Recently a schoolbus monitor in New York State was subjected to verbal abuse by seventh-graders. This episode was recorded and released on YouTube where it got a staggering number of hits. A helpful Canadian (and aren’t we all!) started a fund-raising campaign for the woman that brought in more than $700,000. The kids involved were transferred to alternative education classes, whatever that means in that school district. The monitor herself has started an anti-bullying foundation. Efforts to end bullying are all well and good, but I have some questions; in particular, I want to know why this particular act of bullying got so much attention.
Now, most people with experience in the area will agree that seventh-graders are possibly the most difficult age group to handle. It is the practice of many schools to assign tough-guy teachers to these classes to keep the kids in line, which raises the question: are child bullies merely reflecting their adult models?
In 1978, a documentary confronted juvenile delinquents with the frightening realities of prison. Scared Straight took kids who had been charged with some infraction or other on a tour of Rahway prison in New Jersey. The movie won an oscar. Sequels followed. Scared Straight programs claimed a great deal of success and were started in other areas. But analysts who studied the results concluded that the program was worse than useless and might even encourage kids to become criminals. When one of the graduates went on to rape and murder, that point was underlined. Complaints have caused the states of California, Maryland, and Rhode Island to suspend their Scared Straight programs. Other states still fund this dubious venture and A&E has produced three seasons of Beyond Scared Straight that show children being taken through these programs.
What kind of people watch this series; do they enjoy seeing children being reduced to tears by psychopathic thugs? If so, those voyeurs bear watching. And there is the underlying element of prison rape in all these programs. “I like white boys. You look pretty to me.” When I hear someone giggle about this kind of stuff or otherwise express a belief that rape is part of the sentence that judges hand down, I wonder about the fantasies that run through that person’s head.
But Scared Straight programs pale beside Boot Camps, programs where parents contract to have their children abducted, carted off to remote locales, and abused. Sexual abuse, yes, but also deaths in Utah, Florida, South Dakota, Arizona, even China. VisionQuest has been involved in several deaths in various states. Boot camps are as counter-productive as Scared Straight programs, but they also continue to be funded. A number of countries have followed the US in promoting “get-tough” programs for children and many have become part of official state systems, though they may be contracted from private companies.It is a commonplace truism among people who work with youths at risk that “abuse generates abuse”, so it is hard to see how these programs can be supported by any thinking adult. The global acceptance of abuse as a strategy to teach discipline may point to one cause of bullying amongst children — they are modelling adult behavior. And all of this suggests why that bus monitor’s case roused so much interest and raised so much cash: it was unnatural — the natural order, as many people see it, is for adults to abuse children, not the other way around.