Apparently Melania Trump doesn’t really do irony. Late in the presidential campaign, she came to Berwyn and vowed to combat online bullying, a promise that seemingly does not extend to her tweeting husband, who is as menacing and powerful a cyberbully as they come. “Our culture has gotten too mean and too violent,” she said in front of a Main Line crowd. “It is never okay when a 12-year-old girl or boy is mocked, bullied or attacked. It is terrible when that happens on the playground and it is unacceptable when it’s done by someone with no name hiding on the Internet.”
Bullying is by no means a new problem in schools, but the practice has taken on new meaning in the age of Trump. As a candidate for president and now the occupant of the White House, Trump has played the role of Bully-in-Chief.
And while children often view the president of the United States as a positive role model, Trump is a bad influence on young minds. He targets those who are different for violence and ridicule. He mocks people with disabilities, disparages women, scapegoats immigrants, Muslims and people of color. The president is scaring our children, as they fear other kids who look up to him and seek to emulate his bullying ways.
It’s as if closet haters have been given permission by Trump to come out, which is what comedian Aziz Ansari was getting at during his recent Saturday Night Live monologue: “There’s a new group,” he said. “I’m talking about this tiny slice of people that have gotten way too fired up about the Trump thing for the wrong reasons. I’m talking about these people that, as soon as Trump won, they’re like, ‘We don’t have to pretend like we’re not racist anymore! We don’t have to pretend anymore! We can be racist again! Whoo!’ Whoa, whoa, whoa! No, no! If you’re one of these people, please go back to pretending.”
Following the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center conducted an online survey of 10,000 K-12 teachers, counselors and administrators on the negative impact of the election. Educators reported a skyrocketing of targeting and harassment of students that began last spring, most frequently in majority white schools, including verbal harassment, slurs and derogatory language, and incidents involving Nazi salutes, swastikas and Confederate flags. “The behavior is directed against immigrants, Muslims, girls, LGBT students, kids with disabilities and anyone who was on the ‘wrong’ side of the election,” reads the SPLC report, The Trump Effect: The Impact of The 2016 Presidential Election on Our Nation’s Schools. “It ranges from frightening displays of white power to remarks that are passed off as ‘jokes.’” Ninety percent of educators say their schools have been negatively impacted for the long-term, while 80 percent said students are increasingly worried about the effect of the election on themselves and their families.
And a national survey just released by the Human Rights Campaign found that bullying—which has occurred more frequently since the onset of the 2016 presidential campaign—is on the rise since the election. The survey of 50,000 young people ages 13-18 is the largest study of its kind, and it tells a disturbing story. Seventy percent of teens said they witnessed bullying, hate messages or harassment during or since the election. Of those incidents, 70 percent were racially motivated, 63 percent were based on sexual orientation, 59 percent were motivated by immigration status, and 55 percent of incidents were related to gender.
Some schools have adopted a restorative justice approach to bullying, repairing harm and nurturing and repairing relationships, rather than merely assigning blame and pushing students out. At West Philadelphia High School, violent acts and serious incidents dropped 52 percent in the first year.
The School District of Philadelphia maintains a bullying prevention page and a bullying policy. The School Reform Commission says it prohibits bullying by students, and encourages students and parents to immediately report incidents. If the school fails to take action or the behavior continues, people should report the incident to the district’s hotline at 215-400-SAFE. Discipline for students range from a warning and parent or guardian notification for the first offense to a suspension or transfer to another classroom, school building or bus for a third offense.
Nevertheless, bullying remains a problem in the Philadelphia schools that needs to be taken more seriously. For example, Romeo Glover, a junior at Tacony Charter High School who endured bullying and taunts faced expulsion for fighting back, and the school blamed him for the abuse—for not reporting it timely. And, last year, when 16-year old Mia DeJesus of Northeast High School was beaten unconscious by her classmates, who posted the incident on Facebook to humiliate her, the School District concluded it was not bullying but a neighborhood dispute. Mia decided to repost the video—which went viral—to make a powerful statement about bullying. Meanwhile, students at the Philadelphia Science and Leadership Academy recently produced a film and became finalists in the Cyberbullying Film Invitational, part of a national effort to raise awareness about cyberbullying.
What is bullying? The organization CRETE (Conflict Resolution Education in Teacher Education) defines bullying as having three components: Bullying is repeated as opposed to a one-time occurrence, it is intentional rather than a mistake, and it is designed as a power play so that a high-power player and a low-power player are involved. The power dynamics are important.
Lisagail Zeitlin, a Philadelphia-area educator who was trained by CRETE as a conflict resolution workshop coordinator and has been working in bullying prevention facilitation for educators for more than 10 years, says that bullying is nothing new.
“I can walk into a classroom and tell you who are the high-power players and who are the low-power players,” says Zeitlin, who has been a classroom teacher for 25 years. She notes that who is bullied and how they are bullied has shifted. “In the bullying prevention world, LGBT kids and kids with identifiable disabilities catch the brunt of bullying. And that’s been our low-power player, but now we have a new low-power player.” She’s talking about Muslims and Latino immigrants, who Trump has helped anoint as low-power players, making them eligible for bullying in a manner they had not previously been. “We have a president who is going out of his way to assert that the brown kids in the school are the least powerful,” says Zeitlin. “We have kindergarteners telling them they don’t belong here.”
According to Zeitlin, for groups that do not have an easy life, affirmation from those in power affords power, even if only a drop of it. Having a black person in the White House was a source of power for African-Americans, just as having the Supreme Court acknowledging trans, gay and lesbian folks was empowering to the LGBTQ community, even as that group witnessed more bullying than straight folks long before the election. Conversely, having a bully in office can disempower some groups.
“Trump’s bullying behavior makes him a hero to so many Americans,” Zeitlin argues. “As adults, we want to make nice with the boss even when the boss is a jerk because we want that same power.”
Matt Pillischer, Director of Racial Justice and Social Advocacy at YWCA Delaware, says that students in Delaware are fearful of being attacked, yet schools are hesitant to say anything about the election, or admit there are any problems. “Kids are really good at picking up what’s in the air, and I’m sure kids are picking up that fear and confusion of all the adults in their lives,” Pillischer said. “And I’m sure schools are afraid to be partisan. It’s a strange combination where there are anti-bullying messaging, but no programs dealing with a political leader inciting and encouraging bullying.”
In Elkins Park and Montgomery County, Pillischer has organized the Local Emergency Action and Response Network (LEARN) to support racial, ethnic and sexual minorities who are marginalized by the Trump victory, and respond to acts of hatred through protest and resources to help rebuild and repair the damage. He said he is developing a similar program for the Delaware schools, with a goal to “empower students to hold their own meetings, and organize a safe haven for students who are fearful of being attacked.”
A survey by the Human Rights Campaign found that bullying is on the rise since the election. Seventy percent of teens say they’ve witnessed bullying, hate messages or harassment since November 8. Of those, 70 percent were racially motivated, 63 percent were based on sexual orientation, 59 percent were motivated by immigration status, and 55 percent of incidents were related to gender.
Meanwhile, the SPLC report makes a number of recommendations for administrators to combat bullying, including reaching out to parents and staff, providing for the needs of traumatized students, reinforcing anti-bullying strategies, encouraging staff and students to speak up, and preparing for a crisis.
Perhaps the most effective anti-bullying policy in the country is across the river in New Jersey. The New Jersey Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act—signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie, who some have also called the “B” word—has measures to address harassment, intimidation and bullying in school settings. Enacted after the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, the law requires schools to have rigorous bullying prevention and intervention programs that address incidents on or off school grounds. However, the law is not properly funded.
In Philly, organizations are doing their part to take on bullying. CAIR-Philadelphia holds workshops in the Philly schools to address bullying, Islamophobia and cultural sensitivity. Through their No Place for Hate initiative, the Anti-Defamation League works with schools to reduce bullying, challenge intolerance and create inclusive environments. And the Robert Wood Johnson Scholars Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine has worked with Bartram High School and Tilden Middle School on anti-bullying best practices. Penn Medicine found that the success of anti-bullying programs depends not only on prevention, but in managing bullying while addressing the needs of the victim. Bartram, for example, has a system of remediation for bullies and bullying victims, and through a relationship with healthcare organizations in Southwest Philadelphia, provides behavioral health supports for both groups.
As an alternative to zero tolerance discipline and other punitive measures, some schools have adopted a restorative justice approach that focuses on repairing harm and nurturing and repairing relationships, rather than merely assigning blame and pushing students out. When West Philadelphia High School adopted such a policy, “violent acts and serious incidents” dropped 52 percent in the first year, and an additional 40 percent in the first half of the second year. West Philly focused on developing social skills and building a positive community by establishing “circles,” a concept found in Native American culture that provides a space for victims and offenders to interact, but also involves community building and decision making. The use of circles in the classroom has allowed students to address conflicts and issues they face, deal with misunderstandings and their role in the classroom, and create a positive social culture.
Finally, Zeitlin notes that solutions to bullying cannot be single-pronged. Schools need the involvement of parents and the whole community in developing bullying-prevention policies. When schools have strict anti-bullying policies, they cannot be absolved simply because they push the bullying off-campus. And reporting is key among young people who witness the bullying. “The kids solve the problem more than everyone else, and they need to be taught to be ‘upstanders’ rather than bystanders,” reports Zeitlin. This is what we must do in the era of Trump, when the President of the United States is the biggest bully on the block.Header photo by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr.