In the last 6 years we have seen a rise in bullying in schools around the country. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics in 2019, one out of every five (20.2%) students report being bullied. Specifically, we see a disturbing rise in bias-based bullying in which children have been targeted for their identity, disability, religion, sexual orientation ethnicity and more. Many children, in response, become withdrawn in their own school settings, resort to physical confrontations to feel whole – or the worst scenario – turned to harm themselves due to the internal trauma and self-hate they feel even leading to suicide.
Bias-based bullying happens when children ‘otherize’ one another by making someone feel they do not belong because they are considered ‘different’. Many times, these methods include racial slurs, stereotypical language, and physical aggression. In all its forms, otherization and bias-based bullying leave the victim scarred – sometimes for life. The bullies in these incidents are playing a dangerous game of building permissible blocks of hateful behavior that as adults, could be categorized as a hate crime.
Today the resolution process of these scenarios is either detention or suspension. The students in the incident, both victim and bully, are told to distance themselves from one another for an extended period of time. This command may cease the bullying for a while, but it does not educate either of the students on how to not only survive but thrive in a diverse community.
In order for a child to thrive, they need the best tool to face conflict, disagreement, and differences. In my years of mediation of mediating divorce and discriminatory legal cases, I have to come to the clear realization that the single most powerful solution everyone seeks is for others to validate their experience. This validation restores their dignity and helps both parties move forward feeling better about themselves in the eyes of the person sitting across the table.
I go back to this fact when I am developing legislative solutions for community advocacy. How can we create an environment where biased-based bullying in schools can both be a learning tool for children in which the victim is empowered, the bully is educated on the ills of racial slurs and actions AND we can create norms of decency among children as they relate to each other? This thinking is what led my team to draft Illinois SB 673 Cross-Cultural Mediation in Bullying Act which is now law. The legislation mandates that when a case arises involving bias-based bullying regarding class, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability and sexual orientation, then a mediation must occur between both parties. This legislation was passed unanimously by both chambers in the Illinois general assembly. Upon passing, the most common remark we heard was “I wish this was presented sooner.” This law is seen as an early intervention to how adults are able to grapple with changing demographic of the communities around them as well as prevent more children from committing suicide due to their internal struggle caused by hateful biased bullying.
We as adults cannot pass the buck on responsibility, especially in the most difficult conflicts our children face. In all bias-based bullying cases, the bully has already picked up and internalized language and thought processes regarding another person’s otherness or identity – either from a dinner table conversation or a public incident in which it was laughed off. The political rhetoric in our nation’s recent divisive election seasons does not help either. At the same time, consistent conversations in the home that focus on how your own identity group is a target for constant bullying can also be internalized by and make students fearful of others that are different from them.
Around this country, we need to look at ourselves. How are we teaching our children to mediate conflicts and articulate feelings? We need to allow more ways for victims to create new, empowering memories rather than internalize an experience that can leave them scarred.
Can mediation truly change the way children learn from their bullying experiences? Can mediation in schools truly be a life-lasting impactful experience that would hinder a person from actually growing up to be a perpetrator of a hate crime and in turn restrict deliberate otherization? I say yes, Because incidents and research tell us that if hurtful words in our childhood stay with us negatively – then they can also empower and educate them, too.
Today, Illinois stands as a leader to mandate mediation in school bias-bullying cases. Let’s all hope we see this empowering trend continue throughout the nation.
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