Psychologists should consider the harm caused by anti-bullying policies.
Thanks to anti-bullying laws, schools are now routinely being sued for the death of bullied kids who commit suicide. Another lawsuit has just made national news, this time against a school in New Jersey which prided itself on having the toughest anti-bullying law in the country.
According to the lawsuit, Tristan Peterson, a boy of 12, committed suicide in 2017 because he was “bullied and harassed repeatedly by his classmates” at Woodruff Middle School in Bridgeton after he came out as gay. As reported by NBC news,
The suit accuses the school, the Upper Deerfield School District and staff of negligence, and of violating the state’s discrimination law, wrongful death and creating a hostile learning environment. Several district staff and the state of New Jersey are also named in the suit, which seeks damages and a jury trial.
Judaism instituted the ritual of Bar-Mitzvah, in which a boy, upon reaching the typical age of puberty–13–has responsibility for his actions transferred from his parents to himself. Thus, it is appropriate to be asking, Who or what killed 12-year-old Tristan Peterson?
The answer provided by anti-bullyism, as reflected in the lawsuit, is his school and the governmental bodies that oversee it.
But could it be that something else is responsible for his death, something no one is considering?
Psychology is a branch of science. The purpose of science is to figure out how nature works and to use that knowledge to solve problems and make the world a better place. The most basic tool of science is questioning. We don’t just assume that our inventions and interventions will yield only positive results. As that magnificent old saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Anti-bullyism is founded on the good intention of creating a society in which no one is made miserable by anyone else. Unfortunately, anti-bullyism has been a grand failure. After two full decades of anti-bullyism being championed by psychology, education and law, bullying is considered a growing epidemic, the suicide rate among young children has been skyrocketing, and lawsuits against schools for failing to make bullying stop are proliferating.
Psychology, as well as all systems of wisdom, advise us to take personal responsibility for the results of our actions–at least when we reach adulthood. Bar-Mitzvah boys are not exempted, and neither should researchers be.
It is high time for researchers to ask why we they failed to conquer the bullying problem and to take responsibility for any harm caused by their policies.
If medical researchers were discovered to be promoting a drug despite knowing that their research finds it to be largely ineffective and often harmful, the researchers would get sued.
Yet many of the leading bullying researchers continue promoting the same policies year after year despite their research showing they are minimally effective and often counterproductive. Because Professor Dan Olweus, the “father” of the psychological field of bullying, insisted that we fight for anti-bullying laws, and because the legions of bullying researchers who treat him with religious reverence have heeded his call, they have created a draconian situation in which schools get sued for the failure of the Olweus-generated policies they foisted upon them.
To accurately locate responsibility for Tristan Peterson’s suicide, we need to think like psychological scientists rather than religious zealots. Suicides by bullied kids have been escalating during the very period that society has been legislating policies against bullying. We would be grievously irresponsible to ignore the possibility that anti-bullying policies have contributed to the rise in these suicides.
Until the sexual revolution enabled by the invention of “the pill,” sexual activity was recognized to be dangerous and was strongly discouraged among teenagers. To this day, we consider reduction in teen sexual activity as a positive development, as reflected in an article in The Atlantic:
To the relief of many parents, educators, and clergy members who care about the health and well-being of young people, teens are launching their sex lives later.
And prior to the gay rights movement, homosexuality was widely considered aberrant or sinful, as it still is in much of the world. A 12-year-old like Tristan would never have announced that he was gay, and unless he had obviously effeminate mannerisms, he wouldn’t have been a target of gay bashing.
In recent decades, schools have been mandated to promote diversity, so they have been educating students from the youngest grades to recognize, accept and appreciate the gamut of sexual preferences and gender identities. Additionally, because of schools’ mandate to eliminate bullying, students have been bombarded with the messages that they have a right to attend school without being bullied and that bullying will not be tolerated.
Thus, Tristan felt encouraged to come out as gay, possibly even expecting the admiration of his peers for his courage.
Then Tristan was hit with reality: children are human beings, not computers that can be programmed to think and act the way social engineers would like them to. Like the rest of us, kids are titillated by the subject of sex, most are biologically attracted to the members of the opposite sex, and despite their indoctrination that all sexual orientations are “normal,” many relate to homosexuality as funny, weird, or even repulsive.
Thus some kids in school made fun of Tristan. He naturally got upset by the taunting, not realizing that getting upset actually fans the flames of taunting.
Tristan and his mother were also taught that they must inform the school about bullying. So that’s what they did. As the NBC article reports:
The boy [Tristan Peterson] and his mother complained multiple times about the bullying, but staff “failed to properly and/or prevent the abusive behavior,” the suit claims, adding, “The defendants had a duty to provide for the safety and security of students.”
What the authorities failed to inform students and parents is that there is no good reason to believe schools can fulfill such a duty. In fact, recent research has confirmed what is obvious even to most teenagers: the kids who get bullied the most are those who inform the authorities the most. But can we blame Tristan and Mrs. Peterson for trusting the school authorities when even the researchers that have discovered this damning correlation continue to advocate for informing?
Informing the school was probably the clincher for Tristan. Kids may enjoy making fun of others for being gay, just as they may enjoy making fun of kids for being fat, skinny, tall, short, red-haired, Black, Jewish or bespectacled. But they don’t necessarily hate them. What truly makes kids hate others and want to hurt them is when they inform on them to the authorities. Examine the news stories about bullying that led to serious violence or suicide. You will discover that the tragedies almost always occurred after the school was informed of the bullying.
Imagine what it’s like to be Tristan. First the adult authorities instruct you to be proud of your sexual orientation, and that other kids are required to treat you with respect for it. Then you discover it was a lie, and you get repeatedly ridiculed for coming out. Then you trust the authorities’ promise that they will solve your problem if you inform them, only to discover that that they lied to you about this as well, and your life has become an absolute nightmare. You see no way out of your misery. Is it any wonder that so many bullied kids resort to suicide out of desperation?
And how about the lawyers suing schools? Do they really believe their accusations? Haven’t they discovered that when people complain about each other to the authorities, that’s when they really want to kill each other? But truth is not the concern of lawyers. Their aim is to earn money representing their clients. Fortunately for lawyers, the anti-bullying laws psychologists fought for have given them a new revenue stream by assaulting schools.
But scientists are not lawyers and money is no excuse for being unethical. Our goal is to find the truth no matter how politically incorrect the truth may be.
Until we psychological scientists consider the hypothesis that the anti-bullying policies we promote can be responsible for the death of kids like Tristan, we will continue to anguish over the sky-high youth suicide rate, and schools will continue being sued for our own irresponsibility.
Closing note: Does this mean there is nothing to be done about kids getting ridiculed for being gay? Not at all. Good psychology can help. First, they can be taught that their sexual orientation is a private matter which they need not disclose to anyone other than their person of romantic interest. Second, they need to be warned not to inform the school when kids pick on them unless they are certain the school has a reliable way of making them stop.
Third, and most importantly, they deserve to be taught what to do when kids make fun of them for being gay (or for any other reason). The way they respond will determine whether their peers end up despising or admiring them.
Izzy Kalman is the author and creator of the website Bullies2Buddies.com and a critic of the anti-bully movement.