Standing up to bullies is a job for us all

Walter Roberts Jr.
Walter Roberts Jr. is a licensed professional counselor and professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Photo by Nate Brennan, MSU Reporter

Haven't we had enough of all this talk about bullying? Maybe it's time to stop the talk and actually do something that works.

In my experience, Minnesota ranks in the top tier of states for making excuses about why we don't need policies, directives or practices to better protect our kids. That's one ranking that Minnesotans should want to eliminate posthaste.

I came to Minnesota State University, Mankato, as a young professor nearly two decades ago and chose bullying as one of my main research and educational advocacy areas. In 1993, people viewed the topic as more quaint and conversational than as a real problem. "Kid stuff," they would say. "We all have to go through it."

Then some of those who were tortured at the hands of their peers felt as if they had no other recourse but to start shooting back -- literally. Suddenly America began to hear for the first time what our children had been screaming at us for ages.

Such things could not happen in Minnesota. We're Minnesota Nice. Our children are better. Our schools are the best in the nation. A Columbine incident? No way. Paducah or Pearl? That just would never happen here. We take such good care of our kids.

But we all know the truth. When it comes to bullying behaviors in our schools, Minnesota Nice is a myth. We're no different from anyplace else in the country.

Have a conversation with any child or adolescent in school if you want to hear the truth. Ask them about how terms like "faggot," "retard," "slut" and "whore," and racial or ethnic slurs, are thrown about in Kid World as casually as sending a text. They'll tell you it often happens under the benign neglect of the adults in charge.

Oh, and about that cyber-bullying stuff? At least in the good old days, the targets of the psychological and verbal abuse might have had some respite for a few hours when they escaped to their homes. Not anymore. Embarrassing photos and vicious messages float around in a cyberspace purgatory, the targets never knowing when or where they will appear next.

And what leadership has Minnesota taken to stop bullying? I wouldn't categorize as "leadership" the practice of waiting around for something to happen. Despite efforts by a few, the Legislature has basically surrendered its authority to school boards, under the mantra of "local control."

Many school boards have been slow to adopt even the recommended policies of their professional associations because they find delineating protection for certain groups within schools -- the very groups that we know are often targeted for the most heinous of abusive behaviors -- as potentially too "controversial" or "upsetting" for their communities.

Those school districts will find nothing more controversial or upsetting for their constituents than a student who commits suicide, or brings a weapon to school to even the score against tormentors.

In response to the patchwork quilt of efforts that are being employed by school districts across our state, and in the continued absence of will among those in positions of power at the local and legislative levels, I sent a letter last week to the offices of Gov. Mark Dayton and Attorney General Lori Swanson to ask them to establish a task force to move Minnesota forward in addressing the problem.

No more talk, no more studies. Facts and figures are interesting to discuss, but they just confirm what we already know. Meanwhile, the problem grows.

Such a task force might invite school district personnel who are having success in reducing bullying behaviors to share what they're doing and why it's working. It could identify programs that work and those that don't. Expand the reach of bullying prevention and intervention into the community via relevant institutions.

Communities, citizens and families must understand that they all play a role in stopping such behavior. This is not just a school problem. It is a problem anywhere and anytime children gather, be it live or in cyberspace. Adult involvement is critical to any solution.

I have no idea whether Dayton or Swanson will consider establishing such a task force. They certainly have their hands full with other legislative and judicial concerns. But I do know this -- while ignoring the problem of bullying in Minnesota schools may be cheaper, in the end we all pay a huge cost in human incivility.

We should not be sending kids the message that the mistreatment of others is not worth the price of prevention and intervention.


Walter Roberts Jr. is a licensed professional counselor and professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University, Mankato. He is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.