Getting to the root of bullying.

Bullying is rarely as straight-forward as it seems. So how to handle it?

One fine day a relatively new kid whom we’ll call Roger sauntered into the cafeteria and tapped another kid on the shoulder. We’ll call him Eddie. When Eddie turned around Roger punched him, and kept hitting him until teachers could restrain him.

Thus started a painful career episode for Kirsten Gilbert, Waterville Middle School’s then-Vice Principal, who told me this story. She’d been so successful with Restorative Practices elsewhere in the district that her superintendent transferred her to Waterville to reduce the disciplinary referrals which were out of control.

The teachers and parents wanted Roger expelled immediately – not suspended, expelled.

Gilbert did suspend Roger, but only to cool-off until she had time to put together a “conference.”

Conferencing is a restorative protocol. It begins with a facilitator, in this case Gilbert, talking to all the relevant parties to figure out what was really going on and what amends or restitution might be possible. Conferences can be super emotional, so the Facilitator must be sure the parties can be safe and productive when they get together.

Eddie’s parents were so enraged, they were in Gilbert’s office screaming that they would have her job or sue the school board and the superintendent.

Gilbert quickly discovered that six other students had been goading Roger to avenge Eddie’s habit of putting down girls. Kids knew about Eddie’s behavior but had never told the adults. Gilbert gave the six troublemakers one-day suspensions for failing to report the brewing fight. But she needed to restore genuine, sustainable peace.

Kicked-out kids get worse – the research is clear

Push-out, kick-out disciplinary protocols– detention, suspension and expulsion – are so habitual that alternatives are deeply suspect. But bad kids do not go away and magically return all fixed. That’s not what they need.

­Push-out, kick-out disciplinary protocols like detention, suspension and expulsion, are so habitual that alternatives are deeply suspect. But bad kids do not go away and magically return all fixed. Actually, they tend to get worse.

A massive study, Breaking Schools’ Rules, followed one million Texas public-school students from 7th grade through high school over three years. Roughly a third had been kicked out of school at least once. Of those suspended multiple times, half were already involved with the justice system. The study clearly laid out the classroom-to-prison pipeline resulting from push-out disciplinary techniques.

The day of the conference arrives

Gilbert shepherded Eddie’s parents down the hall to join Eddie, Roger, the six agitators, and their parents. Fortunately, Gilbert had asked a police officer to come because tempers flared as they went around merely introducing themselves.

The victim sat in his chair, curled in a little ball, so Gilbert started with questions to the six kids.

As they took turns talking, parents heard their own children admit to instigating the fight. “I knew what was going to happen, and I wanted it to.” Suddenly the parents saw the incident in a different light.

Roger told his story, adding only that before pummeling him, he’d told Eddie to stop running his mouth with girls.

But while Roger talked, Eddie’s parents kept erupting – a “This is bad; he’s just no good.”

But that finally got Eddie to uncurl himself to tell his story, finishing with: “But I’m not innocent.”

Apparently, Roger had approached Eddie repeatedly, demanding that he quit being ugly to girls. Cocky, Eddie had only dared Roger “to make me. So I got Roger to hit me.”

His parents’ jaws dropped.

Roger’s dad burst into tears, “I’m begging you, please don’t deny him his education. I’m alone; I work in construction and I’m hardly home. He’s made a terrible mistake. I’ve made mistakes. I promise I’ll try to be a better dad.”

Then Eddie’s parents had a change of heart – 180 degrees. They insisted Roger return to school the next day. Eddie wasn’t afraid of him, so neither were they. And they apologized for being wretched to Gilbert.

Successful conferences result in the group agreeing on an appropriate restitution. All the students acknowledged that their actions had hurt the school community, and they needed to make an apology. They would stand together in front of a school assembly and talk about the consequences of their actions.

One girl told the assembly that the whole mess started when Eddie called her an ugly name, and she called him one right back. Ragging on each other is common middle school stuff, however nasty. But hearing peers describe how harmful it is was profound.

Gilbert continued to encourage kids and adults to talk over their issues and to quit pushing “bad” kids out. Under her watch, Waterville’s climate became much more peaceful, happy and productive.

Discipline means “to teach.” Painful though it was, Gilbert’s conference was a lesson that no one in that community will ever forget.

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