Respect for All: What Is Bullying?

In this lesson, students explore ways to be allies to those being teased, harassed, or bullied in their schools.   


Explain that in New York City public schools, this week is Respect for All week.  Ask students what they know about Respect for All week.  What is it about?  Why do you think we need a week about respect?   
According to the New York City Department of Education website, 
"Respect For All Week is designed to focus all City public schools on the importance of promoting respect for diversity and fostering inclusive learning environments for all students. 
Respect For All is a major initiative in the DOE's effort to combat bullying and harassment based on ethnicity, color, national origin, race, religion, citizenship or immigration status, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, weight, disability, and other characteristics...
"Our schools are rich in diversity and we are celebrating this richness during Respect For All Week," Chancellor Walcott said..."
"We have a responsibility to provide every student in New York City with a safe and inclusive learning environment," said Speaker Christine C. Quinn. "Teaching our students to embrace diversity is essential to preventing hate among future generations. Furthermore, research has linked positive school climates with academic gains."

Check Agenda and Goals

Explain that in today's lesson students explore ways to be allies to those being teased, harassed and bullied in their schools.   

What is bullying?

a) Why do people get bullied?
Take about 5 minutes to brainstorm and chart students' responses to this question:
"What are some of the characteristics, backgrounds or identities that people get teased or bullied for?"
Elicit a list from your students, keeping in mind that pretty much anything can go on this list, including ethnic background, religious affiliation, skin color, size, disability, language, accent, social awkwardness or shyness, sexual orientation, club membership (or lack thereof), family makeup, being new to a community, hair color, clothing, etc. Suggest that to be bullied, all you really have to be is alive.
b) What does bullying behavior look like? 
Now that students have discussed the many things people get bullied for, turn to what bullying behavior looks like. Read to the class the following excerpt from an article about bullying by Donna Smith:
"What counts as bullying behavior? Name calling? Being pushed up against a locker? Being tripped in the lunchroom? Threatening bodily harm? Starting a rumor about a person? Simply put, bullying is when someone does something to have power over another individual. Kids will joke, call each other names and even "horse-play," but when one of the parties wants the interaction to stop and the other party won't, it's bullying. Normal teasing and horse-play are only fun if both children involved are enjoying it. Bullies want to make their victims suffer. They want power." 
—From "Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones—And Words Can Hurt, Too" by Donna Smith, Children Today.
You might add that bullying is a form of abuse and that at least 19 states have passed anti-bullying legislation. 
c) What sets bullying apart?
Three characteristics combined set bullying apart from other behaviors. (One of these actions in isolation doesn't necessarily constitute bullying.)
  • A power differential that is either real or perceived.  It may be perceived in that the target and allies have not yet understood their own power in the situation.
  • A deliberate intent to harm or disturb. This means intentionally hurting someone either physically or psychologically despite the target's apparent distress. 
  • A pattern of repeated aggression.  Bullying is rarely a one time thing. It is usually repeated over and over again, either by the same person or group of people or by different people over time.

Michigan Student Takes a Stand

Tell students that in 2010, a high school economics teacher in Howell, Michigan, Jay McDowell, told a student in his classroom to remove a belt buckle with the Confederate flag on it.  She complied, but it prompted a question from a boy about how that flag differs from the rainbow flag, a symbol of pride for the gay community. The student was perhaps equating the rainbow flag to a purple T-shirt McDowell was wearing that day that called for ending anti-gay violence. If you can wear a t-shirt that is symbolic of one issue that is offensive to some people, then why not a belt buckle that offends others?
"I explained the difference between the flags, and [the student] said, 'I don't accept gays,'" said McDowell, according to a story in USA Today. McDowell told the student he couldn't say that in class. (USA Today)  "And he said, 'Why? I don't accept gays. It's against my religion.' I reiterated that it's not appropriate to say something like that in class," McDowell said.

And then McDowell sent the boy out of the room for a one-day class suspension. Another boy asked if he could leave too because he also didn't accept gays.

McDowell soon received a reprimand letter from the district saying that his actions had violated the students' free speech rights. McDowell countered: "I believe any symbol or speech that can cause a student to sit in fear in the classroom whether or not there is an outward show of that fear is by its very nature a disruption to the educational process." (Report in Edge Boston.) 

Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan's LGBT Legal Project, commended the teacher for trying to create a "welcoming environment for all students."  But, he, said, McDowell should have let students stay in class where they could discuss the issue. "We believe... those statements—as offensive and upsetting as they were — they were protected speech," Kaplan said. "The only way we're going to create a better environment in schools is to start talking about this."

Ask students: 
  • What do you think of McDowell's statement that symbols and speech can cause a student to sit in fear in the classroom?
  • Do you think McDowell violated students' free speech rights? 
  • Based on what we know about the situation, what do you think about how McDowell handled the situation? Do you think he should have handled it differently?
The incident with McDowell and his students became national news after an openly gay 14-year-old high-school student named Graeme Taylor testified before the school board in McDowell's defense. The video of Taylor's testimony went viral on the internet. 
Following the clip as students some or all of the following questions:  
  • What are your thoughts about this clip?
  • How do you think Taylor feels about the teacher "standing up and finally saying something"?
  • What does Taylor say about being bullied himself?
  • What does Taylor refer to when he speaks of a silent holocaust?
  • What does Taylor imply about how this affects the environment in schools?
  • Taylor says, "Whenever I have a teacher stand up for me like that, they change in my eyes."  What do you think he means by that?

Combatting Bullying

Though we don't know all the details of what happened in Howell, we do know that several people stood up for others in their community.  This is what we call being an ally.  Being an ally is one of the most important ways we can combat bullying in our schools.
Ask students, in small groups, to brainstorm ways in which they can be allies to those who are being teased, harassed and/or bullied in their school, whether because they are gay or for any other reason.  Ask each group to assign a facilitator who makes sure everyone gets a chance to contribute and a note taker/scribe who jots down what the group comes up with.  
Back in the large group, ask each group to volunteer one way they believe they can be allies.  After going around the room once, see if there are any other ways that have not yet been shared yet.  Jot things down on a flip chart or smart board for all to see.


Taylor refers to Dr. Martin Luther King's famous statement:
‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
Ask students: How does this quote relate to what happened at Howell?