As an experienced Summer Day Camp Director in Toronto, I am very tuned into bullying and aware of the harmful effects it has on the victims, the witnesses and the bullies.
This article is prompted by the upcoming Valentine’s Day and the fact that many schools have organized fund-raising activities whereby students have the opportunity to purchase valentine’s treats (chocolates, cookies, etc.) for other students. Apparently the students can purchase whatever number of treats they so desire. The treats will then be distributed to the recipient students. Obviously, some students will receive numerous treats and others will receive none.
This sort of event inevitably triggers bullying which manifests itself in a variety of ways. By inviting students to send a treat combined with imposing a cost on the student for so doing, the schools should reasonably anticipate that students would not send treats to all their fellow classmates. Thus the schools are effectively encouraging the students to engage in a selection process whereby they decide who they will single out with a visible token of their friendship. By delivering the treats to the classrooms, the schools thereby ensure that students would be able to assess and compare who receives what from whom. Students are inevitably “rated” by the number of treats they receive, ultimately resulting in a popularity contest. Those students for whom this is a negative experience have the added humiliation of knowing that their status will be visible to everyone else in their class.
Needless to say there have to be many students who are experiencing anxiety leading up to the distribution of the treats; this is an opportunity for students to passively or aggressively bully others into buying treats for them; some students will leave school at the end of the day feeling unpopular, rejected, excluded, alone and disconnected; bullies may grab this opportunity to mock the students who received only a small number, or worse, no treat at all; even if the kids do not actively mock those who didn’t receive treats, ultimately this event fuels social exclusion – which is a form of indirect or relational bullying.
Specifically, I am very concerned that by the School constructing a system whereby students are encouraged to selectively acknowledge other students (with the result that others are inevitably selectively excluded), the School is creating an environment where, at best, some students are happy while others are hurt, and, at worst, victimized by the type of social exclusion and relational bullying that occurs even without such an adaptable delivery system.
While I applaud the efforts of schools to engage in creative fund-raising or activities that raise awareness of various worthy causes, I am concerned about the vehicle the schools have chosen as a means to achieve this end. I have serious concerns that this particular method of fund-raising potentially generates the type of negative behavior and insidious bullying that the schools on the other hand profess to oppose and seek to discourage.
Every student, regardless of their age, has the right to attend school, in a supportive, caring and safe environment, WITHOUT the fear of being bullied. This is not a trivial matter. Schools treat bullying as a serious offense and attempt to take every possible action to reduce it through proactive measures and reactive strategies. The school boards have taken a strong stand against bullying and have created anti-bullying policies and on-going related training for the staff. Regardless of how many handouts it prints about bullying, a school which endorses programs that promote exclusivity loses credibility and risks missing the opportunity to gain the trust of victims to come forward. It also sends a message to bullies that visibly engaging in selectivity and exclusion are acceptable.
Surely this was not the only approach that could have been taken to raise funds. I would have thought any number of more inclusive and positive options could have been contemplated.
There should be policies within the schools that prohibit the organizing of activities such as sending Valentine treats on this basis. While well intentioned, in actual fact it serves to create the ideal delivery system for bullying that can have inevitable and obvious bullying consequences and long term effects.