No sooner had the school shooting in Chardon, Ohio, occurred than producers started dialing up P.R. people working for a number of anti-bullying entrepreneurs. Joining together, they presented, as early as that evening’s news, the narrative that began with the 1999 Columbine shooting, which was then applied to the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting and other similar incidents: the shooter was a victim of bullying.
Some of the Ohio victims, who have since died, were still clinging to life when Jodee Blanco made an appearance on CBS News that night, February 27. It was the latest in a long line of appearances on CBS, as well as on CNN, NBC, NPR, Oprah Winfrey, and many others. Her bio page brags about these appearances as well as consultations at the Department of Health and Human Services, the United States Department of Justice, and many others. Her advertised qualifications are her personal experience as the victim of bullying.
For rates ranging from $4,000 to $5,500 a school can enjoy Blanco’s presentations to students, teachers, and parents. For this fee, they also have the privilege of buying her books afterwards.
Her literature for her trademarked program “It’s NOT Just Joking Around!” describes what she does for students in a ninety-minute presentation:
I relive painful episodes from my past in front of the students so that they can witness firsthand what I endured at the hands of my peers. … My primary message to students is three fold: bullying is not just joking around, it damages you for life; bullying just isn’t the mean things you do, it’s all the nice things you never do; and if you’re being bullied or shunned, there’s nothing wrong with you. … In addition to the re-enactment of my school days, during which that tri-teared (sic) message is continually reinforced, I also give students specific advice on how to handle what I call “elite tormentors,” the mean members of the cool crowd. I conclude the presentation with an empathy exercise for students that brings my anti-bullying message home on a visceral and deeply personal level.
While real bullying is certainly a problem that needs to be addressed, namely by swift punishment, Blanco, like many other free-styled “consultants,” has jumped on the lucrative bandwagon of defining any behavior that does not entail a scouring of conscience, preemptive confession, sympathetic tears, and a group hug as bullying.
Repeating lines from her promotional literature, she told the CBS interviewer that bullying is “all the nice things you never do.” A video of one of her eighth-grade presentations features her saying, “Being left out hurts!” while choking back feigned sobs.
This line — equating bullying with sins of omission in terms of behavior — was repeated from her presentation at Joliet Catholic Academy, ironically. The video is expertly edited, but students’ boredom and discomfort are apparent even in the scenes left in. As an adult I find it difficult not to wince at Blanco’s histrionics. But the student is forced to absorb a lesson that goes far beyond traditional schoolroom lessons in respect for rules and politeness. He is asked to emotionally identify with victims, and to defy his own desires for friendship. Boundaries are violated. Students are subjected to emotional inquisitions.
I saw such consultants at a 2010 conflict resolution education conference in Cleveland, Ohio. As I noted in my report, the strategies were invasive and emotionally coercive. Then “safe schools czar” Kevin Jennings told assembled educators that bullying involved “social rejection.” Much of the anti-bullying legislation is written by gay rights groups like GLSEN, which Jennings, a former high school teacher, founded and directed for 18 years. They use the threat of bullying to impose an agenda that goes far beyond simple tolerance. Anti-bullying efforts are nothing less than attempts to modify human nature, to make pacifist “global citizens” out of students.
Now Blanco and her colleagues push the envelope even further, equating being “left out” with bullying because “it hurts!” as she proclaimed on national news.
Such consultants are riding the gravy train of anti-bullying legislation that bullies school administrators into hosting their workshops lest they be sued should some student commit an act of violence or suicide.
But two days after the Ohio shooting, on Wednesday, T.J. Lane, the 17-year-old who had confessed to the shooting, had not yet been charged, according to the New York Times. In that day’s article, prosecutor David P. Joyce insisted the case was not due to bullying or drugs, but the effect of “one lone gunman.”
In fact, in an article a day after the shooting, news reports quoted students who say Lane had not been bullied.
According to the February 29 article, Lane was described by a classmate as a middle school “’teen therapist,’” someone who would listen to his peers’ troubles — a practice that anti-bullying consultants promote in their workshops. Since at least the 1990s, teachers have been sliding away from adult-directed punishment towards such peer-counseling. Today, the kid who fights back against the bully is the one likely to receive punishment. Instead of learning how to work out their problems and fight back, kids are put into adult roles as “counselors,” and then forced to listen to blubbering adults like Blanco.
Is it any wonder that they have problems we have not seen in the past?
In fact, Tina Trent, who blogs at Crime Victims Media Report, wonders if anti-bullying programs are doing more harm than good. “I suspect,” she says, that “the anti-bullying industry, while creating fat paychecks for the adults involved, is driving some vulnerable children to harm themselves, encouraging them to dramatize their pain and social alienation and make that their permanent identity.”
Our school culture certainly elevates the victim. History is presented as a story of victims and victimizers. Literary works are chosen for their depictions of such victimization. Seeing oneself in the role of being bullied is tempting, especially for the child not in one of the pre-approved ethnic or gender victim groups. Kids are now encouraged to identify with bullying victims “on a visceral and deeply personal level,” to quote from Blanco’s own promotional material. Those already troubled might go to the next step and commit suicide. Others might take the other tack and kill. Either way they will gain attention as victims.
The only ones benefiting are those reaping large consulting fees.