"Do Not Tell On Bullies" And Other Bad Advice

by Emma Cueto

And the award for worst advice ever goes to: Zeman Elementary school in Lincoln, Nebraska, for their breathtakingly backwards bullying tips. The school recently handed out a flyer to the fifth grade class that was supposed to teach them how to deal with bullies. Rule number one on the list? "Refuse to get mad: Anger is a feeling we have towards our enemies, not our buddies."

That rule alone already has so many problems — bullies are not buddies, for starters, and anger is an emotion you can feel towards whoever you damn well please — but the list only gets worse from there. The flyer also advises students, "Do not verbally defend yourself," "Don't be a sore loser," and "Learn to laugh at yourself." Which are all rather vile, but the absolute worst "tip" is: "Do not tell on bullies."

What? What? WHAT!?

After a wave of parent complaints, the principal quickly apologized, saying that the flyer had not been approved by the administration and did not represent school policy. Part of his apology has been posted onto the school district's Facebook page, along with a link to a much more useful bullying resource. So that's good. And the school will be talking to the fifth graders about better, school-approved methods for handling bullying, so that's even better.

But the whole thing is still disturbing. The overall effect of the nine items on the list is a sense that it is the responsibility of the student being bullied to figure out a way to make the bullying stop, as though the problem is somehow their fault. In other words, we're starting to teach victim-blaming behavior in fifth grade.

Victim blaming is a term most often used in discussions of rape culture (and rightly so given that it's something all too many rape survivors are faced with), but victim blaming manifests itself in regards to other crimes as well. Even beyond the issue of sexual assault, we live in a culture that favors dominance and looks down on weakness. And a side effect of that is that our society often shuns those who display traits deemed as "weak" by, among other things, blaming people for their own problems.

We see this when people claim that poor people choose to be poor because they're lazy or criminals. We see this when domestic violence survivors are asked what they did to provoke abuse. We see it when rape victims are asked what they were wearing. And we apparently see it on fifth grade bullying flyers that advises kids, "Do not attack...It takes two people to fight, so it's the person who retaliates or responds who actually starts the fight."

This flyer paints bullying to be some sort of misunderstanding, or a problem that can be solved by just playing along or adopting some sort of martyr persona. When in reality bullying is a deeply painful act of aggression in which one person has control and another doesn't. So putting the blame on the powerless might be par for the course in our victim blaming culture, but it's never going to solve the problem. And teaching kids that it will is both irresponsible and enraging. Here is the full flyer: