Framework to Identify Passive Participants in Conflict (PPiC) [3 of 12]
Strategies for Healing and Transforming Experience: Self Hate [5 of 12]
At a private elementary school in New York City, an 8th grade girl, Amanda, decides that she doesn’t like Julia, a small, studious, kind 5th grade girl, because Julia reminded Amanda, “we’re not supposed to go up on the stage without a teacher” when Amanda was going up on the stage one day. Amanda tells Penny “Julia is such a goody-goody, she’s annoying, let’s teach her a lesson. Tell Julia to meet you behind the library at recess.” Amanda brings duct tape from home and when Julia comes behind the library, Amanda grabs Julia and tapes Julia’s hands together. Terrified, Julia complies with everything they say. When they hear someone coming, Amanda and Penny pull Julia into a nearby alcove and discuss whether to tape Julia’s mouth, they decide not to but threaten that they’ll get even with her if she makes a sound. Amanda wants to leave Julia in a construction area that is “forbidden without a teacher” as they round a corner, another 5th grader, Sabrina, comes along. Sabrina sees that Julia looks distressed and says, “Hey, what are you doing?” Amanda tells Sabrina “mind your own business” but Sabrina sees Julia bound hands, “Julia, are you OK?” Penny grabs Sabrina, but Sabrina struggles distracting Amanda and Penny. Sabrina yells “Run Julia! Go get help!” Julia runs to her classroom and Sabrina breaks free from Amanda’s grip. Sabrina and Julia tell their teacher. The school administrators hear from the two sets of girls and suspend Amanda and Penny for two days and require them to write an essay reflecting on their actions. A week later, the school sends a letter to the parents indicating that two older girls had tied the hands of a younger student and then untied them and that the school had managed the situation. Julia’s parents are extremely distressed after hearing about this event from their daughter; they feel that more should be done to punish the older girls, but they feared if they stand up on behalf of their daughter, it would be their daughter who would suffer the consequences from the school. Julia’s parents are hard working public servants; they are comfortable but not wealthy. Amanda’s parents are very wealthy, have donated a lot of money to the school, and are leaders of a fundraising campaign for the school. During her suspension, Amanda’s mother took her shopping for the afternoon. The parents of the girls involved meet with school administrators and the matter is deemed resolved, but what about the community? I hear about this event while visiting with a friend and his daughter, Beth, a classmate of Julia’s; after her father relayed the story, Beth looked at him and said “Daddy, I’m scared.” There was no attention to fully healing the entire community, rather the interest was to quickly, quietly resolve the situation, but at what cost? If a school has the best teachers and a state-of-the-art campus, yet students are terrified within the environment, will they be able to learn? Is this merely, ‘kids being kids’ or is this a manifestation of other systemic issues? Does it matter that there are numerous power imbalances between Amanda/Penny and Julia/Sabrina –Amanda and Penny are older, larger, wealthy, and Caucasian- while Julia and Sabrina are younger, smaller, working class, and of Asian/Latino descent? How does a school equip a new generation with tools – skills and capacity- to build a brighter, inclusive future? How can adults – parents, teachers, community members – offer guidance to young people in this situation and demonstrate living together well, not condoning bullying and oppression? What is a just response that breaks the cycle of violence, offers healing for everyone, and transforms the situation to reclaim wholeness for the individuals and the community?
In applying the Passive Participant in Conflict (PPiC) framework to this scenario, we will focus primarily on the conflict as it arises out of the age differences while noting additional layers of power imbalance that may contribute to the experience of conflict for the participants.
All the 8th graders (13 year olds) become members of a collective oppressor group. Even though all have not ‘acted,’ their power relationship to the actors and victims makes them passive participants to this conflict. There are several perspectives that these 8th grade students might hold. Some might not see a problem at all. Some might not agree with the behavior of the two girls, but do not see themselves as involved. Others might not agree with the girls conduct, and might choose to act in a protective way toward the younger students.
The 7th graders (12 year olds) become passive participants to this conflict. Although the 7th graders may feel intimidated by the power of 8th graders, they have two grades of students below them who may be deferring to their power as they are much like 8th graders to these younger children. This group is likely to be unaware of their power role, since they are acutely aware of the power of those older than they are. When the 7th graders become 8th graders, they would likely be hurt and confused if younger students were scared of them, because they didn’t “do” anything. If the school adopted a strict policy on this kind of conduct the following year, this group might feel resentful that they are being ‘punished’ for a wrong that they did not commit. Next year, when this group become 8th graders, their use of power may be influenced by their experience of having been involved, albeit passively, in this conflict. Though one might believe that simply having experienced being oppressed provides enough guidance for people to learn to use their power well, history suggests that modeling is a powerful teacher; thus, until the injuries under power abuse are healed and one learns to use one’s power consciously, change is not likely to happen.
The 6th graders (11 year olds) also become passive participants to this conflict.
The 6th graders have a dominant power role related to the 5th graders. Though with two grades above them, they are likely to identify more with the 5th graders and the experience of being ‘under’ others’ power, and one might expect the 6th graders to “do” more to support the younger students, perhaps making an effort to develop friendships across grades and looking out for younger girls; as a group, they are likely to actively promote equity and safety within the community.
The 5th graders (10 year olds), share a common characteristic with the victim, and thus, are all passive participants to the conflict. They have three grades of power holders above them. After an incident like this, some might be expected to hold a global sense of fear, such as that expressed by Beth, who now has a fear at school. Others might identify with the targeted child differently and experience something akin to survivors’ guilt—a sense that “it could have been me”.
The school administrators and teachers are also passive participants in this conflict. As people who are older and in power, they are by default most closely aligned with the 8th graders in this situation. However, as adults and administrators, they hold power to determine how to handle the 8th graders and the how to manage the entire school community. They punished the two students who acted out by suspending them from school, and they responded to the parents of children directly involved with a meeting to facilitate understanding of the situation. In one sense, the administrators are bystanders to the conflict between the girls; yet with a connection to this event, they are also participants and how they choose to intercede reflects how they model using their power.
Within the adult community, there are additional layers of power related to position and wealth. As private school administrators and teachers, the school’s faculty work for the parents. They have an obligation to realize the school’s academic mission and to maintain the school’s fiscal health. As such, these administrators have authority over the children, yet they remain accountable to the parents. In the adult landscape of power that considers position and wealth, one might recognize similar power positions analogous to the grades of student.
 This is a fictional narrative for teaching any resemblance to a true story is purely coincidental.
 This relationship is peculiar to private school environments, but analogous to a variety of other situations, so I chose to make this “hypothetical case study” in a private school.