Early Faces of Violence

The Early Faces of Violence – From Schoolyard Bullying and Ridicule to Sexual Harassment

An interview with program author and producer
Mary Jo McGrath, Attorney at Law

You’re always looking ahead to the most pressing issues on the horizon and creating new projects. Why this topic: The Early Faces of Violence?
This video series deals with ridicule, bullying, and sexual harassment, in pre-kindergarten through the upper elementary grades. Given the escalation in severity of student violence, I think that empowering our youngest students to think carefully about their behavior is essential. Respect and responsibility are an access point for altering the current paradigm.

Why the strong emphasis on bullying and ridicule?
Bullying and ridiculing behaviors are often precursors to full-blown sexual harassment or acts of extreme aggression–in either the child who is doing the taunting and bullying or in the child who is persistently bullied. It’s all part of a continuum of violence, which includes disrespectful, dominating, demeaning behavior.

A lot of the behavior that you see portrayed in the videos is actionable sexual harassment. In the videos for teachers and staff, we deal head on with the incidents portrayed in Show & Tell: The Movie, which clearly add up to a potential case of male to male sexual harassment.

If a lot of this bullying and ridiculing constitutes “sexual harassment,” why not just say so?
We use the term “sexual harassment” in the staff training videos, but limit its use in the student videos to the oldest children. You can’t say “sexual harassment” to a 4-year-old, or even to a 9-year-old. We use the term “gender based bullying” for ages 4 to 9 and introduce the term “sexual harassment” to our 10 to 12-year-old audience.

In writing our script we walked the line between telling the truth and exposing children to more violence or sexually explicit language. The behavior depicted in the videos creates a great jumping off point for class discussion and for use with peer mediation and conflict resolution programs.

What behaviors constitute bullying?
We define bullying as repeated and systematic abuse and harassment of another. Bullying and ridiculing type student conduct is broader and includes name calling, mimicking, invasions of personal space, physical violence (hitting, kicking, pushing, shoving), gender and sex based bullying and extortion.

But most children aren’t really “bullies” are they?
Our intention with this series is not so much to catch the rare, deviant student, but to alter the school culture. Our goal is to have children at the elementary level behave respectfully toward one another and report bullying and sexually harassing behavior. We are attempting to reach beyond the traditional view of the “class bully” and broaden the discussion to include the thoughtless, hurtful pervasive behavior, the bullying or ridiculing, which almost all children engage in.

Why did you use so many examples of male to male harassment?
Much of the student to student bullying, ridiculing, and sexual harassment that goes on in the lower grades is male to male. We live in a culture that dismisses as “male antics” the pantsing of a child or flipping up a skirt. We have become hardened to the harmful nature of these seemingly innocuous behaviors. Bullying and sexually harassing behaviors interfere with classroom management and student learning. Unchecked they may escalate to physical violence or to blatant sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.

Hasn’t sexual harassment been defined by the courts as male to female and vice versa?
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled (in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 1998) that same sex sexual harassment (male to male and female to female) is actionable under the law. Of course, not all of our examples are male to male.

In the scene where the boy (Max) is pantsed on the playground, no teacher is in evidence. Why?
We chose to portray the story from Max’s fantasized point of view. In his world, help is not available. Max’s fantasies are vividly portrayed in several scenes, including one in which he sees a substitute teacher as uncaring about his plight. Remember, the movie is from one child’s perspective and is not meant to imply negligence. Rather, these scenes are designed to stimulate conversations about what is real and appropriate: What would have happened if Max had spoken up to the teacher? What is the role of adults in the school? How can a teacher or parent support you if they don’t know what is happening?

Throughout our companion instructional videos for students, we emphasize reporting misconduct to teachers and other adults. We suggest that you include discussion on the difference between “ratting” (to get someone in trouble) and “reporting” unsafe behavior (to protect yourself or others).

What era is portrayed in Show & Tell? Why not show “modern” children?
We wanted to produce a film that would have universal appeal across an extremely diverse population. We resolved this dilemma by creating a fantasy, a fairy tale. The setting is “anytime, anyplace” and is deliberately vague as to era or locale. Children find the tale and its characters to be entertaining and are able to follow the story, rather than trying to relate to the setting (inner city, suburban, etc.) or fashions depicted. Adults are more likely to be distracted by our timeless setting than the students.

“Myths tell us these stories in a way that doesn’t threaten us. They’re in an imaginary land where you can be safe. But they deal with real truths that need to be told. Sometimes the truths are so painful that stories are the only way you can get through them psychologically.” (Star Wars producer George Lucas, Time Magazine, April 1999.)

Given your clear stand on diversity issues, I find myself wondering why your main group of characters is so homogeneous.
In Show and Tell: The Movie, we chose to include racial and ethnic diversity among our secondary characters but cast Caucasian children in the lead roles. This is our deliberate attempt to keep the issue distinct. Bullying and ridiculing is not a racial issue (although racial discrimination may be expressed through bullying).

We interviewed and taped the children who appear in the companion instructional videos at a culturally and racially diverse urban school in Los Angeles. Most viewers will find children in these segments that they can identify with.

What is next?
We are developing a curriculum of companion materials for the videos, including an anti-bullying and harassing campaign that challenges the whole school – teachers, staff, students, and parents – to get involved.

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