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In Expert Interviews

Jessie Klein on The Bully

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Jessie Klein, PHD, MSW, M.Ed. is an Assistant Professor of Sociology/Criminal Justice at Adelphi University. Over the last two decades she also led and administered high school guidance programs. She served as a supervisor, school social worker, college adviser, social studies teacher, substance abuse prevention counselor and conflict resolution coordinator. She talks to Ciaran Connolly about Bullying and the Bully Society.

The interview on The Bully can also be found here and here.

Below is a transcript of the interview on The Bully:  

CC: I am joined today by Dr. Jessie Klein who has written a very interesting book called The Bully Society. Doctor Klein, do you mind telling us a little bit about your background and a little bit about your book?

JK: I am currently Assistant Professor in Sociology and Criminal Justice at Adelphi University, Long island, Garden City, in New York. Prior to that, I was a school social worker among other roles in the New York City public high schools and I wrote the book from a number of different perspectives with my own experience of growing up in schools as everyone has and my experience as a social worker and guidance councillor as such in public schools and then doing a tremendious amount of research since then.

CC: Would you say in your opinion bullying is as big an issue today as it would have been 10 years ago or 15 years ago? Or we finally getting on top of bullying and starting to fix the problem?

JK: I think, unfortunately, it is a problem that is getting worse and you can see that by the numbers shootings related to school bullying and how this increased. I have a chart on my website which is http://jessieklein.com and you can click on the chart and I have statistics there and that show how school shootings have practically doubled from one decade to the next starting 1979 to the present, and it is very disturbing that the bullying used to have the same character but there are so many more issues coming up and conflicts between students and adults. More adults are being targeted as well as kids. So, I think unfortunately it has gotten quiet a lot worse than before and that the ramifications are way more extreme than ever before.

CC: Of course, we too see that. We too get to see the American stories, the sad stories, over here but we are actually starting to feel the same impact happening here in Ireland and then the UK which is obviously very worrying for us and this is actually the topic of your book or a core point in your book that things actually getting worse. Society is failing young people and actually things are getting worse and it will continue to get worse unless we take corrective actions, is that correct?

JK: Yes and I would like to say 2 things on that. One is that when I first started writing, the character of school shootings were very different – those in New York are different than the other ones in Germany. In Germany they are often about kids who had gotten punished and they were targeting their teachers, students who had failed their high stake exams and were targeting a teacher. While most of the shootings in the United States were more about somebody being called gay and obviously bullied and harassed and mostly targeting other children. One of the worst shooting in Europe, was in Germany I think in 2002 and since then, unfortunately,the United States started to do much more high stake tests in high schools and schools are encourage to do high stake exams and getting grants. That kind of accountability and there are more get tough policies that are well-meaning and I think they are trying to address school bullying but they often have the opposite effect and very sadly there are more teachers and principals and guidance counsellors now being targeted in United States for similar reasons to what was going on in Europe. In addition to the responses the kids have to being gay bashed or thought bashed or otherwise name-called.

CC: A very tough job in education now for teachers and principals because they are responsible for the grades, they have a duty of care for the children but also I guess with this epidemic that is happening as well, it is another piece of work and a big part of their work daily which they need to work on to make sure that our young people become better citizens tomorrow. Do you think that they are getting enough support in what they are doing? Do you think there is more that could be done in schools in general, even if it is society or community that the work needs to be done on to try and help bring our kids up to understand and respect each other better?

JK: Exactly and I think there are some statistics that paint a very dark picture of the emotional life of many Americans. The General Social Survey of 2004 shows that social isolation has tripled since the 1980s. Fifty percent of our population are considered to have inadequate or marginal support, either no body to speak with about important matters or perhaps one person. Empathy has significantly decreased,depression has increased significantly, and anxiety has increased significantly. Now many kinds are anxious as a social norm and I think the issue of empathy is one of the most important ones when addressing issues about bullying. Given the demographics today that empathy has decreased significantly, schools now are in a dire position to teach empathy, to teach students how to have compassion for one another and for and other people and I don’t think it is something that school ever thought of as their responsibility and often schools thought very strongly that this is the responsibility of the family and I think given the circumstances, nobody can say it is anybody else’s responsibility.

CC: Of course and even as in my opinion with the internet, while we have the internet and all the social networks that allow us to connect with our friends and our family across the world and keep close to each other, that maybe is also stopping the art of communication. We don’t sit down and talk with people. We sit down and send them a message on Facebook or like a post or text them as opposed to before we actually talked to them and would actually go and visit them. Society definitely is changing and while it does have its advantages, maybe technology also has its down side as well.

JK: I think unfortunately people have the illusion that they are connecting with one another and yet so often they are sitting by themselves and looking at a screen and there is a way you might feel the same kind of buzz as if you had gone shopping even. You can be connected with somebody on the internet but it has very little resemblance to what it means to connect with another human being and unfortunately, there are studies that show young people are beginning to lose their ability to develop face to face relationships. This is what’s so important. I think schools could help students develop friendships, meaningful friendships, to try to address the issues of popularity that has become so poisonous in many schools. Kids try to get status and try to get a reputation for being aggressive or popular and stop even thinking about how do I connect to somebody or who do I have something common with that I can support and care about and learn from? I think unfortunately students need help in developing friendship today.

CC: I think that is probably one of the best descriptions I have ever heard of connecting with someone on Facebook or any other network, how meaningless it can be but for that short second you do get that buzz of satisfaction. So, I think that is something I will use again and again and it is true. It doesn’t compensate or reflect a real meeting between two people and I have to say the point on social networks and the schools or the internet, it does feel like children now are in a popularity contest from day one and while it always was that of course, it is very visible, it’s the number of friends you have, the number of followers you have, the number of likes you get on a post that you make and even makes me think that young people now, they are thinking like a business or a brand like how many followers or how many likes and shares and how many followers you have for your popularity. It definitely is not a good way to be thinking. Everyone is singular and looking after themselves and trying to post to gain social proof when actually children should be engaging and learning the art of conversation and engaging in their local community. So, do you see a difference again today compared to 10-15 years ago in how bullying happens? Now that we have the internet and mobile phones, are people bullying in a different way or is it the same way in a school playground, on a bus or in the local neighborhood?

JK: Yes, I think unfortunately it becomes more expansive. When I interviewed students growing up in technology-age, they talked about it was bad enough when they were bullied in school as well as Facebook and when people start texting, they would be bullied twenty four hours. People come on their phones constantly and unfortunately as any innovation develops without any instruction or support around developing compassion toward one another,they often get turned against people and themselves. People use this as exactly destined to promote themselves not because they’re bad people but because that had become such a core value for the society. Can I be the most powerful? Can I be the most successful? Can you promote yourself with the most effective brand rather than what you can contribute to your society, how you can contribute to other and your well being, how we can support one another. We are just asking the wrong questions of ourselves and one another which is creating a tremendous misery. I think that it is so self-destructive not just for people but for our whole social environment.

CC: Of course and I guess you might have seen this in years of dealing with it, is there real long term effects on people who are bullied like this?

JK: Of course and I think unfortunately many of the adults I talk to have been bullied as kids and the kids talk about this sort of harassment as a part of their identity. Many adults talk about how it is hard for them to develop friendships. They were never able to trust somebody or have a meaningful intimate relationship. For a family, there are so many effects that are so devastating and of course we have seen the school shootings and the events associated to bullying to lives get cut short

CC: And do you think also as parents and teachers, do we deal with bullied victims, when someone comes and tells us he has been bullied, do we may be reflect on our own lives may be we had a little bit of teasing or bullying when we were younger but we are healthy and strong today? Do we brush it under the carpet and not take it seriously enough?Or do you think generally parents and teachers know and see what is happening and they are more active in trying to help their children solving any problems with bullying?

JK: You know I think it’s a bit complicated because people don’t necessarily notice it when they see it. I often get asked this question “What is harmless teasing and what is bullying? Where do we draw the line?” I think a lot of people are struggling to see where that line is. What I think is there is really no room for teasing or any kind of hurtful behavior whether you are a grown up or a child or a teenager.We should all be striving to be as compassionate and kind as a person can be and we should address that in one another when we see it, when we see it in our children, we should be self-reflective with that kind of behavior. The world is in a pretty severe state. There is so much self-destruction and destruction toward others but we don’t really have room for a little bit of hurtful behavior. This is something people need to take seriously and to not just look at this is a bully, look at the victim. It’s an issue that everybody has to deal with their own social behaviors and the role modelling. I think sadly, teachers are blamed, parents are blamed, principals are blamed. There is a lot of the scapegoats of who is responsible of creating a given bully and it’s not just any one person’s fault. It is a larger social problem that we have to address and that we can address individually but we need to think of every person who works hard to be the best human being they can be, to treat other people kindly, to develop meaningful friendships, to try to contribute to the well-being of others and the well-being of society generally. This is our responsibility and we need to get away from the value system that is all about self promotion and being successful and making money. It’s really undermining our skills personally and otherwise.

CC: You mentioned the bullies themselves. Is there, as a parent, if I am worried that my child was possibly a bully or bullying other people, is there anything I can say to them to try to make them realize that is wrong? What approach should I maybe take with them to explain what they are doing is wrong and could have a massive impact on their lives and the lives of the people that they are bullying?

JK: I think each person is different. If somebody is acting out either against themselves or other people, they are usually asking for something they need and they may or may not be aware of what they need. So, it can often be a challenge to try to help a person, a child or a grown up, become self reflective about what they need. Most of us need human connection and need love and need care and need acceptance and I think adults are not always in the best position to do that because often adults have been hurt for a long time too and don’t necessarily have these resources. Really anybody can that kind of role model and to be available to the child and to support them and try to help them develop more meaningful friendships and to help them to develop how to make the kind of connections that are satisfying to them because nobody really gets any meaningful support from hurting other people. That is not just a way that people end up feeling good about themselves or feel peaceful. I think they need it to the extent that they are able to talk about their value system and help kids develop real friendships and if things are difficult at the school, work with the school to develop those bonds, to talk to the adults in the school about helping children develop these bonds and to help the children form other bonds outside the school that are meaningful. So, anybody can be helpful in that way. If you are in an apartment building and you happen to ride down the elevator with another person, you can have that role to a child or another adult. There might be micro regressions where people roll their eyes or tell a secret that can be very painful but there are micro kindnesses that may be helpful if somebody smiles towards another person. That can really make a person’s day. However, it’s not just parents that need to work on this. A parent who is concerned about their children, their number one goal is to help their child develop meaningful bonds with people and other children and adults as well the way a parent would like.

CC: Excellent advice and I guess my last question is, if there is a parent listening to this and they have a child and they’re concerned about that maybe they are being bullied or even a child that is being bullied, what should the child do? There is different advice that we hear like that the child should be independent and face it on their own or should talk to an adult, the parents or an adult in school? Is there one best way for a bullied person to handle the situation or does it again depend on the individuals themselves?

JK: I think we really need to move away from it being an individual responsibility to do any thing, since that kind of thinking has gotten us intro a lot of trouble in the first place, you know,how can I be the most powerful? How can I be the most aggressive? How can I get the most status? I think parents, to help a child that is being bullied, they can go to school and say “We need help. We need the school as a community to help our child that is being bullied. We are willing to help and often times parents are working very hard and it’s not an easy thing to do, but some way or another they can work together to try and create a more caring environment and I think it is vital that the school acknowledges that it’s a school community issue and that it is not never this one individual’s responsibility. It is really too much to expect of each kid that is being bullied to handle each conflict on their own. Already their self-esteem is battered and physically in a more compromised position. There is no reason why they should be forced to handle such a tough situation on their own. I think one of the most healing things for a child who has been bullied or for an adult that has been bullied, because certainly workplace bullying or school bullying is common, is for other people to remind them that they care about them, that support them and that the messages they are getting from hurtful people have nothing to do with who they are and so I think parents can help their child just by helping them again develop the kind of relationships with other children and other adults where they feel more affirmed and supported and cared about and work very hard to make sure that the school takes that responsibility and if the school won’t take that responsibility,keep moving up to the principal or superintendent or anyone else and to make sure they recognize this as their responsibility to work together with parents because the alternative has been very horrific and schools are aware about that. They just don’t always make the right decisions but I think they do respond when the parents are concerned with their child being treated badly. The school has to work with them to create that kind of environment.Without this kind of adamant perspective, we can’t do anything.

CC: Excellent! Thank you for your time today. It was the most refreshing insights into bullying and where we are today and what we actually need to do. If someone wants to read more about you and what you have written or even find your book, they can reach you at your website?

JK: Yes, my book is called ‘The Bully Society: School Shooting and the Crises of Bullying in the American Schools’ and the website is http://jessieklein.com/. You can see my interview and articles.

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