I came across this story today from NPR's Facebook feed. Mostly it's pretty typical fare about anti-bullying tactics schools are taking, but I take issue with one particular section:
"Frederick County Public Schools has a zero-tolerance policy for any kind of physical violence," she warns.
And further down:
"We've done research on this issue, and quite often parents will tell their kids, 'Don't get into fights, don't do that. But if somebody hits you, you better hit back.' And sometimes that's where the rub is, between messages they hear at home and what is the reality in the school setting."
Note: these quotes are from two different individuals. The first is from a school-district representative, the latter from a researcher.
Let me make my personal opinion very clear: I'm extremely anti-violence. I believe violence harms the person causing injury as much as it harms the person being injured, and I'm happy to justify that with either philosophical discussion or psychological reports about the effects of PTSD if you wish. When I decided to learn to defend myself I deliberately chose to study aikido, arguably the most non-violent martial art on the planet, and pursued a sub-style that took the non-violent aspect to an extreme even at the expense of effectiveness. In my view, hitting people outside of sport is always bad.
But that doesn't mean it's always wrong. I've heard the arguments about how teaching kids to run for grown ups instead of hitting back turns them into wimps who can't solve their own problems, and frankly I don't buy it. Kids have lots of opportunities to learn independence, and I don't think the time to learn it is when the consequences involve concussions. Others will argue that bullies are cowards who will back down if you stand up to them whether you win or lose. That's a nice myth that's related to the truth, but it's still a myth. Studies have shown that bullies want to fight and they want fights they can win; if you lose to them, they keep coming back.
In 2004, Black Belt did what is, to my knowledge, the only large-scale study of real-life fights. While this study was targeted at adults, I believe the results extrapolate downwards. Out of over two-hundred violent incidents, all but fourteen were encounters that no one but a self-defense expert would refer to as a "fight." The overwhelming majority were physical bullying that ranged from pushing to assault. Why? Because the people who instigated the violence were looking for victims. They wanted the thrill of dominance. Anyone who gave the impression they would not be easy to dominate physically they avoided in search of easier prey.
If you consistently deliver a message to all the children in a school that if someone tries to hurt them that they should shouldn't fight back but rather run and get a grownup, all the bully hears is, "I can do what I like to the other kids and they won't do anything to me!" This is a message that will increase overall levels of violence, not decrease it. It is imperative that you don't tell kids that they can never, ever use violence.
The danger here is of falling into the line, "If you make all guns criminal then only criminals will have guns." And in response, when guns are legal and available, shooting deaths increase, and accidental deaths far out-number shootings in self-defense. If you tell kids that they can fight back, they'll find excuses to fight back, and then they find excuses to fight. Again, violence increases. Even when violence might be justified, it still turns into a game of, "He started it!" "No, he did!"
So what's the solution? In a perfect world, all kids would take martial arts classes from wise and compassionate teachers who would teach them skills of self-defense and the means to project that they are not potential victims, all while nurturing the maturity to ensure that violence is avoided. In reality, that's not possible due to constraints that range from money to time to disinterest to differing physical limitations to the fact that some kids would still be bullies.
As I said above, violence is always bad but it's not always wrong. Bad things have consequences. Kids can be taught that they're allowed to fight back but there's going to be punishment regardless, so they better be prepared to take those consequences. Will second-graders understand this? Probably not, but it may reduce long-term violence, and one day those kids will grow up and be a little more prepared to make hard choices.