A Response to Hillary Clinton's Anti-Bullying Proposal

By MI Fellow Melody Arabo

Where have all the bullies gone? They haven’t. Bullies are everywhere. They are in your classrooms, in your neighborhoods, at your office, and on your Facebook posts. Sometimes they are staring at you in the mirror. The idea of the big, dumb mean guy that pushes people into lockers and steals their lunch money is gone. The self-absorbed, airheaded mean girl doesn’t really exist anymore either. The stereotypical bullies we’ve always known from movies and tv have been replaced with your nice, normal, average everyday American, like you and me.

We are all bullies in some way. But some choose to say mean bully things in their heads, and some share them with the world. Lately, more and more people are letting their hate ooze out of their pores every chance they get. Don’t get me wrong, we are good people, but we can be so damn mean. Nice kids are mean too. Trust me, I’ve seen it every year in my third grade classroom. I’ve also spent the last fifteen years trying to figure out why, and it’s clear now. If you see yourself as a good person, which most of us do, it becomes really hard to think of yourself as a bully, even when you should.

Donald Trump is the perfect example. Throughout his campaign, he’s managed to degrade and offend almost every minority group in America. But even worse, it appears that his behavior is contagious, that citizens on both sides of the political spectrum have permission to say and do whatever they want - no matter how hurtful it is - and be cheered on by their agree-ers. Trump sees no wrongdoing with his actions, even when he publicly mocked a disabled reporter. He refuses to see himself as a bully, therefore anyone that tries to call him one is wrong. If you’ve ever tried to call someone a bully, I can almost guarantee you were met with adamant denial. No one sees themselves that way or ever wants to admit it if they do.

Where has all the kindness gone? We would rather tear each other down than lift each other up. Allure magazine recently did a story about Lizzie Velasquez, the woman with a disease that prevents her from gaining weight. While it was meant to be an uplifting post about a beautiful, strong woman who rises above bullying, it somehow elicited such hate. I couldn’t help but wonder if the people that called her “ugly” and “disgusting” see themselves as bullies. Doubtful. They have somehow justified their thinking and let it spew out from their minds into print with no regard for the actual human being it will affect.

People need to understand that their words matter. That their behaviors have a rippling impact, whether it’s on one person or an entire marginalized group. Our individual actions have power, and we can choose to impose that power to inflict pain or to heal pain.  

Where has all the empathy gone? We no longer see each other as humans who feel pain. In January, my six year old son passed away from influenza induced encephalopathy. A week later, I was in a public battle to keep his twin brother in his neighborhood school. While I was grieving one child and fighting for the civil rights of the other, some turned on me because they had a difference of opinion. Just last week, a woman who has never met my family posted some pretty vicious lies and disparaging comments about me and my sweet little boy. People were outraged and came to our defense, but she stood firm in her right to speak her mind, no matter how hurtful it was. Does she see herself as a bully? Nope. When I reached out and asked her to stop, she told me that “the truth hurts” and she was simply a voice for “all the people” that don’t agree with our cause.

How quickly people forget the heartache that others endure. It’s not that I think people should be nice to me because I lost a child. They should be nice because I’m human. If we could learn to see other perspectives and really think about what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, we might be less inclined to let our inner bully show.

Last week, Hillary Clinton proposed a $500 million federal program to combat bullying. Her proposal is timely. It is necessary. It gives me hope. But it will take so much more than more money. More counselors will help, but what exactly will they do? More training is critical, but what exactly will it focus on? Comprehensive anti-bullying laws sound like a good idea, but what happens when those laws are broken? Do the kids or adults that break them go to jail? In reality, none of those things will matter if people refuse to acknowledge their actions as bullying.

Clinton stated that “bullying is a real problem in our classrooms, on our playgrounds and online. And teachers have reported that this election has made it worse.” She is absolutely right. This election has perpetuated a polarized society that thrives on division - democrats against republicans, blacks against whites, women against men, parents against parents, natives against foreigners. The list goes on and on. Maybe people have always felt divided, but when did they decide they can say what they want, regardless of the impact it has on others? If we want to “make America great again,” vitriol has no place here.

I’m a woman. I’m a teacher. I am middle eastern. I connect with almost every subgroup that Trump has degraded at some point in his campaign. Yet I don’t hate him. I actually feel bad for him because he doesn’t realize the depth of his own prejudices. He might be a great person in many respects. He might not even be a bully, but he definitely acts like one sometimes. I guess we all do, and admitting it is a good start.

Let’s continue by having meaningful conversations about what bullying actually is and what we need to do to fix it.

With the right dialogue, we can develop a plan that will shift our thinking and change the way we tackle bullying. Hillary Clinton is setting the stage for that and designating the funding to back it up. We should use these funds to create a new vision. To reflect. To heal. To find kindness again. To feel empathy again. Most importantly, let’s use them to change the way we treat bullying, because just like a contagious disease, we need to commit to finding a cure.

Melody Arabo has been a third grade teacher at Keith Elementary in the Walled Lake Consolidated School District since 2002. She has a Bachelor's Degree in Elementary Education and a Master's Degree in Teaching and Curriculum, both from Michigan State University. She has been married for over 14 years and has three children - a ten year old daughter and six year old twin boys. Melody was honored to serve as the 2015 Michigan Teacher of the Year and is currently a Teaching Ambassador Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education. Through the Michigan Educator Voice Fellowship, she plans to highlight all of the outstanding advancements of the public school system and celebrate the hard work and unmatched dedication of public school teachers.