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Nicholas Carlisle: 'Every school should have an anti-bullying policy'

Nicholas Carlisle, Executive Director of No Bully

According to the anti-bullying organization No Bully, an estimated 160,000 children refuse to go to school on any given day because they dread the physical and verbal aggression of their peers. Tomorrow, students across the country will participate in a national day of silence to call attention to the silencing effect of bullying and harassment in schools.

No Bully is based in San Francisco and works with schools and educators to spread awareness about the problem and to develop and implement anti-bullying policies. In this interview from our archives, Hana Baba sat down with Executive Director Nicholas Carlisle and asked him what constitutes bullying.

NICHOLAS CARLISLE: Well, many schools still think of bullying as physical bullying, and kids beating each other up but actually bullying takes place in so many other ways. And what a lot of schools don’t realize is that if you have a group of girls that are ostracizing or leaving out another girl so that no-one ever talks to her, that’s bullying!

And if kids get online and they start to place things on Facebook or MySpace that really humiliate another kid, that’s bullying.

So schools are good on the physical side of things, most have a violent free campus. But when it comes to the other sorts of bullying, yeah, a lot of schools don’t realize that that is bullying. A lot of teachers don’t realize that that’s bullying.

HANA BABA: How can you tell if your child is being bullied? For example, I have a six year-old, and you know sometimes she would come home and say “Such and such girls were looking at me funny today”, or “These boys were pointing at me and saying 'Haha, your hair is messed up!'”, or whatever, something like that. So as a parent, she comes home and tells me these stories, so how do we know if this is bullying according to your definitions?

CARLISLE: Well, we want our kids to be happy. Obviously when our kids go to school there is going to be some taunting and teasing going on. That is just part of childhood. But the real question is how your kid is taking it. And so if it get’s to the point where your kid is having stomachaches, headaches or is in tears at the thought of going to school, that’s a clear sign that something is up at school.

And the other good question for parents to ask is, “Who are your friends?”, “Who are you spending the recess time with?”, “ Are you looking forward to school this week?” Because those are the questions that will tap into how happy your kid is at school. So Hana, your kid may be getting some teasing but if they are happy and they are playing and laughing and they are looking forward to going to school, I wouldn’t be worrying about that.

But if your child is really dreading school and is just seeming downcast at the prospect or anxious at the prospect of that, then I would start asking some questions and maybe even go into the school and talk to the classroom teacher and saying “What’s up?” “What does my kid do at recess?” “What have you been noticing?” And then beyond that we need to be willing as educators to intervene if we see bullying going on and to step in to say, you know “This is not okay. We need to stop this."

BABA: So that's on the teachers' level. What about policy? What sort of school policies should be put in place, do you think, to prevent bullying?

CARLISLE: Well, every school should have an anti-bullying policy. Most schools now have a sexual harassment policy but we need to add a bullying policy to that. That policy should cover all the different types of bullying and lay out what the schools gonna do about it. And schools then have a fairly wide range of choice about how they might respond to the bullying. So some schools say that we are going to punish the kids who are involved in bullying. What we see at No Bully is that punishment actually is not a very effective tool to stop bullying, as much as we would like it stop bullying, it seems to make the bullying worse because the kids who are involved often take it out on the target and say “Hey, you got me into trouble, you’re a snitch, you’re a tattletale, I’m going to get my revenge for that.”

BABA: So if they are not punished, what should happen then?

CARLISLE: Well, one of the things we are doing at No Bully is training schools in something called “Solution Team.” And under the Solution Team you pull together the students involved in the bullying and you pull together also some of the positive leaders in the classroom so you have a team of about six to eight students. And you sit them down and of course, the first question that comes out of their mouths is, “Are we in trouble?” So you reassure them, "No, you are not in trouble but we think you can solve the problem, and here’s the problem. This kid is being bullied, you are not in trouble for it but we do think that you can come up with solutions to solve this problem."

BABA: Bully rehab.

CARLISLE: Bully rehab. You are making the kids responsible to solve the problem that they caused in the first place. And that approach, which is much more forward-looking that a punitive approach, seems to stop the bullying in about 80 or even 90% of cases, it’s incredibly effective. So, we’re not letting the bullies off. That’s not a successful strategy, but we are saying, “Fix it.”

BABA: As a parent what do you think I should be saying to my child when they come and tell me that they have been bullied? How should they respond to the bully, do you think? If we can kind of do a little skit right now where I’m a bully and you are being bullied, if that’s ok?

CARLISLE: Yes, go ahead.

BABA: And you can kinda show me what your response would be.


BABA: Ooh Nicholas, look at you, I don't like your hair! What's that you're wearing? Oh my goodness! Look at Nicholoas! Oh!

CARLISLE: Why are you saying that to me?

BABA: Because your hair is ugly!

CARLISLE: I don’t care what you think about me.

BABA: But...I guess that’s the end of that!

CARLISLE: But questions seem to be very effective tools for your kid to ask. So, “Why are you saying that?” “What’s going on here?”

BABA: So, turning it back on them?

CARLISLE: Turning it back on them is an important thing to do. Also generally with kids, part of us tends to believe the insults that are being thrown our way. So when I’m working with kids I’ll say, “Are you really what they are calling you?” "If they are calling you a mouse, are you really a mouse?" So you start to question the beliefs that they are starting to take in from other people. You decide for yourself who you are. Don’t let them influence your thinking. But one of my favorite lines for kids is to tell them that if you stand up high, people can’t jump on your back.

And there is another very interesting thing that goes on with kids, and on our streets and here in San Francisco, that people scope other people out to see if they are a potential target. So if you look at studies about how stalkers or muggers do their work, they’ll come up to someone and they’ll say something to them. And if that person keep strong they might just go away. But if it seems like there is a chink in their armor there, if there's a weakness, they’ll go in a little bit harder and maybe start roughing them up a little bit. And again, they are testing them.

So there is this testing process that happens all the time, and it happens in schools and I think a lot of the teasing there is a testing to see, “Are you gonna cry?”, “Are you gonna flinch?” “Are you gonna look weak?” So the message for kids is keep your power, look strong, stand up tall, ask the question back, walk away.

BABA: So a lot of the literature seems to deal with dealing with a bully, if your child is being bullied, but what if your child is the bully? How do you deal with them? What do you say to them? What if your child is complained against? How should you deal with that?

CARLISLE: Well first off, I try to talk about kids bullying rather than being the bully because if you start to use the word like bully or label like that, it fixes them in a role like they are something.

BABA: So what would you use?

CARLISLE: I tend to talk about a kid bullying. It’s a phase that kids go through and actually, I certainly tried to out on kids from time to time when I was going though school of exerting power over other kids to see what happened. And the number of kids who bully and the kids who are bullied are huge, its about one third of kids that are involved in bullying at any given time in a school in the U.S. So we are talking about large numbers of kids. So I think first off it is important to de-stigmatize it and just talk about "bullying kids."

So say, you get a message from the school saying your kid is bullying other kids. I think it’s important to go in there in a non-shaming way and when you talk to your kid, you know say, “Hey, what’s going on here?” and to explore with them a little bit about what they are seeing. Because the interesting thing is that the kids who are bullying quite often see the other kids as being mean to them. And they may be perceiving things wrong but it’s important to hear their side of events. Maybe they are jealous or angry or they are trying to get back at another kid. And then the focus becomes, how can you do things differently in the future?

You know, power, which is really what we are talking about here exists in every relationship. And it’s something we don’t often talk about. We talk about friendship and closeness and being nice to people, but equally true in every relationship where you are working, whether you are at school, whether you are at home, in the family life, power is going on all the time and we are trying to establish our position in the hierarchy and have a sense of power.

So, yes, we are going through school, pretty much every kid is trying to find their place in that pecking order and to establish some sense of power, and some kids do it by charm and some kids do it by just being brilliant at sport or natural leaders. And some kids do it by trying to take power over other kids and that’s called "bullying." But yes, power exists the whole time and in my work in bullying as I started to open my eyes to it, I’ve seen it everywhere. So it’s in the workplace and people come to me and say, “You know, in my work place, other people are putting me down or they are ostracizing me, rumors are being spread.” I’m saying to them, “That’s bullying!” And they wake up to the fact that power plays exist everywhere.

This story originally aired on April 26, 2010.


Hana Baba is host of Crosscurrents, KALW's weeknight newsmagazine that broadcasts on KALW Public Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area.