Curbing uncivil behavior this summer’s hot topic

June 29, 2012 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

When we talk about bullying in schools, we tend to think of students harassing other students.

By now, you’ve likely seen – or at least heard about – the video in which a group of middle school students relentlessly badger 68-year-old Karen Klein, a school bus monitor in western New York. Their vicious jeers still would be disturbing if they had been directed at another student. But that the students are so disrespectful to an adult – and an elderly woman at that – make the harassment all the more gut-wrenching.

Ironically, the incident took place as schools in New York State prepare to implement the Dignity for All Students Act , legislation signed into law in July 2010 that takes effect on July 1, 2012.

The law is aimed at protecting students – and staff – against any and all forms of harassment, particularly those based on a person’s actual or perceived race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender or sex.

The law prohibits anything that creates a hostile environment at school and school-sponsored events – activities such as aggressive conduct, threats, intimidation or abuse that “unreasonably and substantially interferes with another student’s educational performance.”

The Klein video sadly – yet perfectly – illustrates the type of behavior this law is meant to combat. While the students’ behavior obviously didn’t interfere with the educational performance of a 68-year-old woman, it provides a window into what happens every day in schools across our state and country.

What makes this story unusual is the fact that it involves students harassing an older woman. Which brings us to this question: Is this behavior the new norm?

Reality shows that glorify and reward reckless behavior, YouTube videos under the headline “failed” that highlight people’s mishaps, and social media channels that enable people to anonymously embarrass others publicly – and globally – create an environment in which respect, empathy, kindness and compassion are an afterthought or actually belittled.

These characteristics are not something we are born with. Respect, empathy, kindness and compassion are things we must learn – and then model for our children. Children exposed to various media need to be taught about acceptable civil behavior from their parents and caregivers, and understand what values and standards define their family.

There’s no doubt the Dignity Act is a step in the right direction as far as raising awareness about bullying behavior and attaching consequences to it. The problem is the law alone will not change behavior. And as parents, we cannot simply abdicate to schools our responsibility for raising respectful citizens.

It is up to us to set standards and model behavior that is appropriate. We need to teach our children values and establish – and enforce – consequences for bad behavior. Through our words and actions, we must convey the importance of kindness, compassion, empathy and respect.

If any good has come of the Klein incident, it is that the viral video mobilized people around the world to come together to decry the behavior. A fund established for Klein has generated more than one million dollars in donations. While no amount of money can ever erase the ugly imprint of bullying behavior, we can take solace in knowing Karen Klein will never have to step foot on a school bus again if she so chooses.

But we also need to look at this incident for the teachable moment it is. Behavior will change only when the expectations of society change, and that begins with small steps at home.

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