationships, mutual service, and valuing of diversity in the school. This means giving diverse students ways to understand and appreciate each other as persons with unique gifts. It also means showing students how to resolve their differences through dialog and principled compromise.
The message that “Every student is worthy of respect” must override the tendency of schools to lavish recognition on its achievers. In line with this, leaders should encourage outstanding students to serve others and to share their gifts with schoolmates who are less capable.
Leaders need to spend time listening to the real concerns of students. This will help them to better guide young people to harmoniously co-exist for their mutual growth and happiness. Building a dignity-centered culture cannot be done through policies and formal teaching alone. It requires engaged leaders who will role-model caring and respectful behavior and focus their attention on day-to-day relationships among students and the rest of the school community. This will enable the school to truly achieve its educational mission.
Dr. Benito L. Teehankee is full professor in the Management and Organization Department and coordinator of the Business for Human Development Network of De La Salle University.