Adolescent bullying remains one of the greatest concerns for both current and potential students and their families in Christian education (Barna 2017). And for good reason. This leading form of child abuse is linked to profound psychological and social problems, including depression, truancy, agoraphobia, lower test scores, school shootings, anxiety, suicide and more.
It may be surprising to some, but bullying is also linked to bigotry and racism, as well as sexual harassment. That’s because in order to commit these specific forms of abuse, the perpetrator, in order to justify their assault, must first turn their target into someone who is below them, also called a “less than”—this way they can tell themselves and others that their target deserves to be harmed. This is almost always accomplished, at first, through derogatory name calling.
When I have the honor to spend time with students of color in both Christian and public schools, many will tell me that they have been called the most heinous names imaginable. Maybe not at that school, but by people driving by, on the school bus, or in their own neighborhoods. When they tell me these names, sadness crosses their face, and a pall falls upon their young spirit, a pall that I worry may turn to anger, resentment and possibly rage later in life. So we’re glad to partner with Christian schools in their ongoing effort to battle bigotry and racism.
The Challenge for Christian Schools
But this besetting problem goes even deeper for Christian education. Unrestrained, it assaults the most important but more mysterious aspect of what it means to be human: our soul. It erodes a child’s belief in a loving God, as well as his or her sense of dignity, value and worth—all gifts from God, and in whose image we are made.
Children who bully display behavior that is forbidden by God: disdain and contempt for others due to real or perceived differences. This deep spiritual stain is made even more problematic, as bullies on average are motivated by arrogance—not low self-esteem.
No other behavior harms a Christian school’s reputation, parent relations, and ability to educate more than unrestrained bullying. It opposes your mission and moral obligation to provide a safe, mistreatment-free, and nurturing environment in which students can learn, grow in faith, and become productive and faithful contributors to society.
Bullying, the superior use of power (usually social, but also physical, verbal and economic) that intends to harm another child, multiple times and for no justifiable reason, displays some of the worst human impulses, including the perverse pleasure that comes from dominating and controlling another. A UCLA study (Juvonen, Wang and Espinoza 2013) surveyed thousands of diverse middle-schoolers students, asking them to name the students they considered most popular, and the students who bullied. The lists were nearly identical, showing how bullying actually helps students gain and maintain social status, usually into their high school years.
Thankfully, combating bullying strengthens the best in us as well. When your students learn how to stand against bullying, it grows their capacity for empathy, compassion, and related virtues—but especially civic and spiritual courage, a word that appears in the Bible about 30 times. Its opposite, cowardice, named in the Bible as a sin (Rev. 21:8), is often at the root of why your students don’t respond righteously to bullying. And cowardice is one of the most underreported reasons why we refuse to do the will of God. As Emerson warned, “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.”
The two most popular buzzwords within the anti-bullying movement today are awareness and kindness. But awareness and kindness alone do not lead to meaningful change when it comes to the theater of bullying, character development, or spiritual formation. They must be made actual or real through action. This is where courage comes in.
An analogy to an engine is helpful. In order for a combustible engine to move forward, it needs three ingredients: gas, air, and spark. Courage, in unison with faith, is the igniting force in our lives that fulfills what we know and feel, creating good works. The late Maya Angelou said it more eloquently: “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”
Growing courage, the foundational virtue upon which other virtues depend for activation, is essential to diminishing bullying, because as a 10-year landmark study by the Department of Health & Human Services reveals, bystanders hold the most potential power to reduce bullying through positive peer pressure.
Why Bystander Intervention is Key
Targets of bullying are chosen, not found. As anti-bullying expert and pioneer Barbara Coloroso explains, most school bullies aren’t looking for a fight. They long to overwhelm. So they seek out fellow students who they believe won’t push back. Bullies profile and then target a certain kind of classmate in September, such as shy, nice, compliant, and isolated children, then increase their bullying tactics in October. They seek out students who are likely to “turn the other cheek,” the most tortured Scripture in the theater of bullying that has nothing to do with adolescent bullying (put in context, Jesus’ admonition relates to exhibiting a generous spirit [Matt. 5:42], not accepting harmful and abusive behavior). Worse, this Scripture lifted out of context allows bullying to flourish.
We train others how to treat us. Unfortunately, serial targets can be ineffective trainers, since they can have difficulty self-advocating. As a group, they are inclined to accept bullying behavior without constructing healthy boundaries. They and their parents concentrate too much of their time and energy trying to change the bully, instead of creating a strong but still respectful response to the child who bullies. Sadly, roughly 70% of targets suffer in silence, telling no one, not even their parents or related guardians. From a Christian perspective, such children are among the oppressed that God calls us to help with acts of kindness and mercy, but most importantly, courage.
Since targets are already inclined to accept bad behavior, and since bullying always includes a deficit of real or perceived power on behalf of a target, such students need someone to intervene on their behalf. We call this kind of morally strong and character-rich student a protector.
But fear, a force as powerful as gravity that works in opposition to courage, stops most students from protecting others. Thankfully, God created us in such a way where courage is almost always as contagious as fear. So how can Christian schools help students surmount fear by filling the courage gap in their souls? Here are four concrete approaches you can take in your school:
- Give students action steps as to what to do and what to say, such as “Stop it,” and “Leave her alone,” before they witness bullying is proven to help. So is reminding students that God expects us to help others when it’s within our power to act.
- Provide students with a safe place to apologize for bullying and related behavior, which grows courage in others, and reduces bullying as well. Last year we witnessed more than 1,000 students publicly apologize for bullying and related behavior. These amazing acts of reconciliation reset relationships throughout their schools.
- Teach students about the “power of two.” When we have a confidant standing by our side during challenging moments, our capacity for courage skyrockets, as seen in the famous Solomon Asch Conformity Experiment. The study showed that when a lone subject stood against four other peers, they caved into negative peer pressure 36% of the time. But when that same lone subject had a partner, succumbing to negative peer pressure dropped to just 5%. So set up buddy systems, where your students make an agreement with another student to a) defend one another with assertive but non-violent words and behavior, and b) agree to stand up for other students, some of whom will not escape bullying without courageous and righteous intervention.
- Explain the difference between tattling and reporting. Tattling relates to a behavior that is insignificant, and is designed to get someone into trouble. Reporting relates to behavior that is significant, and is intended to get someone out of trouble.
- Go one step further, by enabling anonymous reporting. Your students live in fear of being labeled a “tattletale,” “snitch,” and even worse derogatory names. Anonymous reporting through apps such as STOPit, named by CNN as one of the top five apps changing the world for good, reduces bystander fear and helps your students give you the information you need to battle bullying.
When schools provide viable anti-bullying programs and procedures, they not only curb bullying but also ward off legal trouble. This was the case for a Christian school last year that was hit with a lawsuit out of the blue. But when the opposing counsel learned that the school implemented an effective anti-bullying program that included anonymous reporting, the lawsuit was dropped.
Finally, enrollment within much of Christian education is shrinking. The unprecedented changes to our nation through COVID-19 virus and related economic turmoil could make enrollment even more challenging. But here’s the good news: parents and related guardians for a better educational option that combats the dangerous triad of bullying, bigotry and racism. Your light in your community will shine even brighter as you combat all three, attracting new students and families to your school family.
Juvonen, J., Y. Wang, and G. Ezpinoza. 2013. Physical aggression, spreading of rumors, and social prominence in early adolescence: Reciprocal effects supporting gender similarities? Journal of Youth and Adolescence 42:1801–10.
Note: this post was originally published in November 2018, republished in August 2020 with new links to Community Questions, and updated in 2021.
About the Author
Paul T. Coughlin is the Founder and President of The Protectors, a freedom-from-bullying organization whose program is used throughout the world. Coughlin is the author of Free Us From Bullying, a former varsity coach, and a school board member. He writes for Fox News on the topic of bullying. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.