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IdeaFestival: Are We Hardwired to Bully?

When she was a child, Cynthia Lowen was painfully shy. She avoided clubs and sports, to her parents’ disappointment. She was most comfortable around books and horses—maybe most comfortable sitting quietly by herself reading books about horses. Lowen spent her childhood and teen years at a farm, mucking out stables and riding horses. The horses didn’t call her “giraffe neck,” she says, like her peers did.It’s hard to believe that anyone would have made fun of Lowen’s appearance. She’s an exceptionally tall and striking woman. When I was a kid, I probably would have envied her long neck. I was a ballerina, and we coveted long necks; we called them “dancers’ necks.”In April of 2009, Carl Walker Hoover, an eleven-year old Massachusetts boy hung himself after enduring daily anti-gay bullying from his peers. A few days later, Jaheem Herrera, also an eleven-year old from Georgia, also hung himself after suffering chronic anti-gay bullying at school.Shortly thereafter, Lowen started work on the documentary that would become “Bully” with Emmy award winner Lee Hirsch, who directed the film. They chronicled a year in the life of America’s bullying crisis, following the stories of five kids and families over the course of the 2009-2010 school year. The trailer for 'Bully'In her presentation at this year's IdeaFestival, Lowen focused on one of the children, Alex, a seventh-grader from Sioux City, Iowa. Alex is the very picture of the awkward stages of youth—all arms and legs, thick-lipped overbite, naive and with desperate to be accepted.He has Asperger syndrome. He has trouble reading other people. In a film clip, he’s shown accepting brutal, violent, and scary bullying on the bus with an “aw shucks” attitude. The film shows kids punching Alex, stabbing him with a pencil. One kid threatens Alex by saying, “I’m gonna knock your fishlips off.” Another threatens to rape him with a stick.All of this happens in full view of adults. The bus driver is aware. There are no hidden cameras; the filmmakers are filming in person on the bus. Most people would assume that kids would behave better in front of adults, but these kids have never been held accountable for their actions—secret or out in the open.Alex tells the filmmakers, “I like school, but I don't know how to make friends.”He’s persecuted, but he doesn’t understand that he is.Lowen said the assistant principal, who in the film is portrayed as a tragically inept Pollyanna, just assumed that the bullying was inevitable in Alex's case. No one at school empathized with Alex.When the filmmakers captured Alex’s brutal experience on the bus, they stepped away from the traditional role of documentarians and intervened. They showed the footage to the school and to Alex’s parents.When Alex’s parents confronted the assistant principal, she said, “Buses are notoriously bad places for some kids...I've been on that route, and they were just as good as gold.”She concluded the meeting by saying, “I'm not going to lie to you, I can't make it stop.”According to Lowen, Alex’s school, East Middle School, had a strong bullying culture that began at the top. Lowen said that the reason the principal never appeared in the documentary was that he spent the year in his office. The staff, she said, was terrified of him. Students and faculty alike respected a certain kind of power and dominance in the school culture. The middle school’s sports team were called the Spartans. The favored students were the ones that showed this kind of dominance.Alex was moved to a bus for disabled kids, furthering his isolation. When Lowen sought releases from the bullies’ parents for the film, she learned that the bullies suffered no consequences. The parents who saw the footage were appalled—not just at their kids' behavior but at the fact that the school had never contacted them. How were they supposed to be part of the solution?Thirteen million kids are bullied in the United States every year, Lowen said. But there’s a deep and pervasive culture that dismisses bullying to varying degrees. People say that there has always been bullying and there always will be. Bullying is human nature. It’s Darwinian. Survival of the Fittest.Lowen decided to study Darwinian theory and even visited the Galapagos Islands where Charles Darwin first began to develop the concepts that made him famous. Lowen was trying to answer the question: Are we hardwired to bully?Some stats:

  • Every day, 160,000 kids miss school because of bullying.
  • 29 percent of unemployed adults report having been bullied as a kid
  • 70 percent of all bullying behavior focuses on only three targets: appearance, sexual orientation/perceived sexual orientation and not conforming to gender stereotypes
  • 46 percent of kids on the autism spectrum are bullied, compared to 10 percent of the average population

But Darwin suggested that sympathetic communities produced more offspring. It's a theory that doesn't support institutional or hard-wired bullying.Lowen concluded her presentation by giving some advice about what others can do to curb bullying and encourage victims to report abuse and recover.She said we need to be teaching our kids social-emotional skills, not just academic skills. These include: curiosity, impulse control, critical thinking, self-confidence, resilience, creativity and problem-solving. These skills will help bullied kids bounce back and be strong, and will help kids that would normally be bystanders (kids who look the other way when their peers are bullied) become what Lowen calls “upstanders”—kids who stand up for the victims and who report bullying to adults.From adults, we need strong leaders, said Lowen. All adults in a school community, from teachers to bus drivers to coaches to the lunchroom workers, need to be equipped to deal with bullying. School cultures must value all students. And of course, teachers and administrators can't do it all.  Positive parenting is equally important.Currently Lowen is spearheading an effort called “One Million Kids to See ‘Bully’”—an outreach program to help bring the movie to schools and youth programs across the country.A post-script on Alex: he’s now 16, and he’s been touring with the filmmakers speaking about his experience. He’s a well-adjusted kid, says Lowen. Confident. Happy. Social. Some of his bullies have even apologized to him. And Lowen got to spend some time around horses during her visit to Louisville. She stopped by Taste of Innovation at Churchill Downs Thursday night.

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