With another school year now underway, teachers earmark much of their first week’s schedules to establishing routines, defining expectations and setting goals for their students. It seems a good portion of that time is spent educating and helping students cope with a problem that appears to have increased 10-fold over the past few decades that I believe has a direct correlation to student depression, anxiety and even suicide. That problem is bullying.
Bullying occurs across all age groups, but schools seem to be an optimum breeding ground for bullying behavior. Amazingly enough, bullying isn’t exclusively a human behavior and also happens (as my family would painstakingly discover) in the animal world.
Fearing a predator had infiltrated our chicken coop one evening, I hurried into the run and was surprised to find no predator but instead one of our best laying hens wedged between two hay bales head first and not moving. Something had frightened the pin feathers off of her, and I had to move the bales to free her. The rest of the hens (except the dominant one) huddled under the coop nervously looking about as I reunited “Daisy” with them.
I decided to put a camera in the coop to see if we could determine what was going on. What we saw on the camera surprised us. Things were pretty normal as the birds went to roost, but as daylight arrived, the dominant hen hopped off her perch on top of the coop and immediately began attacking the rest of the flock as they waited to be let out into the run, herding them about intentionally and singling out Daisy.
By the time we figured out the flock was being bullied by “Devil Chicken,” Daisy had become lethargic, quit eating or drinking, wouldn’t walk into the coop to roost and wouldn’t open her eyes. We feared her eyes had been damaged by her attacker, and she couldn’t find her way to food. After a trip to the vet, he determined her injuries were not physical but she’d been so traumatized her body refused to respond to normal routines. We took her home and for the next week we fed her strained baby food and water through a tub we inserted into her stomach. We anticipated a quick recovery with daily nourishment and isolation from her attacker, but sadly she showed little improvement, and ultimately we decided to end her suffering with the help of our family veterinarian.
My epiphany from this experience was that, in a way, kids and adults who are bullied suffer the same symptoms as our Daisy: They are singled out because of a perceived weakness or differences, then relentlessly hounded by their attacker(s) in a show of power and dominance. Unfortunately for us (and Daisy) we found out too late about what was happening right under our noses. We have since relocated the problem bird, and the remaining hens seem settled and more relaxed (their eggs aren’t hard boiled anymore). If only we could completely remove human bullies as easily as moving that dominant chicken out of the flock.
There are things we can do as educators to curb bullying and empower kids with strategies of their own to keep them safe, the first being to share their experiences with an adult. The second is educating the bystanders witnessing the bullying to step in and stop it. Had the rest of the flock turned on Daisy’s assailant every time she tried to attack her, she might have thought twice about her choices. But then again, she’s a chicken, so who knows.
I decided to ask my own sons if they had ever been bullied in school. They are all strapping lads now involved in their careers, raising families and serving their communities and in the military. Their responses to my request were both eye opening and heart breaking. Although they each remembered specific times they were bullied or witnessed bystanders step in to stop an incident, they all experienced what can only be classified as an assault, whether physical or mental.
As parents we wish we could follow our kids around and protect them from all the drama and pain that they endure each day, but we can’t. I didn’t know about any of the events my sons shared with me. Oh how I wish I would have known so I could have helped them.
One of my sons offered the following experience:
“I got called ‘fat’ a lot, and kids would leave hate notes on my locker,” he said. “I specifically remember a few kids telling me they were glad I didn’t have a mom and had lost a brother and that I deserved to be a ‘walking tragedy.’ I didn’t handle it well and bottled most of it up, which led to lots of acting out and being disrespectful towards those who tried to help me.”
After spending time with one of his brothers during those difficult times, he said “I knew then that you guys were the right family I was supposed to be in and had a place I fit in just by being me.”
How lucky I have been to have sons who are so close and support each other during times of pain and suffering.
Parents, talk to your kids, pay attention to their moods and behaviors and hopefully you’ll never experience what we did with our family and our Daisy.
Chad Hawkes is a fifth grade teacher at North Park Elementary School. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.