Schoolyard bullies

Our view: They make other kids miserable, but just kicking them out isn't a solution

May 05, 2010

Students who bully other children at school make their victims' lives miserable and set a terrible example for classmates who witness their bad behavior. But simply throwing a bullying child out of school — and possibly back into the same environment where such behavior is acceptable — rarely solves the problem. In fact, it may actually make things worse when that child eventually returns to the classroom, as usually happens.

That's why we think Baltimore City schools CEO Andrés Alonso wasn't entirely off the mark this week when he insisted that it's often better to keep bullies in school than to suspend or expel them, at least in cases that don't involve violence against other students or staff members. It may have been jarring in the wake of two reports of elementary school children who threatened suicide after bullying to hear Mr. Alonso suggest anything less than taking the most aggressive response to any sign of such abuse. If we believed that Mr. Alonso did not take bullying seriously, we would join in the condemnation of his remarks, but that is not the case.

Certainly, some behaviors cannot be tolerated under any circumstances. Mr. Alonso laid down the law last year on children who set fires or bring weapons to school, offenses for which the system rightly has zero tolerance. No school can function effectively when the lives of its students and staff are put at risk. The same should go for instances of bullying that turn into violence.

But bullying in the form of intimidation, threats and other malicious behaviors that go well beyond mere teasing but do not reach the level of physical abuse pose a more complex problem for educators. They are usually indications of difficulties a child may be having at home or in the community, and simply punishing the child without addressing those issues rarely leads to better behavior in class.

In such cases, educators have an obligation to intervene, and there are many alternatives to traditional suspension or expulsion they can turn to, including in-school suspension, after-school and Saturday suspensions, taking kids out of class and creating individualized instruction programs for them or working with parents, counselors and mental health professionals to identify the causes of the problem.

While none of these alternatives is guaranteed to work for every child, they generally produce far better results over the long term than kicking large numbers of kids out of school every year for behavioral problems — a policy Mr. Alonso has determined to reverse.

For decades, Baltimore suspended thousands of students annually — in 2005 one in four children faced suspension or expulsion — and the consequences were disastrous for both students and the school system. Children who had been suspended multiple times were more likely to become victims of homicide or domestic violence, and their chances of finishing school became vanishingly small.

In recent years, the number of school suspensions has dropped by a third, and violent incidents and weapons in schools are also down while attendance has increased. Overall the system is improving as measured by test scores. Reflexive calls to suspend more students for bullying behavior that stops short of violence invite a return to policies that clearly failed in the past.

Instead, educators should continue to focus on early identification of potential classroom bullies, coupled with a range of interventions aimed at helping the most troubled children and their families resolve the difficulties that are at the root of the antisocial behavior.

Nobody likes a bully. But demonizing kids with behavioral issues and suggesting they have no place in the school environment paints the problem with too broad a brush. Mr. Alonso's more nuanced approach recognizes that children arrive at school "as is" — with both great gifts and serious flaws — and that educators' job is to help all of them reach their potential.

Mr. Alonso may not have explained himself clearly when he sought to address the recent incidents of bullying in the city's schools on Monday. He should take advantage of the outrage over bullying — and his remarks — to galvanize the community behind a holistic approach to stopping the problem that doesn't merely perpetuate the cycles of alienation and dysfunction that caused it in the first place.

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