Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Sharp Barbs, Fragile Hearts, Abundant Pain- Culture Change

This is my last post regarding the work I have to do from time to time addressing a type of bullying that is hard to root out and deal with. The pain that some students feel when they come to school is heartbreaking. And yes, it is even more so when you go to a school that is trying to apply Biblical standards and gospel truth.

You may remember that I said the work is two fold- I spend time building up the targets and I spend time confronting the bullies. But there is a lot of education and pre-emptive work that needs to take place as well. There are things we can all learn as parents and youth workers in the process.

But the most important piece (and often neglected) is the need to train and rally student-protectors in this battle.

This is a tough one- I am asking for a lot here. And I never want to burden any kid who may not be ready for this. But there are some students who are ready and prepared to help.

The greatest chance to change the culture in a school is to enlist and enable the students themselves to take action.


Pre-teen and teen students live in great fear of ever becoming the target of ridicule. Though this has always been true- the intensity of these attacks are as sharp as ever before. I see two key factors increasing the carnage: both social media (facebook, twitter, instagram, snap chat) and the nature of humor has sharpened the blade of the weapon.

As I have mentioned before- many of these comments are done without much thought- a short single blurp is thumb-typed and sent without regard that these are real hurts and real feelings.

I was involved in a situation where someone set up an anonymous twitter account based on the sole premise of making fun of a student. Having the visual of a less than flattering picture and the fast followers that linked onto the account totally ruined the day of that student, the subject of targeted ridicule and rejection.


I was powerless as an administrator to find the owner of this account. I tried to.

But then a group of students got tired of the twitter attack. They started a petition and began collecting signatures that was going to request that the administration seek a legal remedy to find and end this account.

One of the ' suspected owners' came up to one of the students and said, "What are you doing? You are going to get someone in trouble." This student replied, "Yes, we are. If this account does not go away, we are going to do all we can to shut it down." The account was withdrawn and ended before the day was done.

My favorite quote regarding the whole incident was when the student said, "Yeah Coach Mathews, we would read those tweets, and as long as they were harassing you- we were ok. But once they started picking on my friends...it got personal." I kind of wish they did care if I were being attacked, but I'm a big boy......

Paul Coughlin has been writing books and teaching seminars all over the country about the need for courageous students to stand up and protect the ones who are targets. It takes guts to do it- but if the students themselves ever decide that ridicule and sarcasm is uncool- the behavior will stop. If the students say no racism allowed- it will not be tolerated. If students don't want substance abuse to rule... it won't. If they say making good grades is a good thing... then good grades will be accepted as cool. In the end, it is the students who will set the trend of a positive peer environment... and that makes ALL the difference.

By the way- I am NOT advocating physical intimidation or violence to stop behavior. Usually a firm word is enough to communicate that 'we are not going to accept this'- but students need to feel that they can enlist the help of parents, teachers, youth workers, or administrators in the process of increasing pressure to do what is right.

Rick Reilly has an even better story about how a football team decided to protect a young lady who was born with a genetic birth defect: Chy Johnson and Her Boys

Here is a video about it:

My favorite part of this piece was that these boys decided to help this girl and no adult even knew about it- they were doing it for one thing only: it was the right thing to do!


At some point I was convinced that we needed to formalize 'The Protectors' with training and membership. But I don't want this to be a formalized group as much as I want as many average students within the confines of the school to 'buy into' protection- it is the cool thing to do.

Coaches should be explaining the theatre of the bullied to their teams. I should be constantly lifting this need up to individuals and groups.

At some point we may need a student advisory counsel on this- but right now my effort is spent with leaders in each class who can see that the right things are emphasized in a grass roots, student led initiative and not a top down administrative legislation.

But there is still a ton of work to do here.

Sadly, there are still students who wake up everyday with a fear of what they will encounter at school. The day that all of that goes away may never come on this side of the Lord's return. But I hope I am found faithful working toward a better climate where any human being is treated with worth and dignity of an image bearer of the Creator.

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