AHISD Responds to Bullying by Aiming For a ‘Culture of Empathy’

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Alamo Heights Junior School.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Alamo Heights Junior School.

Over the past 15 years, Alamo Heights Junior School counselor Lisa Lucas has watched the culture grow mean. She has seen it reflected in the students who come to her office, many of them bullied, singled out, or excluded.

“In 15 years I have seen a lot of kids and dealt with a lot of mistreatment,” Lucas said. “I will tell you that maybe two were pathological cases, while 99.8% of the kids are just reflecting the culture they live in.”

Ubiquity doesn’t necessarily make the mistreatment easier to stomach. Over the past month, AHJS seventh-grader Hannah Martinez found herself alone with thoughts of suicide, placed there by a bully who suggested “no one would miss you.”

Last year, 16-year-old David Molak did more than think about a bully’s words. The Alamo Heights High School student committed suicide on Jan. 4, 2016, after being subjected to months of online cruelty.

Alamo Heights isn’t the only district that struggles with cyberbullying, but Molak’s death shone a spotlight on the issue in the tight-knit community where exclusion is often the weapon of choice.

Cyberbullying, especially the irrationally cruel kind Martinez and Molak experienced, is difficult for adults to understand. Horrified, they feel compelled to act, using all the tools of the adult world to try to solve the problem, even going as far as proposing legislation and passing laws.

State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26) filed a bill to enact “David’s Law,” which would require schools to include cyberbullying in other bullying policies, and extend the jurisdiction of investigations to off-campus behavior. Those investigations will have more tools to unmask anonymous bullies. It also allows for more strict punishment of the bullies, including making the behavior a misdemeanor. Finally, the bill includes resources for counseling offered to both the victim and the bully.

Laws and district policies can certainly help victims see justice, and might even help some bullies get help for their own insecurities and anti-social behavior. None of this, however, will stop bullying – digital or otherwise – Lucas said. What is really needed is a culture of empathy.

“We created a culture of entitlement where there is no empathy,” Lucas explained. “These kids have never had empathy fostered. They have no clue about putting themselves in other peoples’ shoes.”

With help from the Molak family’s David’s Legacy Foundation, AHJS hosted Michele Borba, educational psychologist and author of the book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed In Our All-About-Me World. After spending the day at various AHISD campuses on Monday, Borba spoke to parents at AHJS in the evening.

Borba spent the day with elementary and junior school students discussing school culture and their power to change it by being “upstanders” instead of “bystanders.” Kids are naturally inclined to empathy, Borba said, so adults need to cultivate it and teach their children to act on it.

She uses the powerful example of Kitty Genovese, whose murder in the presence of unresponsive witnesses sparked research into the “bystander effect.”

When a 13-year-old Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger saw reports of Genovese’s death in 1964, he vowed that he would never stand by and let tragedy strike. He made good on that vow 45 years later on Jan. 15, 2009, when he and crew members rescued 155 passengers from the ditched US Airways Flight 1549.

Sullenberger, Borba points out, is the kind of hero our children need, not snarky, shallow celebrities. The glorification of what people have versus what they give is a social ill Borba calls “celebrity-itis.”

In addition to praising monumental feats of selflessness, Borba held a seminar for parents in which she offered advice on fostering empathy in everyday life at home.

“My concern is that we’re doing a fine job with [the brain],” Borba said, but our focus on academics is overshadowing our efforts to raise a kind, courageous, compassionate generation.  Moving from “me to we and from us to them,” is “the best hope we have for [ending] racism.”

Researchers from Harvard found that most kids rank academic performance as the number one priority their parents have for them. “Caring” was near the bottom of the priorities.

The message begins, Borba said, the moment the kids get in the car after school. Instead of asking about homework and test grades, she encouraged parents to ask about kindness. At first it may be awkward to ask “Did you do anything kind today?” But over time, students will know that kindness is expected of them as much – or more – than academic performance.

Borba encouraged families to take this moral formation further by creating an explicit family motto, such as “The Smiths are brave and kind” or “We are the Honest Smiths.”

While all of this sounds “fluffy,” Borba cited research showing that as empathy becomes more scarce in society, empathetic people are in higher demand. The Harvard Business School reports that perspective taking skills, the cognitive functions that accompany emotional intelligence and empathy, are in high demand as they allow developers, marketing executives, and sales people to get inside the minds of their target consumers.

At the same time, a University of Michigan study showed a 58% increase in narcissism and entitlement and a 40% decrease in empathy since the year 2000 based on behavioral surveys of incoming freshmen.

That dip, Borba said, coincides with the proliferations of screen-based social interaction.

“You don’t learn emotional literacy facing a screen,” she said.

Unplugged time is not only good for family bonding and emotional development, but it also gives parents and children the chance to practice confident, connected body language. Children who look their peers in the eyes come across as more confident and are less likely to be bullied.

This, of course, requires parents to put down their phone and tablets, because much of the empathetic behavior we want to see in our children must be modeled in the home first.

For parents, this may be the toughest wake-up call. It means that we must take a look at our passing comments of judgment, our excuses for why we don’t help others, and the exclusive privileges we treasure. To help our kids become empathetic people, we must be the first to replace our judgments with compassion, excuses with action, and exclusivity with hospitality.

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