Altering The Culture of Cruelty

Altering The Culture of Cruelty: Impacting Student Bullying, Ridicule and Harassment

By Mary Jo McGrath, Attorney at Law

Larry walks into your office. He looks at his feet and mumbles something. Larry has been bullied and ridiculed since the fifth grade. Now, he is a sophomore. The name calling, isolation and physical attacks have gotten worse over the past few months. This time, Larry fought back. You need to respond quickly. You ask questions like: “What happened?” “Why did you go after Tom?” “What’s going on?” “Why didn’t you come to me sooner?” He looks at you and says, “You just don’t understand.”

A Mission Beyond Academics
National surveys tell us that everyday taunting, teasing, bullying and ridicule are the norm for too many students. Sexual harassment is a major issue in schools. Gay bashing has become pandemic. Left unchecked these violent behaviors form the basis for the slow erosion of self that can lead to internal destruction or external violence—withdrawal, suicide, lashing out at others. Research shows that established patterns of sexual harassment, violence and hate crimes can result from being bullied and ridiculed over time.

Schools have a mission beyond academic learning. That mission is about life and the relatedness of people. Learning in a culture of open communication, inclusiveness and belonging is essential. Such an atmosphere instills self-confidence and citizenship in students. Without it, we are likely to breed isolation, fear and insecurity. Without it, kids can’t learn.

Our schools can become places of principled learning that foster participation and relationship and support students in dealing effectively with differences. To do this we must alter the school culture at its roots. How do we break the destructive cycle of taunting, teasing, bullying and ridicule?

Constructive Thinking and Communication
We instinctively know the answer to this question: We must train students and staff in constructive thinking and communication that is grounded in the basic principles of trust, respect, cooperation and growth. This means that all involved—students, educators, parents and classified staff—understand their role and take appropriate action in building an atmosphere where learning can happen free of fear.

Patterns of effective thinking and communicating can be learned. It takes will and skill to break down barriers of mistrust and cynicism. It takes planning, consistency and repetition. We are suggesting a simple problem-solving formula that can revolutionize relationships and generate trust, respect and cooperation in an educational community.

F.I.C.A.: A Formula for Results
The McGrath F.I.C.A. Format for Constructive Thinking and Communication was initially designed for use by administrators in supervising teachers. F.I.C.A. is now used by over 100,000 educators nationwide. It is a balanced, educationally sound and legally fit methodology for relaying Facts, assessing Impacts, factoring in the Context and determining the appropriate Actions to take. However, we have found that a broader application of F.I.C.A. training throughout the school community has benefits far beyond minimizing legal liability. It can actually alter the school culture and create profound relationships among students, faculty, staff and parents. It can be used by educators and staff in responding to incidents on the spot. It can be taught to students and parents as a methodology for expressing complaints, upsets, appreciation and acknowledgments during the course of everyday interactions.

How F.I.C.A. works
The McGrath FICA is a four-part, problem-solving formula to be used in verbal and written communication – teacher-student interactions, parent conferences, memos to parents regarding conduct, formal discipline records, student-student communications, student-parent discussions – the list seems endless.

The formula is:

FACTS (Trust) + IMPACT (Respect) x CONTEXT (Cooperation) = ACTION (Growth).

Each part of the formula includes a communication practice and a human relations standard. In the following paragraphs, we illustrate the teacher to student application. Keep in mind, however, that the FICA model is equally applicable to student to student, student to teacher, student to parent, and parent to student interactions.

FACTS > TRUST
Communication Practice #1: Establish the FACTS.
In your communication regarding any issue, include a description of specific observed behaviors without opinion. This provides a mirror for the student to see his or her own behavior reflected back rather than a judgment about that behavior. Beware of using tinged words that convey disapproval and rejection or obscure the point of the communication. Prior occurrences should be mentioned after the current incident is described.
Human Relations Standard: Build TRUST.
In factual descriptions be sure that the behaviors relayed are current, not resurrected from past concerns that went unmentioned. Speak directly to the performance only, not to anyone’s character. Make sure that expectations for behavior have been communicated in advance, eg. classroom rules are posted and reviewed periodically.

An example: “Thomas, I heard you call Setsuko a ‘brown-nose Jap’ after she presented her oral report. I spoke to you on two occasions last week about your use of racial slurs in reference to Farhad and Avi. You know that class rule number 5 specifically prohibits any harassment or ridicule of others.”

IMPACT > RESPECT
Communication Practice #2: Relay the IMPACT of the observed behavior.
Communicating the impact emphasizes a cause-and-effect relationship between a behavior and its outcomes. Highlighting this relationship allows the student to self-correct behavior based on understanding the consequences.
Human Relations Standard #2: RESPECT people.
Rely on the belief that most students value both your respect and the respect of their peers. In relating to them as people who want to make a positive difference, you have them be known, understood and valued. You are treating them with dignity. At the same time, you are holding an individual accountable for the consequences of behavior. The communication must be respectful of student, family and community.

An example: “Thomas, you are a leader in this class. The other students look up to you. When you act this way, you send a signal to your classmates that racial slurs are acceptable and even cool. Setsuko does not get the respect she deserves. She is sad, worried and isolated. And you sell out on your own self-respect in the process.”

CONTEXT > COOPERATION
Communication Practice #3: Put the individual’s behavior in CONTEXT.
Factoring in variables that may be involved in the person’s performance makes this approach open-minded and fair. These variables may extend into health, family or school issues that are disrupting a student’s behavior. Context may also include the student’s prior efforts to alter the behavior and any prior actions that have been taken regarding this issue.

Human Relations Standard #3: Generate COOPERATION. Students are influenced by many different factors that may be occurring in their personal lives. Without recognition of this dynamic, there could be a lack of compassion for the effect these variables are having on the student. This standard allows the behavior to be viewed in perspective, looking at the whole human being. Context doesn’t excuse anything; however, it makes the direction to go in a lot clearer.

An example: “Thomas, I know that your father is currently stationed in Afghanistan and that you are very worried about him and about your mother and younger brothers and sisters. I also noticed that after our last conversation about this issue you went for two days without ridiculing another student in this class.”

ACTION > GROWTH
Communication Practice #4: Design the next ACTION step.
Given that this is a problem-solving formula, the appropriate action steps to be taken are determined by an analysis of the three preceding communication practices. No one component determines the action. Consider the totality of the person before you. There is a limitless range of action you can take (assuming that the student has not violated criminal law or a district zero-tolerance policy).

Human Relations Standard #4: Foster GROWTH. In this approach the action is not considered part of progressive discipline or a formal plan for improvement. Rather, the intent is that correction can be accomplished easily and contemporaneously, allowing the student to evolve one small step at a time.

An example: “ Please be prepared to lead a panel discussion of racial tolerance in next Thursday’s class. I would like you to include Setsuko and two other students on your team. Please have the panel be racially and ethnically mixed and work together to create an outline for the discussion. I also think you need an outlet for communicating your fears and concerns regarding the war and its affect on your family. We have special counselors available at our school now for just that purpose. I’ll go with you to the counseling office directly after this class period to schedule an appointment for you.”

Here’s what the F.I.C.A. communication looks and sounds like all together:

Thomas, I heard you call Setsuko a ‘brown-nose Jap’ after she presented her oral report. I spoke to you on two occasions last week about your use of racial slurs in reference to Farhad and Avi. You know that class rule number 5 specifically prohibits any harassment or ridicule of others.

Thomas, you are a leader in this class. The other students look up to you. When you act this way, you send a signal to your classmates that racial slurs are acceptable and even cool. Setsuko does not get the respect she deserves. She is sad, worried and isolated. And you sell out on your own self-respect in the process.

I know that your father is currently stationed in Afghanistan and that you are very worried about him and about your mother and younger brothers and sisters. I also noticed that after our last conversation about this issue you went for two days without ridiculing another student in this class.

Please be prepared to lead a panel discussion of racial tolerance in next Thursday’s class. I would like you to include Setsuko and two other students on your team. Please have the panel be racially and ethnically mixed and work together to create an outline for the discussion. I also think you need an outlet for communicating your fears and concerns regarding the war and its affect on your family. We have special counselors available at our school now for just that purpose. I’ll go with you to the counseling office directly after this class period to schedule an appointment for you.

A Campaign of Respect and Responsibility
The McGrath program is one possible means for intervening in the culture of cruelty that permeates our schools today. Implementation of the McGrath F.I.C.A. takes training and lots of practice. Whatever training system you choose, the goal should be to get the entire school community participating in a campaign of respectful and responsible thinking and communication. That’s the way to stop violence, by altering the culture of cruelty.

Editors’ note: This article is general in nature and is not intended to replace professional legal advice.

For more information on McGrath Constructive Thinking and Communication Training for staff and students using the McGrath F.I.C.A, contact McGrath Training Systems at 800-733-1638 or e-mail us at schools@mcgrathinc.com.

© Copyright 2001 Mary Jo McGrath. All rights reserved.

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