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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

High School Cliques, Bystanders, and Bullies

High school cliques become tight social groups that compete for attention and status. Each clique has its own claim to space and to fame on campus. For example, geeks are friends bound largely by academic interests. Jocks and cheerleaders have highly visible and often applauded athletic connections. And, fashionistas often flash their sporty clothes as their flock stakes claim to the trendy "runways" of school hallways and cafeterias. Descriptions could continue with Goths, emos, etc.

The following is a scene that plays out daily 
at every high school in the nation.

A student without the approval and social protection of a particular group -- a stray wolf, for whatever reason -- enters a confrontation with one or more members of a high school clique. Usually the problem is related to either resistance by the loner to accept "clique cool" or aggressive behavior by a clique against someone who appears freakish or foreign, a presumed affront to the social parameters of the group.

So many times after such a confrontation, a clique member uses the excuse that the foreigner was "running his or her mouth" about them although this "rumor" is almost always discovered through second-hand information.

Many sociologists call these confrontations "bullying" and attribute them to the actions of a single, loud and offensive student, but I believe they are often more akin to group "needling" in that the harm is less bullish and physical than it is verbal and psychological group warfare.

One metaphor that comes to mind is an incantation and the use of a voodoo doll. Victims of clique attack become unwilling voodoo dolls pricked often (sometimes daily) by the badgering behaviors of group members attempting to control (or destroy) their deemed "unacceptable" actions. Day after day, sharp words, cruel physical isolation, and degradation make the alien victims feel like human pin cushions.

One of the most interesting and extremely frightening aspects of a clique/alien confrontation is the pack mentality. Each member of a high school clique has been through a pecking order, accepted his or her role in the group, and feels allegiance to participate blindly in any clique behavior, including the act of psychologically maiming a stranger for little or no reason. To many students, social standing in high school is that important and that controlling: cliques can rule all social behavior.

Once the confrontation begins, bystanders inevitably partake of the encounter. If a fight is brewing, bystanders smell the blood in the water and hope for a slug fest. Likewise, if  a prank or a verbal showdown is to be on display, bystanders want to witness how the freak receives his "propers." So, the bystanders often hear about the upcoming confrontations and eagerly watch them happen.

One of the most difficult strategies to employ to help avoid the implementation of these clashes is to expect bystanders to be proactive, not neutral. But, contributing to the solution as a bystander, not ignoring the problem, is also one of the greatest, most effective measures to stopping ugly, unacceptable social behaviors in high school. Proactive bystanders can be saviors.

“It’s none of my business.”

There is such a stigma in our society about "ratting" on another person that most students will not inform school authorities about potential disputes. Add to that the power and influence of a high school clique and one can see the likely consequences of going against a formidable group.

Still, in my mind, nothing works better to solve social problems than students stepping up, coming out of their roles as indifferent bystanders, and risking the eventualities of their own positive actions.

Most bystanders passively accept showdowns by watching and doing nothing. Yet, the truth is, bystanders rarely play a completely neutral role, although they may think they do. They may feel powerless to help an individual, so they accept their own cowardice. Passive bystanders contribute to problems by providing a clique the audience they crave and the silent acceptance that allows them to continue their hurtful behavior.
Hurtful bystanders do the following:
* Instigate the confrontation to begin

* Encourage the confrontation by laughing, cheering, or making aggressive comments

* Join in the confrontation once it has begun

Proactive bystanders do this:

* Intervene directly by discouraging the aggressor, defending the victim, or redirecting the situation away from bullying

* Get help by rallying support from peers to stand up against peer misbehavior or by reporting the behaviors to adults. 

"The weirdo 'deserved' it."

Oh, how quickly a student finds the excuse above unacceptable if and when the day arrives that he or she is shunned by their own high school clique. The horror of becoming powerless to victimization becomes reality. And soon, a new "outsider" also develops guilt for not having defending other helpless victims.

Adults should prepare children to become helpful bystanders by discussing with them the different ways bystanders can make a difference, and by letting them know that adults will support them, if and when they step forward. Adults can also provide examples of how helpful bystanders have shown courage and made a difference in real-life situations and in their own experiences.

Help For the Victims

A study by Karen D. Rudolph in the journal Child Development found promoting an egoless approach to building relationships that encourages children to react in such mindful ways is key to protecting kids from the psychological blowback of bullying. Rudolph's study shows that kids who are able to respond with care have better mental health than those who respond to stress thoughtlessly.

The data was revelatory. It is not the only answer, but it provides fruitful opportunity to thwart problems. Though it wasn't astounding to find out that half of the children reported being the object of taunts, gossip, or intimidation, how they reacted to their harassers was. The key to anticipating victims' responses, it turns out, is to figure out their motivations for interacting with their peers in the first place.

That is ... 

* Students who wanted to be popular and feel superior tended to retaliate impulsively. 

* Those who wanted to appear cool by avoiding criticisms were more likely to pretend like nothing happened. 

* And those who were genuinely interested in fostering friendships tended to react in healthful, positive ways. They asked their teachers for advice, sought emotional support, and found means to solve the tension with those who harassed them.

In no way are these findings "blaming the victim." You don’t have to be the one at fault to take action. Who is more likely to approach this problem in a constructive way: the people who take pleasure in promoting their power or those who may benefit from a change in the dynamic?

 (Hans Villarica. "An Alternate Approach to Stop School Bullying: Fix the Victims." 
The Atlantic. November 2, 2011)

I strongly believe promoting a responsible, tolerant student body, especially a strong and proactive senior class (Underclassmen do not admit it, but they do look up to senior leadership.), eliminates many clique/alien confrontations. Of course, wouldn't high school be lovely without all the pressures and stresses of social classes? Well, good luck with that one.

I taught high school for decades, and I believe some student divisions are so strongly entrenched that they may never disappear. Teaching toleration for all becomes so important because it is grounded in accepting differences, not in excluding them as meaningless.

During my many years of teaching high school, I have also seen the positive role of proactive bystanders. They are a caring force to be reckoned with, and a meaningful "clique" of their own. Great high schools have great student leaders. There is no substitute. Honest, well-meaning leadership in the student body of a high school is paramount to smooth sailing during a school year. Administrators, counselors, teachers, and, most of all, students will confirm this.

People must realize that great young leaders must be groomed -- if they are groomed with beliefs that money, position, and class make them special, they will associate only with those of that ilk; however, if they are groomed with the understandings that all people are equals with admirable qualities that should be recognized, they will broaden their personal connections to include an entire, diverse student body. Parents, teachers, administrators, counselors, and other students must contribute to grooming significant numbers of student leaders who can work together to forge a close-knit school.

If we, as adults, believe this kind of toleration and friendship will take place by happenstance, we should look into a mirror. I believe most of us will see our own imperfections that need corrected.

God knows I have been through many personal struggles to reshape my understandings, and as look back at my own youthful days, I shudder at some ignorant beliefs I once held. Young brains are not mature brains, no matter their intellect. Without meaningful interactions and consultations with thoughtful, wise adults, well-meaning teens will make many critical mistakes they really don't mean to make.

I do know that all teens need help in reasoning, even though they may resist it. This "tough love" is as essential to a youngster in grade school as it is to a senior in high school. Without guidance and love, teens wither. They become unfriendly children. The individual bully is one such despicable person, a person who is a product of his or her environment. The all-exclusive clique group is an even more formidable foe, but also a product of a doting social environment.

No good high school can tolerate a student body of hurtful bystanders. Unfortunately, adult society presently tolerates too much of this behavior, and the trickle-down is damaging, even killing, bright young high school students. Teens who stand up do not have to be tough or physically aggressive; instead, they have to be gutty, proactive leaders.

"It is the supreme test of a system of government whether its machinery is adequate for repressing the selfish 
undertakings of cliques formed on special interests 
and saving the public from raids of plunderers."

--William Graham Sumner: American academic, historian, economist, and sociologist

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