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Lynn Mikel Brown wrote an article for Education Week several years ago which I recently came across while doing research for the blog. Brown was the co-founder of a nonprofit organization created to provide a safe space for young girls to learn and grow with the emphasis being on developing resiliency to thrive in the complex social fabric of the 21st century.

In the article, Brown expresses her concerns about the current bully prevention movement and its increasingly dominant voice in the conversation about the role of educators and parents in the relational lives of students. Brown offers the reader what she describes as "10 ways to move beyond what is too often being sold as a panacea for schools’ social ills, and is becoming, I fear, a problem in and of itself". For the next several weeks, I'm going to consider Brown's 10 points and make the case that they should be the basis for our coaching and prevention efforts going forward.

Point #1 - Stop labeling kids. Brown posits that “Bully-prevention programs typically put kids into three categories: bullies, victims, and bystanders. Labeling children in these ways denies what we know to be true: We are all complex beings with the capacity to do harm and to do good, sometimes within the same hour. It also makes the child the problem, which downplays the important role of parents, teachers, the school system, a provocative and powerful media culture, and societal injustices children experience every day. Labeling kids bullies, for that matter, contributes to the negative climate and name-calling we’re trying to address."

I was blown away when I read this because I was in fact bully, victim and bystander at different times during those 12 years. I vividly remember being a total ass to a boy named Jim in middle school and a young man named Kevin in high school. I also remember being ostracized and made fun of every time I arrived as the “new kid”. I remember fighting to prove my toughness and keep the locals off my back. I also remember being held out my 3rd floor dorm room window at London Central High School in High Wycombe, England until I gave up the combination to my food locker. And, I remember how that older student tormented me until we finally became friends on the football field 6 months later.

I also remember laughing at kids who were the brunt of a joke or were being harassed and I remember standing up for the one’s I knew were too weak to do it themselves. As I look back, I have regrets for sure but I wasn’t a bad person. I was confused, scared, lonely and angry and I just wanted to fit in. I was bully, victim and bystander all rolled into one and fortunately for me, I was not given a label.

I’ve seen first hand what labels can do in education and in my coaching practice. I’ve seen grade level teachers perform a “draft” of matriculating students based on the student’s cum folder which had a green, yellow or red dot to signify the student’s academic and social progress to date. As a coach, I’m currently working with a 17 year old senior who’s struggling to graduate, not because he’s not capable, but because he’s been told so many times that he’s “ADHD, lazy and that he never finish anything he starts” by a verbally abusive father that he’s come to believe it. Labels are easy but they’re also dangerous and ignorant and next time we’ll take a closer look at labels and how they’re actually contributing to the problems we face.

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