Monday, March 11, 2013

Sharp Barbs, Fragile Hearts, Abundant Pain- The Confrontation

This post is part of a series I am blogging about concerning an aspect of bullying that I encounter the most in my job as Dean of Students at a large, private, Christian school in Birmingham, AL. I am not a professional counselor nor do I have expertise in this area. If I ever find situations where I fear for the health or mental well being of any student- I immediately get this situation under the advisement of professional counselors.

At some point in these processes, it is time to confront an individual who has knowingly, unknowingly, with malice or just foolishly participated in behavior that has harmed another person.

My challenge is two fold- I need to effectively work and communicate in a way to dissuade and halt the behavior of this individual.

I also need to do this in a way that the offended party does not find his/her situation worse because the activity is being exposed and corrected.

I am mindful that just sending for a student can raise interest and once that person leaves my office- there will be reactions as the story gets out that I am dealing with a situation.

My first goal is to confront without anger or volume. For the last 10-15 years it has become apparent that most kids cannot handle an adult verbally blasting them for an attitude or action. I am not 'friendly'- I am firm- but it needs to be more business like and less tongue lashing.

I am finding that instead of 'lecturing' a student- I need to carry on a conversation. I need to hear them speak and I try to have them state in their language what I am trying to communicate. I try to use the conversation to help them 'process' what is going on because just to be in my office has 'shut them down' as far as normal cognitive function.

Over the years- the hard lesson I have had to learn over and over- is that if I let anything they say get to me 'personally'- then they get a double-barrel of my raw emotion and almost nothing good can happen at that point. And it is tough for this to not happen.... I am defending a hurting kid- the attitude I am sensing is caustic- and my blood pressure is close to boiling. But MOST of my mistakes happen when I  let anger get under my skin.

But over and over I pray for God's grace to allow me to see BEYOND this situation. I am dealing with a young person, immature, with all kind of potential in front of them. These difficult situations CAN be steps to significant change or, at the minimum, consequences that will teach.

By the way- I do everything I can to be fair- I want it to be the truth that we are dealing with- and that becomes difficult because the pre-suppositions of the two parties are often at odds. A lot of my early conversation is having the 'bully' try to see the circumstances from the 'victim's" point of view.

Now- and this is a tough one- I am trying to 'judge' a heart position here. And it is so easy to mis-understand. Body language can be a fooler.... words can be spin... I have to admit that I can be wrong here... but the bottom line is this. Sometimes I am dealing with a very hard hearted person who is bent on creating pain and misery.

'Talking' to the scoffer or hard hearted student is of no use- this person will be slowed or stopped by nothing but consequence. Most normal situations will start a process where the consequences will escalate. I don't have to hit them with an atomic bomb at the beginning- but that individual has to be convinced that he/she will put themselves out of our school if they keep up with their behavior. And this has to be a reality, not just a hallow warning.

The hardest judgement to vette out is that a lot of hardened bullies can talk the grace language very well. They survive by knowing the lingo and body language. They leave my office looking like they have had a spiritual awakening- but double down on their intention to spew venom.

Because I have no special spectacles to read a heart- my only ally is time. Practicing patience in this contemporary age is almost impossible. Parents on both ends of the issue are frustrated by the apparent 'slowness' of corrective measures.

But the ONLY way to assess the root is by observing the fruit.

So at some point in the 'discussion' I get down to business. Paraphrase: 'I have obtained sufficient info that you are harassing/bullying another student or students. You are in danger of losing your right to go to school here. I want to be involved in helping you change this behavior, which you can do. Here is what I am doing- here is what I am going to do- here is how you need to respond- here is what will happen if you don't respond correctly- now tell me what I just told you."

And then the BIG KEY: (paraphrase)- 'This is SO IMPORTANT- your ability to avoid SERIOUS consequences is now connected to the peace and security of  (_the bully target_). If you or anyone connected to you participates in ANY reprisal against that person- you are putting yourself in danger of having the harshest punishment I can give.'

I then begin to counsel them about how to deal with this new reality. We talk about social media, hallways, lunchroom, locker room. They will have a fear of being falsely accused or blamed by the 'target' and I try to assure them that I am the controller of consequences and I am for them to succeed here. And I send them out- prayerful for it to stop- prayerful for both parties- and hoping time will allow for healing and restoration.

Just a note to those who may work in this field- your documentation of this conversation needs to be clear, concise, and consistent. It is the paper trail that will escalate the consequences of behavior that refuses to altar.

ENLISTING THE PARENTS: Because I am in partnership with parents, I do feel the need to communicate with and enlist the help of the parents in this process. This is the HARDEST part- the victim's parents are ready for the chopping block and the bully's parents usually are advocates and protectors of their children. I never hold it against any parent that they love their child and do not want to see them hurt. Most of the parents are armed with one sided perspectives and tend to see it as their children have explained it.

Again- I have to be patient, not defensive- understanding and business like. But if my information is good, I can usually explain the situation and my plan in such a way to buy time for the process to work. All of this is so much harder than this appears- human apperception and communication is always dicey.

95% of my parent situations like this have ended well. I know I am in a blessed place for that to be true.

The key to this success rate is having parent with shared values based of the Biblical world view. I don't know how you could ever walk through wrong doing, consequences with a goal of forgiveness and restoration without those common virtues- It is hard enough with those shared values!

SUCCESS STORIES: I am happy to report that I have seen good results from most of these confrontations. It provides my greatest joy in my job for a kid to tell me 'things are much better'. If he feels like I have helped protect him- then I feel a great source of satisfaction.

At the same time, for a 'bully' to come back and honestly communicate a repentent heart and demonstrate a change is equally gratifying.

The problem: I am so limited in correcting the culture at large. If the only person dealing with this are staff- them we are not really creating a cultural shift.

The biggest key is training and rallying student protectors. It is when the students come to the aid of the 'picked on' that you can create more a safe zone for all individuals. This has to be done intentionally.

That will be the subject of the next blog.....

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