Leah Kyaio is a Professional Development Trainer, specializing in the area of diversity and inclusion. She is the CEO of With Respect, LLC, which provides unique expertise, experience, and tools for engaging resistance within the workforce as well as issues where previous diversity work has resulted in divisiveness, violence, or toxic work environments.
Below, Leah shares her expertise on navigating the topic of bullying for minority students during the pandemic, both online and offline.
Throughout the pandemic, children have struggled with keeping connections to their peers strong and healthy. Bullying has always been a concern among school-aged children, and that didn’t just disappear as schools shut down and moved to largely virtual instruction.
With the tech-savviness of today’s children, adolescents, and teens, bullying online (cyberbullying) has added a new level of concern for parents and schools. Research indicates that cyberbullying has increased during the pandemic. Bullying online is harder to control, and in most cases the things posted online are out there forever.
With old-fashioned, offline bullying and cyberbullying remaining an issue even throughout the COVID pandemic, it’s up to parents, teachers, and administrators to pay attention and brainstorm ways to curb the problem.
Minority students often experience a level of bullying that differs from their white peers. According to studies, racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to experience alienation and loneliness, especially in a virtual school environment where isolation is a factor for everyone. As the diversity of schools continues to expand, inclusion takes more and more of a front seat in conversations. This raises the stakes of managing issues like cyberbullying.
The Sins of the Fathers (and Mothers)
Not only were children grappling with a historic pandemic, but the summer of 2020 brought a civil rights reckoning on the heels of instances of police brutality against the black community. Black Lives Matter and Critical Race Theory started to appear in the news frequently, causing rifts in thought and opinion. Within these heated discussions, the idea of equity in the classroom came under fire. As children watched adults battle it out on and offline, the influence bled into their thoughts and words. As has always been true, children’s actions mirrored that of the world around them. Add to that the stress of the pandemic society and it is logical that cyberbullying increased.
Opening the conversation on systemic racism seemed to give license to a myriad of implicit and explicit biases, with students of color more and more in the crosshairs, showing up as questions, crass statements, emphasis on stereotypes, and Oppression Olympics (“I’m more oppressed than you because….”).
The Internet is Forever
Emerging science suggests people’s brains are not done developing until age 25. Kids and teens often show a lack of understanding of the permanency of posts online. They live their lives in social media circles, and whatever they may be experiencing, from pandemic shutdowns to racial tension, peppers their interactions. The result is they have little connection to the idea that what they type today may come back in not-so-good ways later.
When working with students, I teach the tools of maintaining respect, not because I like you, accept you, or even know you, but because we are all human. Taking our lives online runs the risk of diminishing our human-ness, in some ways. Students are far more likely to say things and engage in bullying behavior they would never dream of doing in person. The anonymity that virtual interactions sometimes provide leads to harsher words, greater criticisms, and discriminatory actions.
It’s integral for quelling bullying to open conversations regarding equity, acceptance, and understanding various minority experiences. The more students understand one another and listen to the stories of their peers, the more compassion and empathy they learn and demonstrate. This instruction should include how to ask questions and stay curious as well as learning the antidote to the language of shame, blame, and judgment. It is the art of emphasizing how words, online and off, can hurt and how to state opinions without making enemies.
You might be interested: Why words matter: The negative impacts of racial microaggressions
Creating a safe environment for students to learn about one another and speak openly about issues is integral to mitigating the issue of bullying. Compassion and grace are required if there is to be any expectation of change. We can do this by reminding our children that the rules of respect apply to their behavior online as well as offline, that if they wouldn’t say it to a person in front of them, they shouldn’t type it.
As adults, it is important to remember the trauma that bullying and prejudice can cause and recognize how much more vulnerable minority students become in the virtual world. This can be one of our primary motivations to teach all students how to be respectful.
Educational institutions are becoming increasingly more diverse related to sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, immigration status, gender identity, and creed. Institutions need to have a secure plan that includes compassion and education to decrease instances of bullying online and off and to support students in learning to manage their virtual experience with respect and dignity.
About Leah Kyaio
Leah identifies as Two-Skinned, having a Blackfoot mother—a Native American Tribe—and an Appalachian white father. Her early childhood experiences gave her insight into the privilege provided by the white skin she wears. That same early experience and trauma made clear the connection of the historical trauma of her Native heritage. With that early lived experience of white privilege and seeing the disparities across race, gender, and class, she recognized her unique position to be able to speak and teach the tools necessary to engage in deeper conversations in the forever process of mitigating the impacts of systemic oppression. That’s where With Respect LLC was born. Through her business, she does diversity differently, finding that by teaching tools of respect and belonging, the consequential behavior changes lead to dignity and respect across all the -isms.