Child-on-child abuse in our public schools: reframing the bullying debate

Finally, I cheered to tune in to the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention.

Sweet and inspiring, but problematic, is the First Family’s assumption that all parents are loving parents who care about and are involved in their children’s education, as are the federal guidelines instructing students to report bullying behavior to adult supervision. Child abuse statistics and ongoing school abuses indicate gaps in presently available solutions. Panelists’ dialogue emphasizes individual responsibility and the importance of reaching agreement on what is okay and what is not okay.

Who enforces the goals of this conference?

What happens when the teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, cafeteria workers, custodians, all the way up to the school administrators and school board members are not on board? What do you do when the administrators hide, deny, or flagrantly collude with the abuse in their schools or on their campuses?

What happens when the school guidance counselor strip-searches your child, as happened to Sladjana Vidovic before she committed suicide? Is there ever an occasion when this behavior might be okay?

What happens when the star athletes and/or the school board members’ children become the violent abusers, as in the horrific gang rape case pending in Texas?

Author and public speaker Rosalind Wiseman mentions the importance of community members, among them the District Attorney, being involved in the conversation. What happens when the D.A. is unaware of the history of child-on-child abuse behind an apparent first-time offender, such as this athlete who abused Eric Mohat before he committed suicide? When did we all agree to condone abusive behavior in athletics? When did we decide that neighborhood property values are more important than the safety and well-being of children?

Or what happens, to draw from personal experience, when the prosecutor persistently uses the phrase, “That’s so gay,” to communicate disparagement of something or someone, arguing late into the evening for his right to freedom of speech, despite the objections of his then-wife, repulsed by his homophobia and arrogance?

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius gets it exactly right when she describes the importance of language, that words really do matter, but then she references a term with which I am not familiar, the R-word. I am culturally removed enough that I do not understand the substitution. Growing up in a household without a television, and now choosing to live my adult life without television, some cultural norms remain mysterious to me. Sometimes I feel as if I am a foreigner in my own country, as if I am only a guest here, passing through. In viewing the conference online, I wished I was watching with someone, so I could have leaned over and asked. What is the R-word?

I suffered a similar lapse recently in a telephone conversation with my gay nephew, when he described a Thanksgiving dinner and his pain from our family’s difficulty in accepting his sexuality, “I don’t think this family has ever had such a conflict! I dropped the S-bomb lots of times!” I meant to ask, but we continued talking, and I forgot to return to the question. What is the S-bomb?

Ohh, this family has had conflicts.

Did you mean shit?

And what sadness! When families do not pass down to each succeeding generation their stories, their conflicts, and how they resolved them, that we might learn from history, and not have to repeat it over and over and over again, dumbly, like sheep wandering off the edge of a cliff. I first encountered the term “bullshit” scribbled as marginalia in a set of encyclopedias that we inherited from my maternal grandfather, who was born as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth. This questioning of authority, from the days when encyclopedias still represented a voice of authority, may well have been my earliest permission to question, to ask, to critique, to examine language and how it is used, who uses it, and what we mean when we speak.

We have the N-word, the R-word, the S-bomb, the C-word, the G-word, recently, I Tweeted in support of the campaign to “Drop the I-word,” encouraging civil communication within the immigration debate, the F-word, the B-word, the WTF-word, all of which seems to me to be scooting us backward, as if there were small children crawling about the room above whose heads we might be speaking. Also reminiscent of petting my cat while crooning, ohh, would you like a T-R-E-A-T, knowing full well I am not going to get up out of my chair to go to the refrigerator right at that moment when she is so warm and purring, and if I speak it aloud, I am committed, as, yes, even the cat is able to discern the T-word.

What grievous loss suffered by a culture when it loses its ability to speak! What of the many textures and subtleties of language, its gift for description, elucidation, subversion, excitation, transformation? What, poetry?

So let’s focus on language for a moment, as it is at the heart of this debate, our ability to communicate with one another, this loss of civil communication, what it means to be a civilization, as Wiseman again brilliantly explains, “If you strip away bullying, it’s discrimination and bigotry.”

Zero in still closer, and I wonder where the term bully came to be the framework for our discourse? The etymology of bully comes from Middle Dutch, meaning lover, a term of endearment for either [of the many] sex[es], only later becoming a familiar form of address to a male friend, and only more recently becoming familiar as we know it today, which may get us to the root of the problem, using influence or intimidation to get what we want or desire, this tension between love and abuse.

What is the official repair for this abusive behavior in our schools? Bullying prevention, or:

Stop bullying.

Stop, a negative term or ceasing of action, combined with the verb bully, an action that civilized people agree is negative, to arrive at the double-negative of stop bullying, and in this case, a double negative does not add up to a positive solution, because human beings are not mathematics. We are physical, embodied, flesh and blood, not an abstraction. Silenced in the structure of the sentence, this command or directive, is the subject, invisible and repressed:

You stop bullying.

But to whom is this instruction being addressed? Who is the addressee? And who is speaking? Implicit in the command is its direct object:

You stop bullying me.

The onus for ceasing the abusive behavior falls on the abused object, our national failure evident in the suicides of our children, in their helplessness, in the powerlessness of the call.

Let’s reframe the debate as child-on-child abuse, let’s call it what it is. Name the problem. Child-on-child abuse of three million American children. These children are not alone. Maybe we haven’t found a solution yet because we haven’t properly named the problem.

Consider the problem further, when the teachers and administrators do not respond appropriately or are not receptive to the alarm or collude with the abuse, remember that the abusive child loses too. As the experts tell us, a child acting out is likely experiencing neglect or abuse in her home. The abuser at school becomes the abused child when he returns home. Consigning Jordan Pratt to house arrest is probably an ineffective method to remediate his criminal behavior, as child-on-child abuse experts realize that children who abuse their peers are likely to come from homes where there is a lack of warmth or involvement on the part of the parents, overly permissive parenting, a lack of supervision, harsh physical discipline, and a model for abusive behavior. Whatever happened to mandatory child abuse reporting? In naming the problem “bullying,” we diminish it as child’s play, however much recent media attention might shine a light on the seriousness of the problem.

In renaming the problem, we might also redefine its solution. What is the antidote for abuse? Must we be so negative in our attempts to resolve cultural problems? Might we imagine a positive solution to the problem of abuse? Instead of offering a negative instruction, stop bullying, might we start something? Instead of saying no, might we get to yes? Instead of declaring war on our problems, might we wage peace?

Who gets to say what is okay and what is not okay? Now that we are living in an era where we all write the encyclopedia, it is more urgent than ever to listen to the voices scribbling from the margins. If we are to engage in civil discourse, we must be willing to listen to one another. We must listen to the voice of the other.

Any time we hear denial, whether it’s uttered in the public sphere or our private conversations, from our global leaders and politicians, in the media, on television or online, from authorities, from our school board members, our superintendents, our teachers, our parents, or even our children, denial should send up a red flag. Denial says nothing but no, I am not listening. To deny is to refuse to admit the truth or the existence of, literally, to deny being, to refuse to give, a refusal, a lack of acceptance, a negation, from the Latin denegare. Denial should flag our attention that there is more to the story, as when Sasha answers, “Nothin’” to the question what happened in school today, and our First Mother recognizes there is more story to explore.

“You can’t say that,” from a federal prosecutor in Portland, when questioned about the disappearance of Kelsey Collins, his star witness in a sex trafficking case, sends up a red flag for me. Red flags serve the same purpose in public discourse that they do in the bullfighting ring: distraction. Don’t look over here. Look over there. Clearly, the child’s mother can ask why her daughter was not offered witness protection; she did say that. Denial communicates nothing more than a refusal to listen.

Denial from Mentor High School, which holds the questionable distinction of losing five of its students in less than three years to suicide, sends up another red flag for me. This is a school in Ohio crying out for help. What do we need to do to get them some help? Their suicide prevention group, Give a Hand, Take a Hand, sounds to me more like give us your hand, we will chop it off, and hand you back a bloody stump. Their curriculum seems to include all of the required courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, so what is missing? What is the rest of the story?

Who gets to say what is okay and what is not okay? Denial brings us to the question of power, its uses and abuses. The person who is experiencing abuse or discrimination or power-over must be heard, must have voice, the denial in itself is a refusal to hear, the arrogance of power-over or abuse of power. With power comes duty or responsibility. If you are in a position of privilege or power, it is incumbent on you to listen to those who are powerless.

The White House recommends that we empower this generation with the tools to come up with its own solutions. In doing so, it challenges us to think in new ways. Inviting engagement in continuing dialogue offers a shift in power, from power-over to power-with, a shift as significant as the resonance between the solo voice of encyclopedic authority of yesteryear’s bound codex, to the reverberations in today’s polyphonic technologies.

What if, instead of a negative call, we sent out a positive vibe?

What might happen?

What if, instead of the object of the abuse pleading with an unidentified subject to stop bullying, we start celebrating difference?

What might that look like?

On the level of uniform resource locators, we shift from:


[I’m not providing a link, but the possibility is out there, parked, waiting to happen.] Stop bullying, government, we want a different United States!

What if our elementary and secondary education curricula included diversity course requirements? Why aren’t we teaching this? Maybe these students “brimming with promise” are not learning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics because they are afraid to go to school?

If they are old enough to wear makeup and play war games and give birth and rape and be raped, kill or be killed, then they are old enough for gender and diversity education. How about sooner rather than later? Why wait until the problem is a bigger problem? Why have we waited this long? Secretary Sebelius hesitates over the distinction between digital and physical etiquette – yes, isn’t that the issue precisely? – the rules of etiquette in our embodied world have slipped, slid, slithered elsewhere?

We must acknowledge that our children are only mimicking the adults, like good chimpanzees, playing out what they see and know and learn from our adult world. For this generation, we have been a nation waging war for their entire cognizant lives. They’re old enough to vote now. If that doesn’t frighten you, think ahead to another two decades when their children are old enough to vote.

Of all the panelists at the Conference on Bullying Prevention, Jason Rzepka, Vice President of Public Affairs at MTV, thankfully adds the least to the conversation. Probably, his acknowledgment that, “We are experts in reaching young people, but not experts in the problem,” is the closest we’re going to get to a confession or an apology. Sorry, we didn’t do our research before we provided a “solution.” We’re experts in marketing to young people. We’re experts in selling stuff to young people. We’re experts in shaping the opinions and decisions of young people.

And this generation of young people has a problem of child-on-child abuse in our public schools. “We’re really shaping positive social norms,” Rzepka claims.


Corporate America did not consider the social effects of its marketing decisions. That means, in our business schools, in our communications and design schools, we have failed to provide coursework in diversity and psychology and ethics. There’s a solution for that. Before corporate America does any more damage, I challenge you to educate yourselves about problems of gender and difference, and how your expertise might be used to effect positive social change. Just imagine what your power might produce, should you choose to accept the challenge, and make it focal to your balance sheets.

If it is a problem of imagination, or imaging, let’s analyze a few of the visual solutions produced during this crisis of child-on-child abuse in our public schools:

MTV’s “Fliers” video depicts a teenaged white girl with long brunette hair and carefully applied cosmetics standing at the entrance to her high school passing out fliers printed with an the image of a classmate with the text “Laura is a slut.” When Laura, markedly similar in appearance to the first character, arrives, she also receives a flier, and when she turns the corner she discovers a hallway papered with the negative advertising. Her face crumples, though not so much as to wreck her mascara and lipgloss, and as she walks down the hallway she attract leers from two boys and laughter and jeers of “slut” follow her. The scene cuts with whirling typography to a scene with another white girl typing messages into a computer. A female voiceover chides, “The words you write online can cause real pain. If you wouldn’t say it, why would you type it?” Laura’s high school includes no observable Latinas and no Asian students. Five or six African American or multiracial students pass by in the hallway scene, but the extras are predominately white, as are the central characters and all speaking roles. All of the female models are cover girl “perfect,” yet curiously, Laura still has no confidence in herself.

Beyond the racist, sexist, and gender stereotyping, the video is problematic in addressing its intended audience of teenagers who abuse their peers, as psychology studies and ongoing court cases have amply proven the ineffectiveness of shaming aggressively narcissistic individuals into socially approved behavior. A trait of the narcissistic personality is difficulty in empathizing with others. When our students are laughing into the coffins of their deceased classmates and posting “success!” to their Facebook pages, does this MTV video “shape positive social norms,” or draw a map for abusers to follow?


For a second example of visual communication, the cover of a study from the Dignity in Schools project hoping to draw awareness to the problem of “push out” – the schools-to-prison pipeline that is an unfortunate effect of No Child Left Behind legislation – and its significant racial disparity, unfortunately chose to visually communicate the problem with this nostalgic image of a student who appears to be both male and white. But maybe I am gender stereotyping; what’s your opinion?

Alternatively, the photographic images and logo designed for the Human Rights Campaign for diversity inclusion in K-5 schools portrays students of diverse races and genders engaging in school settings in healthy ways. The children are all smiling. Their eyes sparkle. They do not mask their natural beauty with cosmetics. In one image, an African American teacher provides a positive role model for her young students to follow.

What is the responsibility of media and marketing? What are the responsibilities of visual designers?

For parents who do not want their daughters to grow up to be the next Rosalind Franklin, Maya Angelou, or Sandra Day O’Connor, but would rather she not grow up at all, instead become the next JonBenét Ramsey, Wal-Mart’s geoGirl line of cosmetics marketed to ‘tweens provides tools to send them on their way. And they will enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that their purchasing decisions eased the retail behemoth through the Great Recession.

What happens when we make objects of our young girls? In sunny California, a young woman was rescued after being kidnapped and spending eighteen years captive in a shed in a suburban backyard, during which time she gave birth to two daughters. The red flag raising the hairs on the back of my neck was her aunt insisting that the children born in captivity were “just normal little girls,” and another red flag when their defense attorney tries to argue for leniency for the female kidnapper by describing her as “like a mother” for the object of her abuse. I reiterate: we have created a culture where offspring born in captivity as the result of rape of a young girl by an old man, assisted by an old woman, is not outside our cultural norm.

In response to the question about bullying in the White House, Secretary Sebelius hesitates. Personally, I would not pause before changing that answer to a resounding yes, from the press corps, shaming the strength of the First Lady’s arms and criticizing her wardrobe, then alternating between the extremes of presenting the President as an “angry black man” and questioning his masculinity. And meanwhile we are scratching our collective heads and wondering why the child-on-child abuse in our schools begins with girls taunting or socially ostracizing each other for how they look and what they wear, and boys with gendered slurs and physical attacks??

The challenge to media, marketers, business leaders, and designers, should you choose to accept it, is to wonder how different we could be, if we used our imaginations to envision a whole new world? I know, it’s scary. It’s asking you to envision social responsibility first. There’s a lot of money involved. Think of it this way:

You’re not losing your market; you’re imagining an entirely new market.

A market that’s never been seen before.

A market that has yet to be imagined.

A market with endless expansion.

A market where your children and grandchildren are not afraid to go to school.

What are the responsibilities of political leaders and pundits in maintaining civil discourse in political debate?

What is our global responsibility? How can we expect our nation’s children to be civil to each other when we are the world’s biggest bully, when they have grown up through nearly a decade of war ostensibly waged over the WMD-word, when we are the only nation in the history of the world to have launched nuclear weapons of mass destruction at a nation now suffering its worst destruction since World War II? How can we expect our children to be civilized human beings when we exercise civil rights abuses just off our shores, at Guantánamo Bay? Since the Department of Homeland Security was formed, maybe we are (arguably) more secure, but are our children safe attending our public schools?

If the goal of the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention, according to Domestic Policy Advisor Melody Barnes, is to shine a light on a problem that already exists, we need to shine a brighter light, and in a room with a mirror.

What are our individual responsibilities? Have I called names? Yes. Have I sent emails I later regretted? You betcha. Have I belittled others? Yes. When I was not being listened to, and all other avenues of communication had failed. I remain deeply ashamed of that behavior. Removing myself from an abusive or unsafe home environment made it possible for me to change; children growing up in abusive or unsafe homes usually do not have that option. Making safe schools begins with making safe homes. How do you take words back again? When does free speech become hate speech? What words are okay, and what is not okay?

Is it particular words that are abusive, or their delivery? Is it the terms at stake, or their meaning, our tone, our status, our audience, and our intention? How are we changing the definitions of the terms by saying one thing, and meaning another? How are we losing our ability to communicate in written, spoken, and visual languages? Are there situations when the N-word, the R-word, the S-bomb, the C-word, the G-word, the I-word, the F-word, the B-word, the WTF-word, the T-word, and the WMD-word might be appropriate?

I have read enough black literature to realize there are times and settings when nigger is acceptable, depending on the address and the addressee. My women friends and I may reappropriate bitch when speaking to each other in friendly tones, but it is inappropriate when issued as an epithet. It is always abusive when men or boys describe women or girls as bitches and ‘ho’s, regardless whether you are with your buddies or your feminist friends. However, we do not want to eradicate racial or sexual slurs from our literature, as that would mean silencing the voices of writers who speak against bigotry and discrimination.

To the enforcers of the goals of the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention, I call your urgent attention to the administrators at a middle school in Lakewood, Ohio, and the well-intentioned study group at Kent State University, who describe eradicating the term gay from their students’ vocabularies as taking a “pro-active” stance against child-on-child abuse. Civilized human beings describe this action as the unforgivable. In the words of twentieth century philosopher Jacques Derrida, the unforgivable consists of depriving the victim of the right to speech, of speech itself, prohibiting our gay students from even describing themselves. And we are wondering why they are committing suicide in droves? How about diversity training for our administrators, researchers, and teachers, eliminating heterosexism so that when the next generation says, “You’re so gay,” they will mean, hurray for you!

For the editors of Wikipedia who tried to tell me that the American women’s movement petered out sometime in the mid-1990s, I rephrase the question from one of my idols, bell hooks: am I not a woman too? I am still moving. May I suggest more movement, a Fourth Wave, feminism with men, for the experiment in democracy where all people are treated equally has otherwise failed. Weapons of mass destruction are never appropriate solutions for resolving conflicts. Bullshit is appropriate when calling bullshit. My cunt is not available for let or legislation. Treats are always welcome.

Joining my voice with others, I emphasize the importance of continuing the conversation.

Peace on.


3 thoughts on “Child-on-child abuse in our public schools: reframing the bullying debate

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