THE BLOG

Beyond the Bully: Restoring Civility to America's Schools

Oct 30, 2013 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

This is the last week of National Bully Prevention Month. Next week is World Kindness Week. The juxtaposition may be coincidental, but the connection is significant. As bullying continues to be a problem, having been linked to recent teen suicides in Illinois, Massachusetts and Florida, new research questions the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs. But kindness works.

As a marker of the educational value of kindness, on November 7th, in Cleveland, Ohio, we will lead 2,000 teens in Project Love's rally-style "Kickoff for Kindness." These student leaders will hear compelling personal stories, define the "rules of the game" they want to live by, and then go to work developing projects that promote kindness, caring and respect in their schools. The results are transformational and, because the projects are driven by the teens, they often have a lasting cultural impact on a school.

Kindness, caring and respect are important departures from the "bully model" that many school districts across the country have put in place since the 1999 Columbine High School mass shooting that killed 13 people and redefined school safety rules. Since then, and in the aftermath of many more school shootings, school districts instituted school safety plans and mandated anti-bully plans, but few have emphasized empowering students to build a culture of kindness, caring and respect.

Yet those who have followed Columbine should know that a potential victim who was right in the line of fire was spared because, in the shooter's words, "You were always kind to me."

We don't yet and may never know the reasons for the latest spate of school shootings that left two teachers dead in separate school districts, but we do know that many of our recent school shootings have been related to some element of meanness or disrespect, either perceived or actual.

Kindness is the antidote to meanness. This is borne out by the responses thousands of teens have given in Project Love workshops to the questions, "How do you feel when someone is mean to you; how do you feel when someone is kind to you?"

"When people are mean to me, I feel like I don't matter. I feel like getting back at them. When people are kind to me, I feel like I'm on top of the world and I feel like paying it forward."

These responses span schools and all socio-economic demos in multiple diverse communities across the country, and they make the case for kindness as an essential ingredient of school safety.

We're not singing "Kumbaya." Medical science actually shows how kindness works. According to researchers, doing an act of kindness releases happy hormones within three people: the doer of kindness, the beneficiary of the kind act, and the people who observe the kindness being done. Kindness becomes infectious and starts a chain reaction. It may sound simple, but it's true -- meanness prompts retaliation and more meanness, while kindness sparks more kindness.

That's how negative school environments can turn positive, and that's how innocent students can ensure -- to the best of their ability -- that their schools will be safe and respectful places. Building a culture of kindness, caring and respect also encourages students to be vigilant in reporting negative acts, including a potential shooter, a bullied student, or a possible suicide victim.

We know that intense, toxic cyber-bullying led to the recent death of Florida middle schooler Rebecca Ann Sedwick, who jumped off a cement quarry rather than continue to face her tormentors. In that case, a Florida sheriff recently filed criminal charges against two of the teen perpetrators, who were assisted and emboldened by a group of 15 "mean girls" who were not charged.

But we can't incarcerate everyone who is to blame. From this case and others, it's obvious that schools have a lot to deal with and that some issues can't be policed on school grounds. But kindness, caring and respect -- because they can be internalized as core values -- have legs beyond school boundaries.

Maybe, had Maryville High School in Missouri, emphasized kindness, caring and respect, a 14-year-old drunken cheerleader would not have been raped, allegedly by a prominent football player. Maybe, at the same party, had the students been indoctrinated with kindness, caring and respect, a 17-year-old senior would not have videotaped the grandson of a powerful former Missouri state senator also having sex with the girl. Maybe, had these values pervaded the culture of their peer group, the perpetrators and bystanders would not have dumped the girl, unconscious, on her parents' front lawn in freezing temperatures.

Chardon High School, where three students were killed and one student paralyzed by a gun-toting 17-year-old student, chose kindness as a continuing theme in the aftermath of the shooting. Their kindness project, which students say has changed the school's culture, has been both therapeutic and preventative.

Most public schools recognize the senior standouts -- star athletes and star students -- for their raw talent or academics. These are a chosen few whose achievements aren't matched by the masses. But every student can be kind. Though this skill may not be an academic benchmark, it does create decency, both in the school and in our world.

The Dalai Lama said, "This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness." We no longer have religion in public schools, but we can have kindness.

Purple America is a national initiative of Project Love/Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialog around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us