YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Bully Rule May Steal Principals' Allowance

March 14, 2001|DANA PARSONS

I sympathize with high school principals. They can catch flak from a number of different directions, and all before lunch.

They must handle a stable of teachers, with their range of temperaments and personalities.

Then, they've got parents, who seldom contact the school except to complain.

Then, they've got school boards setting policies with which they may or may not agree.

And, then, there are the students--often more than 3,000 strong squeezed onto a high school campus--and who arrive every day bringing all that's good and bad about America's teenagers.

There's no getting around the fact that, these days, the "bad" part of the equation is the fear of campus violence. Statistically, the chance for a Columbine or Santana High School disaster is negligible, but that doesn't mean the threat isn't in the back of every principal's mind.

I suppose that's how districts arrive at policies like the one being debated by the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. I'm writing this before the board is scheduled to vote late Tuesday night, but it is expected to take final action that will make school "bullying" a much more high-profile kind of campus offense.

An assistant superintendent says the basic policy won't change: Bullies have always been subject to punishment ranging from a parent-teacher conference to expulsion. However, he says, bullying behavior hasn't gotten the kind of emphasis as has bringing weapons or alcohol and drugs to school.

Now, officials want to make a "philosophical statement" that bullying is viewed just as seriously.

The policy was on the front burner well before two people were killed and 13 injured in last week's shooting at Santana High in the San Diego County community of Santee. It's been reported that Andy Williams, the 15-year-old accused of inflicting the mayhem, had been bullied at school over his slight frame and big ears.

A Policy Aimed at Victims With Guns

I'm solidly in the anti-bully camp, remembering well

from personal experience the damage they can do to a young man's psyche.

But for all its good intentions, Newport-Mesa's action strikes me as a bit dishonest.

Here's why: Society has put up with schoolyard bullying for generations. We've condemned it, but let it slide--because we figured it's just part of adolescent behavior and comes in too many forms to control.

So what's changed? What's changed is that we're now more frightened about the prospect that bully victims might decide to get even by bringing guns to school.

All of a sudden, bullies are seen as creating killers.

If society is so alarmed by the revenge of the bullied, why not direct its concern at the sole reason Andy Williams in Santee could act out his alleged revenge--his access to a gun.

Not to be glib, but a kid can be bullied from here to eternity, but he can't shoot up a school without a gun.

For all the reasons we've heard before, American society has no intention of turning in its guns, no matter how many kids take them from home to school to settle scores.

Because it won't, we'll have to put up with the occasional school shooting.

But we don't like to hear ourselves say that, because it makes us sound callous or powerless. So we look for other fixes.

The flavor-of-the-month fix is cracking down on the bully.

The Newport-Mesa policy says schools won't tolerate "any gestures, comments, threats, or actions . . . which cause or threaten to cause . . . bodily harm or personal degradation."

A prediction: This dictum will fade as principals get in one row after another over what constitutes bullying. Was the remark a slight or insult, or just a foolish remark? Did the remark cause real harm, or was the recipient overreacting? Does there need to be a third-party witness?

Would saying "Hey Big Ears" to Andy Williams at Santana High be considered bullying?

Newport-Mesa probably figures it's on safe ground here, and it may be. Who's not against bullying? And of course, the district can't order the parents of its students to turn in their guns.

I hope the district knows what it's setting itself up for by putting the spotlight on bullying.

If parents and students decide they really want to go after bullying, as defined above, school principals had better prepare themselves for a whole new round of headaches.


Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to

Los Angeles Times Articles