Last week the United States Department of Education issued a "Dear Colleague" letter to provide guidance to elementary and secondary schools, as well as colleges and universities, on their responses to bullying and harassment. The guidance is a good start; however, the real challenge is the broader educational environment we create for our children.
Thanks to a variety media rich efforts, we may be reaching a critical mass of people discussing ways to change the public school system to better prepare young people for life -- growing up, becoming a part of society, working in a highly competitive world, becoming a parent themselves. It finally seems to be a "sexy conversation." All too often, however, the debate surrounding school improvement and education reform fails to address the critical non-academic barriers that interfere with students' ability to learn. We must eliminate the obstacles, such as bullying and corporal punishment, that undermine the ability of students to achieve their full potential.
I applaud the Department's efforts to address educational environment issues through the enforcement of civil rights laws. These laws are not new, but their enforcement by the Department of Education is. This is a good first step, but it is just that: a first step. The guidance needs to be followed by aggressive investigation and vigorous enforcement of the law. We need to do more than talk the talk; we have to walk the walk.
This guidance is long overdue. The recent bullying tragedies that have received a great deal of media attention are not outliers. I can assure you bullying and harassment are far more pervasive than most realize. Research shows that one-third of all students ages 12 to 18 felt that they were being bullied or harassed at school. You might think that intimidation and harassment is just how kids play around, but these behaviors have very real consequences. Medical and developmental studies show that children who have been bullied and harassed suffer a slew of mental and physical ailments: lost self-esteem and confidence, increased anxiety, alienation from their environment, increased absenteeism, lowered aspirations and reduced academic achievement.
Unfortunately, the problem only gets worse -- students have more to fear than abusive classmates. The hostile environments fostered in our schools don't always start with the kids, in fact, in 20 states in this Union it is legal to HIT KIDS as a form of discipline. That is right. It is still legal in America, the only industrialized nation on the planet where it is in fact still legal. It is not legal to hit prisoners, but it is to hit students. With a hand, a paddle or whatever. Serving "licks" or more technically speaking; Corporal punishment, restraint, seclusion and other forms of discipline inflicted by teachers and administrators have the same effects that bullying and harassment by a student's peers do. It doesn't matter whether it is kids or teachers doing the hitting or intimidating, they all create an environment of fear and hostility that results in damage to our kids and lower academic performance.
Reports conservatively say that school officials hit over 200,000 kids each year, chalked up as justifiable punishment for "acting out." The truth is that these beatings are not only wrong, but they're ineffective. And that is "the rub"... or "the KA-POW!", because here too, research studies show that corporal punishment leads to higher rates of absenteeism and lower academic achievement -- talk about counter productive?!?! And, like bullying and harassment, those who are corporally punished are disproportionately minorities or children who have disabilities.
These problems actually feed off each other. The research shows that corporal punishment leads to increased aggression, including bullying. When kids start acting out and becoming more aggressive to other kids we rightly take action -- however, in far too many cases that response is to inflict still more corporal punishment. This vicious cycle doesn't surprise me -- and it shouldn't surprise you either. When we hit our kids, we teach them that violence is an acceptable tool for dealing with their problems. We legitimize violence, and they in turn, inflict it on one another.
We must create school environments of respect and learning, not fear and intimidation. Instead of getting caught up in the typical school reform "mumbo-jumbo," let us start with the basics. How about a NON-HOSTILE learning environment for FOR ALL AMERICAN KIDS?
The truth is, no matter who is doing it, hitting doesn't teach anyone.