It is the middle of July and prospective parents are discussing with me and a board member why they desire to have their son attend Calvin Christian School. It is moving to hear their testimony about how God has been leading them to this point. This is one of the most rewarding parts of my job—to hear from parents about why they deeply desire a Christ-centered education for their child. Sometime in the conversation, we slowly climb down from the heights of grace and love and address their burning question: “Do you have a bullying policy?”
Their son faced challenges at his previous school—taunting and teasing. It was rarely obvious and often went unaddressed. We share about the broken world that we live in and note that the tentacles of sin reach our hallways and classrooms too. In fact, we sit before them admitting our own need for God’s grace and forgiveness. Our school is far from perfect, but it is a community that is attempting to practice what we have been called to: reformation and restoration. We want to be distinguished by the way we deal with bullying.
I explain that we do have a bullying policy. We own that it does happen here—every day. Our approach is to “sweat the small stuff.” We define mean behavior as any mean look, gesture, word, or action that hurts a person’s body, feelings, friendships, or things. It is a very comprehensive definition and all manner of hurt can be read into this—lying and “jokes,” even eye-rolling. For many boys, this could be the “we were just having fun” jostling and horseplay in the hallway where the one receiving the little shove fears admitting that it was anything else. Redefined in the affirmative, our definition would read that love is any kind look, gesture, word, or action that builds up and protects others as image bearers of God in body, spirit, friendships, reputation, or property.
We need to own who we are and who God is daily sanctifying us to be. It is impossible to prevent bullying. There is no script we can pull, no pill we can give, no monitoring that we can perfect, no book we can assign, that will root out all bullying. This insidious compulsion to behave selfishly is in all of us and we need to recognize and address it every day.
Bullying is not something that any one principal or even any one faculty member can stop. Bullying is too big and too hard to spot. But if we can’t completely rid our hallways, our classrooms, our buses and playgrounds of bullying, what can we do? I believe that the only way to stop it is by responding as a village. I believe the best approach is to invest the help of four key groups: students, faculty, parents, and church leaders. Each has a unique contribution to this issue.
In the school setting, giving bullies the structured opportunity to serve younger children can be especially powerful. A heart hardened by hurting peers will often soften to those much more vulnerable. Our students meet in small multiage groups for chapel, and it is powerful to see and hear the older students serve the younger ones. And these relationships, this community-building, exercises “love muscles.” Younger students love being acknowledged by the older ones, and the older students are more aware of monitoring their behavior.
One of the most critical tools we have to combat bullying is available in every classroom—a bully’s peers. The students who witness the bullying take place need to be employed in the service of addressing any mean behavior. This means equipping and empowering them, teaching them to stand up to injustice. Pulling bystanders aside and explaining how the bully needs their help and what their responsibility can be extremely powerful.
Get students involved in serving beyond their own interest. It should come as no surprise that it is hardest to think of ourselves second, much less last. Service provides students the opportunity to empathize, to put themselves in the shoes of others, to learn to not put their own needs first for a time. Consider having students:
- Raking leaves in your neighborhood
- Singing or performing in a assisted living facility
- Developing a pen-pal program with those who have cognitive impairments
- Reading to younger students
- Leading a chapel service
- Organizing a fundraiser
- Performing as safety patrol officers
- Serving as extended care assistants
This list is far from exhaustive. Bullying will live in the shadows if students are not empowered to serve and to lead.
A lot of things that happen in the shadows can be mitigated by exposing them to the light. Sweating the small stuff means sifting through lots of reports of hurt (particularly at the early elementary level). There are judgment calls to make and the constant struggle to focus on what is most important. Questioning is one of the most important tools that faculty have: “How did this happen? How does that make you feel? How do we make this right?”