Bully For You!

Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes published a heartfelt call to action against "bullying" in yesterday's online version of the Brooklyn Eagle:

We have heard so much about bullying in the media lately. Bullying is intentional, aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power or strength. Typically, the behavior is repeated over time. Bullying comes in many forms and occurs daily in our schools, school yards, homes and on the internet.

Hynes goes on to describe various measures his office has taken to address the issue and argues that "If more young people were to take a stand against bullying, then the phenomenon would likely diminish over time."

Hynes wants to "put an end to bullying," which is admirable, but he misses the point. Bullying, as he defines it — "intentional, aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power or strength" — is kind of a time-honored tactic.

Part of the confusion with his overly broad definition probably comes from the level of stakes; at the school level there is no rational reason for bullying — at least as an adult or a district attorney might see it — but that's only because we don't perceive the value of those stakes. We can look down on a budding sociopath's bullying behavior and see no purpose for it, but except for some extreme cases, the aggressive behavior is an expression of power (even if it's an "imbalance" of power) that is meant to elicit some sort of result.

Maybe I'm overthinking Hynes' op-ed; it does kind of read like someone from his office slapped it together, and his semi-regular "Ask The DA" feature has been going on since January 2007 — there's only so much stuff you can ask a DA, even one representing a place as exciting as Brooklyn. But if we take Hynes' argument seriously — and we should, since we need more sincerity in our reading and less overthinking of "texts" — then his exhortation to put and end to bullying kind of seems a little quixotic*.

Take the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program, for example — avoiding raising a generation of crack users is a good thing, but even that program has mixed results. I have heard it said — this is second-hand and I'm not able to confirm it quickly enough on the web — that the program "works" for younger children but has no effect on older children. That would make sense; pre-adolescents will think whatever you want them to think, especially if a cool dude with a badge and a holster rolls into the classroom.

I imagine the message breaks down when kids do drugs and don't see themselves or their peers immediately turn into crack addicts. I imagine the problem worsens when the program goes after legal products like tobacco or alcohol — there's a disconnect that quickly emerges after watching Tim Lincecum stuff chaw in his maw and then go on to beat Cliff Fucking Lee not once but twice in Lincecum's first World Series. I imagine the problem also worsens when the child sees his parents enjoy a very expensive, very wonderful fifteen-plus-year-old bottle of Barolo for a special occasion. Given these inputs, and given the bizarrely expansive scope of the D.A.R.E. program, it doesn't seem that odd that a D.A.R.E. graduate would go on to try smoking pot as a teenager. It's kind of ridiculous that they keep funding the program as it is. Seriously, how do you "resist pressure" to try an awesome bottle of Barolo? Are you yourself on crack?

Anti-bullying initiatives seem similarly misguided. On the one hand, yes, you want to take a bully by his ears and really slap him around — oops, sorry, that probably can be construed as "intentional, aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power or strength." But that's the point — boxing a bully's ears is OK inasmuch as we are correct and just in boxing the bully's ears. I guess the better option would be to contact the DA's office to request an anti-bullying workshop. Or maybe just remind the bully that what he is doing is unacceptable behavior.

Like my perceptions of the D.A.R.E. program, I'm sure that underscoring the message to a child that bullying is inherently wrong might work — but only up to a point. That point would probably be when he or she discovers that bullying actually works, especially the sort of bullying that the DA describes: "intentional, aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power or strength."

Let's stay in Brooklyn for some real-life examples of bullying, or alleged bullying, that proved successful. New York City Councilmember Darlene Mealy's yes vote on term limits is a great place to start:

Some of her colleagues have charged that Ms. Mealy was the subject of a high-pressure effort from either the speaker of the mayor. In fact one Council member reported seeing Ms. Mealy emerge from City Hall late last week in tears, saying that she was the subject of intense pressure.

"They put unbelievable pressure on her in a way that may have been unethical," said City Councilman Charles Barron, who represents an adjoining district to Ms. Mealy in Brooklyn and who was a strong opponent of the mayor's bill.

"She has said that she was under intense, intense pressure," Mr. Barron said. "I think it merits some kind of investigation, to be quite honest."

In an interview, Ms. Mealy was asked whether she had been threatened in any from either City Council speaker Christine C. Quinn or Mr. Bloomberg.

"I don't want to discuss it," she said.

And it would be unfair to pin all the bullying — sorry, "intentional, aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power or strength" — on just people in City Hall (allegedly):

Immediately after the City Council voted to extend the city's term limit laws, a good deal of attention focused on City Councilwoman Darlene Mealy, a Brooklyn Democrat who raised eyebrows by voting in favor of the bill after publicly opposing it.

Had she been the target of blackmail, many asked, or was she persuaded by some high-pressure tactics?

In an interview over the weekend, Ms. Mealy spoke for the first time about her decision, insisting that her change of heart was based on a sincere desire to establish better relationships with the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to benefit the constituents of her district in Brownsville.

"This was the best way to build my relationship with the speaker and the mayor," Ms. Mealy said. "And truthfully, I had no relationship with them. I think my district will benefit from my changing my position."

Because the mayor and the speaker had the votes to pass the bill, she said, it served no purpose for her to be a dissenting vote and fracture relationships with the city's two powerful leaders. After all, she reasoned, they might take revenge by cutting programs for her constituents.

"It didn't make sense for my district to be hurt," Ms. Mealy said. "I need to get resources for my district. We're already so low on the totem pole. It's actually pathetic. I felt I was acting in the best interest of my district."

However, several Brooklyn Democrats who have spoken with Ms. Mealy said that the councilwoman, an active member of the Transport Workers Union before joining the Council, was pressured by the union to support the extension of term limits. In exchange, the officials said, the union would be allowed to regain its right to collect dues from members' paychecks automatically.

The union was fined $2.5 million and stripped of what is known as dues check-off as punishment for a strike in December 2005.

Over the weekend, Ms. Mealy did not comment on that assertion, saying only that "there was a lot of pressure from all sides."

Point being, I think it's difficult to dissuade children from exploring expressions of power when there are so many examples of such behavior in the adult world.

Sometimes bullying, or "intentional, aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power or strength," has an element of "moral clarity" that few would argue with. Even if you question the particulars of Richard Armitage's conversation with Pervez Musharraf's intelligence chief in 2001, the end result looks similar to Darlene Mealy's experience. You can explain the conversation as such:

"I told him in a very straightforward way this was a black-and-white issue for Americans. You were either for us or against us.

"He started to tell me about Pakistan's history. … I said, 'You should communicate with your president and see if you are willing to cooperate with us.'"

He said he told Gen. M that if the answer was yes, they could meet the next day and Armitage would tell him the U.S. requirements. "They will be onerous," he said he told the Pakistani.

"The general came back the next day and said they were willing to go along with us. And I presented to him a list of items Secretary Powell and I had jotted down the night before."

He said several State Department personnel were in the room and heard the exchange, and "no one remembers a military threat. And the cable does not reflect that."

Or it seems that you could interpret that message similar to this:

Musharraf said in an interview to air Sunday on CBS' 60 Minutes that Armitage told a Pakistani official the United States would attack Pakistan if it didn't back the war on terror.

"The intelligence director told me that (Armitage) said, 'Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age,'" Musharraf said.

Armitage has disputed the language attributed to him but did not deny the message was a strong one.

On September 16, 2001, Pakistan pledged its support to the GWOT (there is a good timeline of this in this .pdf of a Princeton grad student's paper called "United States Diplomacy with Pakistan Following 9/11: A Case Study in Coercive Diplomacy") (the paper also makes the point that "U.S. officials threatened to add Pakistan to a State Department list of seven terrorist-sponsoring nations which would portend the possibility of U.S. force" and "According to one high-ranking official at U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, President Musharraf was told to either abandon support of Taliban or be prepared to be treated like the Taliban" — the underlying message seems the same whether you say either of those things or "Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age").

On September 14, 2001, even the faceless and stoic and facelessly stoic New York Times opinion page wrote approvingly in terms of coercion:

The most effective pressure point on the Taliban should be Pakistan, whose army and intelligence agencies helped it win control five years ago and help sustain it today despite international sanctions. Pakistan, under the control of a military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has until now rebuffed American requests to help secure Mr. bin Laden's arrest. The Bush administration has sharply ratcheted up the pressure on Pakistan this week, as well it should, and Pakistan indicated yesterday that it may cooperate.

Now it's possible that whoever was behind the push for a third term for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg felt a similar sort of moral clarity. I'm sure they did — or at least I hope they did, because it's much more soothing to believe that people act based on what is just and right versus just wanting to be in control for the sake of being in control of something.

Other successful examples of bullying just spiral downward from there. Family planning. Steve Hindy's experience on the Williamsburg Waterfront of yore. The Death Cheese Club. Stuff soon starts to fold in on itself.

Point being, kids bully each other and it's going to take more than a meek anti-bullying curriculum to unlearn all this modeling they get from adults. Maybe the campaign should be recast as "Don't bully for lame reasons." Or "Don't bully . . . except if you're trying to get President Musharraf on board with the Global War on Terror, in which case let your inner Aaron Sorkin take over and go full Jed Bartlet on his Qumarish ass, because we all want to see a president with the cojones to take control of a situation and save American lives." Or even "Don't bully — unless you're counting critical votes to pass City Council legislation to overturn term limits for less-than-clear reasons." Whatever it is, avoiding "intentional, aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power or strength" doesn't seem to cut it. And unless you differentiate between good and bad bullying — whatever that is — it's going to be up to the budding sociopaths and psychopaths to unpack it for themselves.

*A while back I resolved not to use this word until I actually read Don Quixote. I still haven't done that — even though the 2005 Harper Perennial edition is only 992 pages — but it was too much to resist in this context. Plus, it's such a great Scrabble word!

Posted: November 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For Reals No For Serious | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Federal-Level Milk Sops And The Need For National School Lunch Program Reform

Last week I had the opportunity to visit two school cafeterias while tagging along with Jen on a work-related outing. Both places we saw were doing fantastic stuff with school meals (which includes breakfast, lunch and after-school and mid-afternoon snacks), and it was inspiring how cash-strapped districts are doing the best they can to serve high-quality meals to students.

We hear a lot about the virtues of home cooking and avoiding processed foods, and a lot of it starts to feel fatiguing, if not annoyingly preachy, but it's important to remember that knowing how to cook for yourself and eating healthy foods is the first and best thing we can all do to keep ourselves healthy. (Better to do this than have the mayor of New York City arbitrarily decide which food additives are OK to consume. We shouldn't have to have the city health department banning food additives. We should know, or want to know, what to eat ourselves. That should be uncontroversial, but people seem to get confused about this.)

A large part of education in general involves modeling good behavior, and school cafeterias have the power to serve as a good model for healthy eating. School lunches aren't going anywhere and it's important to show kids what a balanced meal means, especially at an early age. School systems have done a great deal of good recently making simple and obvious choices like not selling soda pop or eliminating chocolate milk. The second part of that is developing high-quality, good-tasting food, which is easier said than done, but no less obvious.

The actual food schools serve has emerged as an important issue for those concerned about nutrition and childhood obesity. And although it's always a mistake to use your own outdated, imperfect memories of how school is to inform your current views of education, you probably remember the tater tots and chocolate milk that you got as a kid. You probably remember more fondly the prepackaged pies and soda pop that your weekly lunch allowance afforded you. I remember the stuff served in cafeterias being generally disgusting, and by high school I either took my lunch or microwaved burritos at 7-Eleven — or skimped in general to give myself extra money to use at the record store that weekend.

One thing about the school lunch experience that hasn't changed for anyone is the standard-issue half-pint carton of milk. If you peruse the National School Lunch Program website, it seems that a standard-issue carton of milk has been part of school lunches since the National School Lunch Act was approved by Congress back in 1946. Which basically means that everyone your parents' age and under has been served a carton of milk with their school lunches. And if you go to a school cafeteria today you'll see the same little cartons of milk — federal regulations call for six ounces for smaller kids and eight ounces for older students.

And while I do believe that it's always a mistake to use your own outdated, imperfect memories of how school is to inform your current views of education, one thing about school lunches can be extrapolated across the board: Simply, drinking milk is disgusting.

I suppose the images of milk at the dinner table on shows like the Brady Bunch or Leave It To Beaver are supposed to telegraph a societal standard of drinking milk, but I can think of few, if any, personal examples of children I knew who were forced to drink it. (Interesting: I just Googled "Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving," and it appears that each member of the smiling happy family getting ready to devour that big turkey in Freedom From Want has full glasses of water in front of them, not milk.)

I'll allow that maybe at some point parents believed that drinking several glasses of milk a day — no matter how icky it was — was "healthy," but they also served "healthy" and "nutritious" food that we know now to be kind of unhealthy — I'm thinking of liver in particular. I like liver fine — you can do cool stuff with liver — but I can't imagine getting a giant pan-fried slab of it each week.

Even if milk is healthy, let's admit that it's disgusting to drink and work on ways to replace the calcium in milk, which as far as I can tell is the only benefit of consuming milk in liquid form. Here's a good Harvard School of Public Health article about calcium and milk, and here's a list (.pdf) from the USDA of calcium-rich foods. The worst-case scenario if you eliminate full frothy glasses of milk is that you will need to replace approximately one-third of your recommended daily allowance of calcium. The good news is that potatoes-au-gratin tastes awesome (and in all seriousness, leafy greens are good for you and eating cheese is that much more delicious than drinking milk).

Here's why all this matters. Schools across the country depend on the federal National School Lunch Program to reimburse the significant costs of feeding children each day. Take a look at this fact sheet (.pdf) — in 2009, 31 million children took advantage of school meals that the federal government helped subsidize. And while the regulations tend to provide general guidelines for nutrition in the meals, one thing stands out — "A reimbursable lunch must include at least three menu items. One of those menu items must be an entree, and one must be fluid milk as a beverage" (see page 26 of this .pdf, for example). Notice that it doesn't say what the entree has to be, only that you have to serve fluid milk with it. Even if schools do some "alternate menu planning," they still must offer fluid milk with the meals (page 33).

In general I don't mind the federal government attaching strings to federal assistance. There are many examples of this — No Child Left Behind instituted conditions to receiving federal education funding and the National Minimum Drinking Age Act famously restricted federal highway funds for states that didn't raise their drinking age. It's federal money; Congress has a right to say how it should be used. But in this day and age, the USDA's milk requirement seems ridiculous.

Here is another thing you might not have realized: Those little cartons of milk account for one-quarter of food costs for schools. A USA Today article outlines the breakdown:

School cafeterias get up to $2.47 a student from the U.S. government to serve lunch. After expenses such as labor, transportation, utilities and equipment, schools are left with a little more than $1 to put food on a tray. Costs typically include 25 cents for a carton of milk, about 25 cents for fruit and additional money if they also serve vegetables. About 50 cents is left for an entrée. Many students pay for at least a portion of their lunch, and as the student contribution rises, the part covered by the government drops, which leaves schools to cover the difference.

Even when food costs go up, schools are still on the hook for covering milk costs. I thought the administrator we talked to last week said that milk accounted for half of his cafeteria's food costs, but even if a carton is one-quarter of food costs, that is a significant and disturbing number. Especially for something that is as disgusting to drink as milk.

I suppose we could blame the dairy lobby, but it's not like drinking milk suddenly appeared out of nowhere. That said, discouraging children from getting substantial calories from beverages has to have long-term benefits, and drinking more water seems like a healthier choice for everyone. But then we'd have to go back to that onerous federal mandate that every meal feature a serving of fluid milk.

And don't think I didn't ask the logical next question — fluid milk has to be served at the table in a carton; it can't be dumped into a side dish or converted to fresh mozzarella or served as yogurt (yogurt is actually considered a meat — see page 31 of the regulations in the link above) or really anything that might make milk more palatable. And unless Congress acts to change this, that carton of milk will stay on the trays of your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, probably outlasting even tater tots (sooner rather than later, apparently).

So when you think about how difficult it is to battle childhood obesity, increasing rates of diabetes and a general lack of healthy eating habits, remember that that stupid carton of milk that the federal government mandates be included on every cafeteria tray accounts for at least one-quarter of school food costs. Let that sink in. I'll repeat it, because it totally shocked me: That stupid carton of milk that the federal government mandates be included on every cafeteria tray accounts for at least one-quarter of school food costs.

Nutritionists, chefs, educators, parents and many, many others are spending a great amount of time and effort teaching children to eat better. Think about what we could do without that carton of milk. And while the federal government has no problem enforcing milk regulations, for some reason it still dithers on fully funding the 30 percent of special education costs that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act promised, funding that could probably actually do a lot to "fix" education in the United States. But that's a different issue for a different day.

Posted: November 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Feed, For Reals No For Serious | Tags: , , , , , , ,