For those of you who aren’t aware, the National Association of School Psychologist’s conference is in San Francisco this week. Seeing as how it’s in my hometown this year, I couldn't not go, right? I usually pick all conferences by venue. I missed last year's NASP conference because it was someplace cold. No thanks.
So this year, I was very excited to see old friends, learn new things, and do it all from the comfort of my hometown. The first day of the conference, it was a bit of a sensory overload, but fun. The second day of the conference, I was in the groove, and I had my nerdy little NASP bookbag filled with 8 squillian pens I had hoarded from the exhibit hall freebies, ready to learn. That morning, I hopped on our local train, BART, and thumbed through the 80 lb list of sessions and planned my day. I’ve been in the Bay Area about 10 years now, so I am a regular BART-user, and I craftily picked the last car because I knew there would be a seat. I win.
I approached my station and as I exited, I heard someone scream, “Bitch!” and heard a spitting sound right behind me. I exited the train, turned around, the doors closed, and this belligerent man was roaming the back car, yelling and spitting. I foolishly then touched the back of my head, and my hand was wet with spit. I had been spit on. My crime was walking near a crazy person. Horrified, I went to the nearest police officer to report the harassment.
Me: Officer? Um, yes, I’ve just been yelled at and spit on by a belligerent passenger on the Daly City train headed southbound.
Officer: (Smirking) Well, ma’am, have you ever ridden BART before?
Me: I have been riding BART for 10 years and that’s irrelevant. Passengers should not be spit on and cursed at.
Officer: (Condescendingly) Well, sometimes, when you see a crazy person, you should just move away from them.
Me: Are you kidding me? I was exiting the train, never even saw this person, and I was spit on from behind! And how is this my fault for not being able to prevent a crazy person from targeting me for no reason? And he's getting away! He's probably at Civic Center right now, harassing other people! (At this point, I burst into tears)
Officer: (Using calm, soothy voice now, smirkiness gone). Ma’am, I will call it in.
Me: (sniffling) Thanks…it’s…sniff…just….that….I…don’t…sniff…want someone else to be…sniff…victimized.
Good times, right? I wanted to go home and disinfect my hair. I wasn’t even really crying because the guy spit on me. He probably had some sort of thought disorder in the schizophrenic family of diagnoses. Yes, I do 4 second DSM-IV diagnoses. As my friend who joined me shortly after the incident said, “Let’s CBT this. At least it wasn’t in your face?”* What was really upsetting was the officer’s response. He basically inferred that it was common, so it wasn’t a problem and then that it was my fault for not being psychic and avoiding the person.
After attending sessions all day, conveniently on anti-bullying, I got to thinking about my one incident of victimization, and about how we respond to kids who report repeated victimization and bullying. I work with them all the time. Teachers and parents want the kid to toughen up. I empathize, problem-solve with them, and teach assertiveness. I always work with the bully too.
I think inadvertently, we can re-victimize kids who are bullied. The officer’s “It’s common” argument sounds a lot like the “Kids can be cruel, you have to develop a thick skin” argument I hear in the schools. The officer’s comment, “Well, you should just move away from crazy people” is a variant of “Did you try ignoring him or avoiding him?” Both arguments put the burden of change on the victim. I have first hand experience with the “just ignore him!” argument backfiring on me big-time (See the My Words Taste Yucky incident of 2008.)
We could all be more thoughtful when we process bullying incidents with kids. I have found that bullying is a very complex issue, and we often jump to “easy” solutions like asking the victim to be less sensitive or avoid the bully. I can’t remember who said the quote, but I remember it: “For every complex problem, there is a quick, easy, and simple solution that is wrong.” We get it wrong when we only work with the victim on their role in the interaction, and not with the bully and even the bully bystanders.
As I attend conference presentations this week on bullying interventions, social skills promotion, and prevention of violence, I hope I do pick up some more insights on how to help. And I hope I don’t have to do it with any more spit in my hair. *gags*
*Cognitive behavioral therapy: change your thoughts, change your feelings. I needed that. My thought “I have some sort of disease in my hair” was not making me feel better. “At least it wasn’t in my face” did make me feel better.