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Apodaca: Don't forget bullying for the nuances

November 08, 2013|By Patrice Apodaca

Issues surrounding bullying have taken a front seat in public discourse during the past few years, and the growing awareness has generally been regarded as a positive development.

But in recent months questions have been increasingly raised about the appropriateness and effectiveness of some anti-bullying efforts, and a few observers have even begun to wonder whether some programs do more harm than good.

The suicides of two students in different states last month, for instance, spawned just such a backlash. Both boys were allegedly bullied and killed themselves shortly after they viewed anti-bullying films at school. Some parents questioned whether the videos had the unintended effect of influencing fragile students to harm themselves.

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Meanwhile, some California school districts have been sharply criticized for their aggressive monitoring of students' online activities. Glendale Unified School District, for example, hired an outside firm to track students' social media postings in an effort to discover potentially dangerous behavior such as bullying, a controversial move seen by some as infringing on free-speech rights and inviting unfair overreactions.

Here in Newport-Mesa, the school board last month put the brakes on a plan to implement a text-in tip line for students to report concerns over bullying, drugs and other issues. The district's lawyers are studying the proposal, which will be reconsidered at a future board meeting.

Taken together, these developments underscore the point that bullying is a complex, deeply rooted problem that is intrinsically difficult to solve.

At least schools and other institutions have been awakened to the need to better address the toxic effects of bullying, and that's a good thing. Most are now struggling to create environments in which the humane treatment of others is encouraged, inappropriate behavior is dealt with quickly and assertively, and young people feel free to speak up when they feel threatened.

But attempts to find the right mix of punishment vs. reward, openness vs. privacy, and aggressive intervention vs. sensitivity to individual rights can be fraught with slippery issues. Every step that is taken to squelch undesired behavior might also carry the risk of unhappy repercussions.

"How far do we go?" is the rhetorical question posed by Jane Garland, NMUSD's director of outreach and advocacy programs.

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