There’s been an explosion of conversation about bullying in the last few years, ignited further still in the past several months since the suicide of Phoebe Prince, a freshman at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts. Six of her teenage classmates were charged in court with a variety of legal offenses for what clearly represents an ongoing pattern of abuse towards Ms. Prince. They are bullies. Their behavior was appalling.
I’ve been particular touched by the story of Phoebe Prince, as I have by the similar stories that show up with all-too-disturbing frequency. It’s not difficult for me to fill in the gaps left in the media reports; I’ve experienced my share of bullying, and heard plenty of stories of bullying from my therapy patients. Bullying is not a new story.
What troubles me the most is the degree to which the picture painted by press coverage and the story of blame implied by the school and law enforcement’s response so blatantly ignores the group. Are we to believe that the harassment of Phoebe Prince took place out of site of all but her and her six tormentors?
Who’s going to stand up for the group?
Several years ago a friend invited me (pleaded with me, really) to come to her 4th grade classroom in the New York City public school where she worked to, “try to do something about all this bullying!” She was desperate, and apparently I was a last resort.
As I walked in the door, I knew what she was talking about. She gave the class the signal to move to their spots in a circle on the rug, and I immediately saw it: smacks on the head, grabbing of pencils, name calling. I stood back as she pleaded with the class, and the mischief-makers in particular, to knock off the silliness and get to the rug. After about five minutes, the kids were seated and I made my way over to introduce myself.
Before I could even open my mouth, it started up again. “StoOOOP IT!,” yelled one of the girls seated opposite me, complaining of being pinched in the leg. I unwittingly gave a look that must have been read as “the teacher look,” because the boy seated to her left looked at me and said, in a tone that let me know he was guilty, “I didn’t DO anything!”
My exasperated friend turned to me with a look of her own: “See what I mean?”
I did see. Only I didn’t respond the way she thought I would. To the right of this young man’s latest victim was a quiet young girl who seemed nonplussed with the situation, but decidedly passive. I ignored the tormentor and the tormented and decided to respond to the by-stander. “How come you let him do that?” I asked. She looked as shocked as the rest of the class. “Me?” she looked around. “I didn’t do anything.”
As a group therapist,
I’m trained to see the group. In group therapy it’s the group, not the individual members, who is my patient. If someone’s struggling, it’s the therapy group’s task to figure out what to do, and it’s my job to help them with that. This particular “therapy group” of New York City public school kids needed some serious help with their bullying problem. And I did what any good group therapist would do: I built the group.
Their shock (and their teacher’s) was my opening. I asked them to talk about how they felt about the bullying. Literally every student (including the so-designated bullies) had something to say about how much the bullying bothered them. We had the first of what turned out to be many weekly “group therapy” sessions. Over and over again the students (and for a while, their teacher) wanted to make the conversation about the three or four students whom they saw as THE PROBLEM. And the fact is, their response really wasn’t (and isn’t) that unusual. All the time, groups of people (including my therapy groups, on occasion), want to make one or a few people in the group THE PROBLEM. But all of this begs the question: “What about the group?”
Who’s responsible for taking care of the group (the class, the school, the community)?
The answer, of course, is that everyone’s responsible. When we act like bullying is a matter that only involves the bully and the victim (as though these labels reflect fixed categories) it’s no wonder the abuse persists.
I think those kids at South Hadley High probably deserve to be punished. But I’d like to have a few words with the kids (and teachers, no doubt) who silently stood by and watched. I’d like to ask them what I asked that shocked 4th grade girl: “How come you let them do that?”
It sure helped things in that NYC 4th grade classroom get turned around. The bystanders stopped being bystanders and started sticking up for each other. For some, the words came easily. Others needed a bit more help. We practiced saying “no!” We practiced saying things like, “Who do you think you are talkin’ to my friend like that?” They added their own New York City flair, and found ways of respectfully, but firmly taking back their classroom.
We’ve got to get better at taking care of the group.