Stopping School Bullying: Are We Taking the Completely Wrong Approach?

Bullying has always been discussed in education reform, and typically the solution falls on students themselves, but what if schools — as impersonal institutions — are partly at fault?

Nikhil Goyal:  Bullying is one of the major issues that have always been discussed in the education reform conversation and the debate. And a lot of people think when they talk about bullying is that we can just solve it by kind of teaching kids to be kinder to one another or implementing these kind if anti-bullying programs where these ruthless punishments if somebody’s seen bullying somebody. But when you talk about these issues of bullying a lot of people fail to understand the role of the institution in perpetuating issues such as bullying. And Peter Gray for example, a psychologist at Boston College has written about bullying and looked at prisons and schools and the effects of bullying on those institutions. And what he says is that when there’s a population of people who are being held in an institution where they have no freedom to quit or ability to escape from that place, where they have very little ownership or voice and control over what happens in that institution, incidents such as bullying are rampant. And at schools it’s very clear. I mean the statistics show that bullying is a major, major problem in most American schools.

And what they find is that schools have a number of different qualities and one of them is the anti-democratic governing structure. If you look at most American high schools for example they are gargantuan mammoth institutions. They have thousands upon thousands of kids walking through the hallways every day. And what happens as a result of this – and this is not necessarily the fault of teachers or even just the people in that school building. When you have such a large student body and you don’t have – you have large class sizes there’s not enough time for students and teachers to have really strong authentic and genuine relationships. And students basically what happens is they get kind of thrown into this sea of being anonymous. They don’t have any relationships with their students, with fellow peers and students at a really rich and authentic level. And so when students feel that they have no power or no agency in their school experiences what often happens is something called cliques arise. The students feel that they have to wield power and get control within themselves and within their ranks.

And so cliques are one of the major phenomenon in American schools where they create basically power structures within the student body themselves. And so you have people at the top of the system who are essentially the most popular kids. And then you have kids at the bottom who are oftentimes the nerds and the people who are not so popular and don’t have the best looks. And so you have this very destructive system that comes about and bullying is one of the side effects and symptoms that come out of that. And so what I would argue is that when you have institutions where students and teachers have strong relationships with one another, where students feel that they are known by an adult in that community, where they have agency and voice over those learning experiences, bullying incidents are very rare. And in my book I talk about institutions and free schools and democratic schools where bullying is almost nonexistent. And this is in large part due to the fact that students feel that they have a voice and role in their school decision making process and they have the structures in place to fix and alleviate incidents of bullying. So everything is transparent where they can bring it to an adult or the school community and show that this individual’s bullying me and we need to rectify the situation.

And not only that they have restorative justice practices. So instead of just suspending the kid or engaging in kind of a zero tolerance policy they’ll go through a process of healing and restorative justice to make sure that the individual who has been harmed as well as the individual who perpetrated the act understands the incident and works to alleviate the situation in the future. So it’s a much better process of healing and restoration as opposed to just suspending the kid and leaving them out and nothing gets solved and it’s kind of this trying to patch a bullet with a Band-Aid. It doesn’t actually solve the underlying problem.


When students and teachers have strong relationships, and when students feel they have agency inside the larger institution of the school, instances of bullying are much less common. As educational activist Nikhil Goyal explains, bullying has always been discussed in education reform, and typically the solution falls on students themselves, but what if schools — as impersonal institutions — are partly at fault? Everyone wants to sop bullying, but when we rely on students to simply refrain from aggressive behavior, without considering the context in which that behavior occurs, we are doing them a disservice.

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