Law & Order: Elementary School

Strange things are going on in the 6th grade.

For the past two days now, the half dozen lousy* students, an assortment of mean girls, bully boys, and their sycophants, are getting pulled out of classes and taken off to separate rooms where they’re being “interrogated” by the teacher in charge of our school’s anti-bullying program**. Granted it’s the end of the year and it would have been great if these interventions had occurred earlier, but in this world I’ll take what I can get.


* Lousy in the horrible person way, not the poorly performing student way. If you’re a crappy student, but a decent person, you’re okay in my class.

** There’s been a push to get anti-bullying programs in schools here, so that’s great – but in a lot of ways it’s completely at odds with the overall culture outside school (though is this much different than back in the States?), and it’s kind of toothless, which might also be the same as in the States.


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9 responses to “Law & Order: Elementary School”

  1. gordsellar says :

    Hell, when even the teachers who are carrying out these programs are commonly the perpetrator, victim, or silent (and inactive) bystander in rampant workplace bullying — which is what several of the schoolteachers I’ve known in Korea have described — you have to wonder what they’re even doing during those interrogations.

    (The one time I caught a bigger kid bullying a smaller one–almost the same age, born like a month apart, but the bigger/older boy was lording it over the younger with all that “call me hyeong” bullshit–the official was to treat it as if both the boys were at fault, as if there wasn’t even a possibility of it being a case of bullying. Wish I could say it blew my mind, but it was exactly how bullying was handled when I was a kid.)

    So I have to say that I’m surprised the issue is even being openly acknowledged. Someone’s trying, at least. Are they doing anything in terms of talking to the bullied kids?

    • Justin says :

      I have the feeling this attitude towards bullying is a new thing, as in the past 5 years. The teachers in charge of it are younger than average (one male, one female). And they’re doing stuff for the bullied kids – but there’s a level of resistance at the top undercutting the two teachers’ efforts about how they shouldn’t talk about this, because it’ll hurt the school’s “reputation”. So what the teachers can do is another matter. The problems have been going on for almost a year now. The kids have had talkings to before. A lot of the recent effort seems to be with getting these kids in line long enough to get them out the door and off to middle school in a month’s time. Where they’ll be someone else’s problem…

      • gordsellar says :

        The reputation thing doesn’t surprise me. The doing-things-for-the-bullied does, but in a good way. Even if, as it sounds, there’s a degree of wait-and-pass-the-buck.

        All this reminded me of story a friend in Canada told me, in well, I guess this would have been 2004 or 2005. It’s a story, and I only heard one side, but it was pretty nuts. She was talking about how she had two sons in the same school — one in a lower grade (like sixth or seventh) and the other in a higher grade. The one in the lower grade had “made friends” with one of the bullies, for reasons that nobody could quite explain. Problem was, the bully was very possessive, and beat up the elder brother when he showed up at the same table as the junior to have lunch together, or associate at school at all, for that matter.

        The school’s proposed solution was not to deal with the bully, but to tell the mother to instruct the boys that they were henceforth not allowed to eat lunch together. Which, well, if that’s not completely insane, I don’t know what is. (The bully’s parents had, of course, been contacted at some point, but were apparently in denial, despite the complaints of a number of other parents; and the school admin were somehow happier playing along than arguing with them.) She was incredulous and really angry about it at the time, and I think she’d even taken it up with the principal, who’d insisted it was the only solution they could find to prevent further outbreaks of violence.

        Which is to say, I don’t think anyone’s got a good handle on how to deal with bullying right now. The whole shockwave of stunned disbelief that passed through the media/blogosphere the last few years, which I think of as The “Discovery” of Bullying, was weird. I kept wanting to ask people, “Did you walk around with your eyes closed all through school?” Then again, from comparing notes, different schools are also differently toxic… the schools I was compelled to attend were probably relatively far out along the curve on the Canadian scale, though probably not extremely so.

  2. gordsellar says :

    Oh, and from what I’ve seen, yeah, it’s worse than back home. At least, all the Westerners I know are shocked to hear my own anecdotes and the anecdotes of my friends–from the lunchroom ostracization of fellow teachers, to the public humiliation of a new teacher who dared not to hide her ability with spoken English, to a principal shaming a teacher for “smiling too much” at the kids, to professors mocking a colleague with a slight speech impediment behind his back and gossiping about a black colleague being “on drugs” when he (uncharacteristically) missed a day of work. (And, as it turned out, it’d been a stroke that made him miss work.)

    Those are of course the most extreme examples, but they didn’t really even raise eyebrows in Korea. Maybe I’m naïve and that stuff wouldn’t raise eyebrows back home, but I think they would–they surely would have during the decade I was working there. (In fact, in one case when an aggressive coworker was bullying me–about on the level of the stuff above–and I was worried that complaining might jeopardize my job, my coworkers reported it on my behalf. They felt it made the workplace hostile for THEM to be in.)

    Then again, I haven’t worked back home in over a decade, so what do I know?

    • Justin says :

      It probably depends on the office culture. I worked in a toxic office for a while where the above would certainly be acceptable. I also worked in an office where it wouldn’t be.

      I haven’t seen anything comparable to your anecdotes, but they don’t surprise me. There are a lot of unexamined cultural norms floating around here that you’d think would give a person pause.

      • gordsellar says :

        Yeah, exactly. It’s hard sometimes to filter what’s unusual-toxic-WTFery from normal toxicity, and how much overlap there is. (I tend to go by what seems batshit insane to me but which most people talk about as if it were normal.)

        I could say more, but it’s a tangent… well, except to say that I think Korean culture trains people to put up with way more toxicity than a North American would. Stuff that sends us to the labor board within a month or two, Korean office workers seem to put up with for decades at a time. It’s like a social expectation thing, I mean… Hm. Like, you’re lucky if you’re not working somewhere that makes you put in 12-16 hours a day for years on end, rather than your labor rights are being infringed by any employer who does that to you.


  3. Justin says :

    Hmmm. Looks like you can’t have more than three comments in a reply thread. I want to believe Korean culture is shifting, at least people are vocal about their complaints to me, a foreigner who can’t do shit about it. But from what Jin tells me, there has been a shift in expectations, although it’s still happening and not at all smoothly. As far as my school’s situation goes… the four kids are likely going to get split apart and put in separate classes (there now all in the same one), which a lot of the teachers aren’t completely happy about, and they’re all still getting chatted with. The boys with the male teacher, the girls with the female teacher. And I suspect it’s not completely tied to bullying, but general bad behavior (maybe stealing, probably smoking) and the concern of them spreading it to other students. Whether parents are involved I don’t know, and if they are but not caring that’s another issue.

    • gordsellar says :

      Yeah. I know a lot of my university students seemed to buy into the rhetoric of primary/secondary schools being charged with the moral education of children, which was weird. (When I pointed out that in Canada, we tend to think that’s a parental duty, they seemed to think it less sensible. “Parents are too busy,” I was told.)

      Who knows… maybe a positive shift is going on. Can’t happen overnight. First awareness has to shift, and that seems to be what’s happening now.

      On the teachers’ side, I don’t know how much more they can do besides splitting the bullies up and trying to get the parents on board. I mean, it’s not like they can call for a psycheval on the kid (or the parents), or just put the kid in solitary education, right? Any kind of new infrastructure needed for dealing with the problem on an institutional level won’t get laid out–at least, my experience with Korean institutions of all kinds was that any new needs would be addressed by extant departments. Setting up any new institutional branch was resisted, where in a Canadian uni, establishing a new branch or office seemed the primary way of showing one was taking a problem seriously. (There can be problems with both approaches, of course, but my experience suggests that expecting unqualified people to solve longstanding problems with the resources already at hand often leads to frustration. For example, the profs I worked with are charged with getting recent grads hired. A Canadian school would set up an employment center. My old school just dumped it into prof’s laps. Many profs have never had a non-academic job, and are useless for solving the problem, and frustrated at being pushed to do so.)

      But even with new resources, I don’t know how much they could achieve. My own experience with bullies’ parents is that they either are horrified and immediately launch into some corporal punishment (which is probably the root cause of the behaviour anyway, and likely reinforces it), or else they go into denial. The neighborhood sociopath when I was in middle school only really backed off when told to back off or face consequences by a man holding with a goddamned meat cleaver. (My dad happened to be pruning a tree, and had it in his hand… no overt threat, of course, but he very consciously didn’t put the knife down for a reason. Ah, Dad… but it was the only thing that worked, I’ll add.)

      What the institutional responses don’t (and by the dominant values of both cultures, can’t) address is that simple fact that some people are just born rotten. (Last I read, somewhere between 0.5-1% of people are born psychopathic; there’s another few percent who have severe behavioural problems as kids but seem to grow out of it, and even their parents tend to be at wits’ end when it comes to what to do about that. Supposedly it is possible to sort them, but to deem someone a psychopath at age five, or ten, or twelve, seems to go against everything we take for granted about human beings, and people will usually hope against hope that the diagnosis is wrong, and the kid is in the group that may just outgrow it. That’s human and understandable.)

      Which is to say: short of some definitive test (say, a genetic one) and mounds of evidence, I have doubts that any moderate institutional change is really ever going to address that realistically… which is to say: bullying is likely ineradicable. At which point it starts becoming about how to train the other kids to deal with it, and give them access to institutional structures that allow them to moderate it. Which looks radical, because it requires us to view bullying, like violence, as an insoluble problem, and because it puts some (however limited) amount of power in the hands of children themselves, which goes against our general thinking about the limits of what kids are capable of handling or doing — some of it realistic, and some of it bigoted.

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