Beyond Bullying

Redhill has recently launched our ‘First Tuesdays’ initiative, where the Redhill community is invited to join guest speakers to learn and engage on the first Tuesday evening of each month. This new offering kicked off in February with Bryan Schimmel and Clinton Fein as guest speakers on the topic of bullying.

However, we were in for something highly unusual. Bryan Schimmel, known for his musical prowess in South Africa, was relentlessly bullied in high school by the same man with whom he appears on stage: Clinton Fein.

Len Miller Hall was packed with parents and students alike, and the talk was repeated during school time for students in Grades 7 to 11.
While bullying is a term that everyone knows, not everyone gets bullied. It becomes a problem faced by a select, unfortunate few – and it doesn’t just happen in schools. As Bryan pointed out, bullying happens everywhere. We see it in the media. On sports fields. In the workplace. In families. And while everyone doesn’t get bullied, everyone is either involved in bullying or has tacitly allowed bullying to take place.

In the talk, Clinton and Bryan asked the audience to raise their hands if they could swear that they had never in their lives been involved in bullying directly or in allowing bullying to happen around them. Not one hand was raised. The truth of the statement is incontrovertible. Bullying happens because we let it happen. Bryan and Clinton spoke about two prolific sports-related examples. The first was the revelation that Lewis Hamilton, the prodigious Formula One champion, was bullied as a child. He was called the n-word and had bananas thrown at him, describing the feeling that he couldn’t go home and tell his parents because he “didn’t want [his] dad to think [he] was not strong.”

The second example referred to Mitchell Miller, a star ice hockey player, whose potential contract with the Boston Bruins in the National Hockey League was terminated after discovering that he had bullied a Black student in high school, beating him, calling him racial slurs, and forcing him to lick candy that had been rubbed inside a urinal. This led to a court conviction in 2016.

Bryan then brought the audience to his own story, matriculating around forty years ago. As Bryan relayed his tale, he stuttered, a speech impediment that he’s had since childhood. It served as fuel for the fire when it came to his bullying, and yet there he stood, on stage, beside his bully, asking the audience to have empathy for both the bullied and the bully, for us to counsel and not cancel. Through the next hour, Bryan and Clinton took us through their story – a tale of repressed homosexuality, staying in the closet for fear of abuse, unsupportive home environments, and a school space that found bullying entertaining. While their story is unique to them, it echoed in the audience’s minds, reminding us of bullying within our own backgrounds. Same story, different characters. Same story, different setting.

During the talk, Bryan and Clinton carefully defined bullying: a deliberate and repetitive behaviour intended to harm. But that’s just it: bullying is a behaviour. Our tendency to refer to ‘bullies’ as such creates bullying as an identity. Identity can be hard to shift, but behaviour can be changed. And so, by extension, should the way we refer to bullying.

But why bully in the first place? At one point in the talk, Bryan turned to Clinton and asked “why me?”. Clinton explained that he sensed a vulnerability in Bryan that he had probably recognised within himself and that made him an easy target. Only after Bryan befriended a boy named Gary, was the bullying reduced.

Gary was popular, sporty, well-liked and a champion for the underdog. Through Gary’s friendship, Bryan’s life became less of a “hurricane”, as he described it. Over time, Clinton became an anti-bullying advocate and realised that acting as a bully was rooted in self-loathing…but even then he did not connect the extent of the harm he had caused when he was a child. Social media brought Bryan and Clinton back into each other’s lives, long after matriculation and they agreed to meet and clear the air. Clinton was devastated to hear recounts of his actions from his victim’s perspective. He apologised, sincerely. Clinton realised that if he was seeking to assert his masculinity, the best way to have done that would have been to protect Bryan from other bullying behaviour, and not conduct it himself. Bryan forgave him. Not to let Clinton off the hook, but in search of the freedom and closure it provided. The bullying they describe from forty years ago is still present today. There isn’t a school that doesn’t experience issues of bullying. It is inevitable. The focus, then, must shift to harm reduction and prioritising communication.

The ‘old school’ policies of ‘no tolerance’ have been clearly shown to be ineffective. Research has shown that zero-tolerance policies do little to help both victims and perpetrators and there’s evidence that it actually reduces the reporting of bullying due to fear of retribution. As a result, students fear that they cannot retaliate and must silently endure the abuse.
Both Bryan and Clinton advocate for healthy, constructive dialogue but emphasise that it must be desired on both sides in order for it to be effective. Expulsion, though often desired by the parents of the bullied student, does not eradicate bullying. Bryan and Clinton praised our desire to engage and confront the issue of bullying as not all schools are willing to admit the problem is pervasive. Where there are children, there is bullying. They also spoke of the difficulty of parents – in loving their children unconditionally, parents will often go to any length rather than admit that their child has engaged in bullying behaviour.

I found this sentiment unsurprising – in my decades of teaching and management experience, never once has a parent come up to me and said “My kid has bullied another child, how can we fix this problem?”

Both students and parents alike also sometimes conflate a regrettable incident of nastiness with bullying. Nastiness can be isolated, while bullying is continuous cruelty. Bullying may well start out as teasing but when it’s done repeatedly and is intended to be hurtful or threatening, then it becomes bullying. So how can parents and schools navigate the minefield of bullying? The first step is understanding that schools teach subject content but they are also places where students learn about the real world and encounter it. Bullying is associated with schools but it’s found everywhere and in so many forms because bullying starts and ends with an imbalance of power and an attempt to gain more of it.

Bullying isn’t always obvious, as Bryan and Clinton explained. It can be remarkably subtle – the act of blocking or ghosting someone, or even gaslighting them (a tactic to make a person question their reality). It’s therefore important to lean into the conversations and discomfort that bullying presents in order to navigate through it. Why? Because school, sadly, will not be the only time in a person’s life when bullying is experienced.

After the talk, during an extended Q&A period, Bryan and Clinton spoke with parents about how best to handle the facets of bullying. One of the most impactful parenting choices that can be made is to encourage your child to be a ‘Gary’ – the student who stood up for Bryan when he was being bullied. Bullying thrives in an environment where it isn’t called out and where bystanders do nothing. By calling out bullying behaviour as ‘uncool’ or wrong, the student engaging in bullying behaviour will be deprived of positive reinforcement and thus will derive limited power from the interaction. The more Garys there are in a school, the less room there is for bullying to fester.

As for children in the midst of bullying, Bryan encouraged them to seek allies, to be authentic to their true selves and to know that it gets better, even if it takes time.
Bullying is one of the toughest things a child can go through – if you’re an adult reading this and have vivid recall of your own experiences of being bullied, you know this to be true.
Only through purposeful dialogue that seeks to understand and resolve can bullying be addressed – this is the ethos we teach our students at Redhill school. Our goal is to create safe spaces to give students the tools to help them resolve conflict. Bullying behaviour can be altered but first, it must be identified, recognised, and owned – conflict resolution is a job much easier said than done for students, parents and schools alike. Bryan and Clinton continued an ongoing conversation. It was a pleasure to have them on campus to inspire dialogue among students, parents and staff.