When a School Sports Team Protects a Bullied Classmate
By Doug Abrams
Middle school basketball games usually generate no headlines. The visiting team bus arrives, the teams suit up, and the players take the court for an hour or so. Parents and classmates cheer, the teams shake hands at the final buzzer, and the bus leaves for home. Nobody remembers the final score for very long, and the players are unlikely ever to recount middle school sports memories to their own children years later.
A recent basketball game at Lincoln Middle School in Kenosha, Wisconsin was different. The contest quickly went viral – not to be forgotten — because the Lincoln team’s dramatic act of citizenship eclipsed the scoreboard.
In the middle of the game, the eighth-grade Lincoln players saw one or more fans in the stands verbally abusing one of their courtside cheerleaders, Desiree Andrews, who has Down syndrome. The players (yes, the players) stopped the game and approached the stands to halt the maltreatment of their classmate.
“The kids in the audience were picking on Dee, so we all stepped forward,” Lincoln Middle School player Chase Vazquez said later. “We walked off the court and went to the bullies and told them to stop because that’s not right to be mean to another person,” teammate Miles Rodriguez told Fox & Friends. “It’s not fair when other people get treated wrong,” teammate Scooter Terrien explained to WTMJ-TV, because “we’re all created the same.”
Lessons To Be Learned
The Kenosha story resonates for two reasons. First, the bullying was happening (perhaps not for the first time) right under the noses of coaches and other school officials, who evidently did nothing to stop it before the players took matters into their own hands.
Second, the players demonstrated courage and values uncommon among students, who rarely intervene to protect a bullied classmate. Children are not born with courage or values, so the Lincoln Middle School basketball players must have learned right from wrong from their parents at home. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
The American Medical Association, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention correctly identify bullying as a serious “public health problem.” With research showing the profound immediate and lasting harm that bullying can wreak on school children, the Lincoln Middle School’s evident non-response and the eighth-grade players’ uncommon response each warrants our attention.
Pediatric professionals recognize bullying as a form of child abuse, perpetrated by other children rather than by adults. School officials overlook their protective and pedagogical roles when they ignore verbal or physical bullying that happens in plain sight.
If Lincoln Middle School authorities indeed tolerated the bullying of Desiree Andrews from the stands, the authorities failed on two accounts. Not only did they leave her unprotected; they may also have squandered an opportunity to teach citizenship lessons central to the public schools’ mission.
Protecting vulnerable students is serious business because researchers tell us that victims of bullying may display psychosomatic symptoms resembling ones suffered by many child abuse victims, including sleep disturbances, bedwetting, abdominal pain, high levels of anxiety and depression, loneliness, low self-esteem and heightened fear for personal safety. Bullying can also induce school phobia, increase truancy, or impair the victim’s concentration and classroom achievement. Research also indicates that persistent bullying leaves many victims with lifelong emotional scars.
Citizenship lessons also weigh heavily. “[E]ducating our youth for citizenship in public schools,” Chief Justice Warren Burger explained a generation ago, “is not confined to books, the curriculum, or civics class; schools must teach by example the shared values of a civilized social order.” The “basic educational mission,” the Chief Justice wrote, “emphasizes teaching the “habits and manners of civility. . . . The inculcation of these values is truly the ‘work of the schools.’”
Civility and bullying do not mix. Confronting bullies and their parents can put schools disciplinarians in precarious positions, but virtually all states have enacted strong anti-bullying legislation in the past two decades. This consensus commands schools to act, not only in classrooms and hallways, but also during school-sponsored extracurricular activities such as interscholastic sports competitions.
Players and Their Families
Now for the Lincoln players. . . . Like the students who verbally assaulted Desiree Andrews from the stands, most bullies crave an audience. Sooner or later, most bullying happens in front of student onlookers, most of whom do not intervene on a victim’s behalf or report the bullying. Onlookers are much more likely to avoid associating with the victim, or even to join the bullies in an effort to boost social position or to avoid being targeted. One study found that 85% of bullying incidents had student onlookers, but that onlookers intervened to protect the victim only 10% of the time. Bullies wield real or perceived power, and (as we know from incidents of adults who recoiled from aiding crime victims) confrontation takes guts.
The parents of the Lincoln Middle School basketball players must be teaching the right lessons at home. Children are not born with attitudes about bullying; bullying, and rejection of bullying, are learned responses. Researchers have found that parents can help prevent bullying by raising their own sons and daughters in a household that stresses civility, mutual respect, empathy, and tolerance. Peers, teachers and other adults exert influence, but parents remain prime role models for their children.
A “Public Health Problem”
For good or ill, peer pressure matters in the elementary and secondary schools. Now that the dust has settled, perhaps the Kenosha bullying was controlled better by the basketball players acting as a team than by teachers or administrators moving through the stands.
Rick Wolff, Brooke de Lench, Jim Thompson and others have spoken and written about the role that youth athletes can play when they act as a team to help prevent and control bullying that targets vulnerable classmates. By stepping up to protect a seemingly easy target who was no match physically or emotionally for bullies, the Kenosha middle school basketball players proved that these youth sports experts are on the right track.
Sources (with videos): Middle school basketball players defend bullied cheerleader, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/wisconsin-middle-school-basketball-players-defend-bullied-cheerleader/ (Mar. 12, 2015); Players leave court mid-game to confront bully of cheerleader with Down syndrome, http://www.foxnews.com/us/2015/03/13/players-leave-court-mid-game-to-confront-bully-cheerleader-with-down-syndrome/ (Mar. 13, 2015); Deneen Smith, Welcome to D’s House, Kenosha (Wis.) Times, Mar. 9, 2015; Douglas E. Abrams, A Coordinated Public Response to School Bullying, in Our Promise: Achieving Educational Equity for America’s Children (Carolina Academic Press 2009). Hat tips to Rick Wolff and Peter Randall for bringing the Kenosha story to my attention.