Schools and universities may use empathy concepts to convey expectations and stimulate discussion about bullies and bullying behavior.
It has been called harassment, incivility, egregious behavior. No matter the term used to categorize it, bullying is people being mean to others. The resulting emotional and physical distress is serious. Bullies grow up. The cleverness and manipulation may get honed in high school, where these traits may be construed as smart and outgoing. Although many young bullies mature and leave the nastiness behind, some emerge as insensitive adults.
The workplace bully has been in the media spotlight in recent years. From employee handbooks to legislation, the adult bully has been put on notice. But, before invading workplaces, the smart and outgoing manipulators craving control show up on college campuses. They still are incapable of empathizing with another person’s pain, and we still look away in discomfort and denial, perhaps thinking "he’s just kidding around" or "she is under a lot of stress and blowing steam." The bully hasn’t stumbled upon empathy, and we haven’t stumbled upon ways to prevent bullying or intervene.
It may seem simple. "Zero tolerance" policies and codes of conduct seem to "be enough" at some schools. But how do we put something in place that is relevant to those who play basketball with the bully and witness his cruelty in the locker room later? Or to the sorority sisters who don’t feel right about the continued public ridicule of a former pledge? Does the graduate assistant monitoring the lab or the residence-hall adviser hearing activity in the hallways know when he or she should say or do something?
In the news
Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers, was viewed on a Web cam by his college roommate without his knowledge or permission. The roommate posted a message on Twitter that said, "Turned on my Web cam and saw him making out with a dude." Tyler subsequently posted on his Facebook page, "jumping off the gw bridge. Sorry." Tyler jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in New York City.
A study at Indiana State University found that 15 percent of college students reported being bullied. That number seems low considering that 42 percent of college students reported they have seen someone being bullied at college. A greater percentage is aware of the cyberbullying that is occurring. Clearly, victims are not lining up to report their experiences. It can be difficult to articulate and embarrassing to talk about—especially with people you don’t know well. These factors also apply to those who witness bullying. They often don’t know the victim or perpetrator well because they, too, are forging new relationships and figuring out where they fit. If their younger sister or best friend from home were in a similar situation, they would tune in differently. There would likely be a sense of urgency to convey "this isn’t OK" to someone in authority.
Many articles have highlighted the bullying problem. Committees are asking why, and policies have been adopted to prohibit the behavior. But if people don’t connect personally, it’s someone else’s problem to solve. If empathy isn’t woven into action plans, those who observe it will not be conduits to intervention. It won’t be pertinent. And, while we can’t rely on empathy from a bully, a personal link can possibly stimulate the conscience.
At many schools, mandatory presentations about diversity and tolerance serve as "preventive efforts," but awareness doesn’t translate to ownership. Policies can state conduct expectations and consequences. Procedures for carrying out policies may even include ways to report concerns. But these rely upon a victim’s having clarity about what is happening and a sense of responsibility from others who may not know, like, or care about those involved. Communicating policies and procedures to all campus employees in ways that convey an all-hands-on-deck urgency may be necessary.
The term "bully" has different connotations. To some, it describes an obnoxious annoyance, or an overbearing, bossy, know-it-all who lifts himself up by putting others down. To others, bullying is as much a fact of life as lying or selfishness—some people are just that way and we have to learn to deal with it. When cyberbullying is factored in, there can be an undertone of anger and detachment from this world where deceit and despair loom.
Comprehensive action plans will involve a common understanding by all stakeholders—and ensure open, continual dialogue to paint a picture of harmful bullying behavior. The goal is for people to "see" bullying in their minds eye and not just on paper so the feeling is disgust when they encounter it.
Campus action should connect everyone to a mission they understand as benefiting people. The message is they need to weed out the cruel and callous behavior that causes physical or emotional harm—patterned insensitivity that disrupts, damages and detracts from someone’s opportunities to be successful or fulfilled. Let individual experiences and concerns paint the picture. Let empathy take hold and stimulate ownership. The path to eradicating this threat to safety and well-being will be found at the core of empathy. Consider these elements of that path:
•Personal. Find ways for people to relate to the feeling bullying behavior creates. Specific questions about real people and situations make an issue relevant and a solution necessary. One presentation for high school sophomores started by asking them to think of one younger person who looked up to them. The names were put on individual notes and posted at the front of the room. The names of these real people then colored the bullying scenarios—some of which ended as tragedies.
•Accountable. We are all responsible for the bullying problem and can be part of changing its course. The bully is a master manipulator and will have an explanation for anything he or she is confronted with. Knowing the consequences that will be imposed for specific behavior is important. But accountability goes beyond that. Those in positions of authority will need to seek clarity through questions. Respectfully confront them about specific actions or attitudes that do not seem to align with school values. Ask if they share the values and if so, how will they adjust their behavior to demonstrate that. Don't forget to follow up.
•Truth and trust. There will be times when a bit of information may not seem critical, but it could be a piece of a larger picture. Don’t downplay facts or "cover" if someone is asking you to lie for them. When it comes to physical and emotional well-being, deceit can’t be tolerated. Trust your instincts and trust campus leaders to take information seriously. There may need to be vehicles for anonymous reporting for times when fear or intimidation trumps trust.
•Help or harm. Make it clear that if people are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem. Remind all students that they are doing something by doing nothing. That gives permission to bullies everywhere (even the one harassing a teenager you care about) to create havoc in the lives of others. Is there a way to survey students every month and ask them what they have seen or done that has helped or harmed?
This path can be used to convey expectations and stimulate discussion. Student groups, faculty, security and administration who accept the challenge of paving this path in creative ways are ultimately leading lifesaving efforts, and we should be hearing about them as much or more than the tragedies that result from bullying.
Schubert is president of the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) , Milwaukee, an international training company promoting safe, respectful workplaces and care environments. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..