The old saying, “if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”, reflects one of the central issues in combating bullying and brings forth the question: Can bullying ever truly be eradicated?
The simple answer is yes.
The answer may be simple, but the process is quite complex. If we continue to react to bullying behaviors rather than taking a proactive approach, bullying will continue. If we re-work our thinking and find a way to turn bullying behaviors around, we stand a chance of eradicating or, at the very least, significantly reducing bullying behaviors in our schools.
The first step is to recognize what bullying is. Many teachers and administrators deny they have a “bullying problem”, yet statistics show that 1:5 children have admitted to being a bully. Twenty three percent of children admit to having been bullied. (Olweus) With statistics such as these, how can anyone deny the existence?
Many adults still view bullying as acts perpetrated by the stereotypical schoolyard bully: large, mean, low self-esteem, strong and violent. If that was all that bullying was, then teachers and administrators would be correct, they do not have a bullying problem. Many teachers tell me they don’t see it happen, so there is nothing they can do about it. It’s all ‘he said, she said’.
Not true. Most students in surveys indicate they do not tell the adults about bullying for two reasons:
1. Fear of reprisals from the bully;
2. Knowledge that the adults will not do anything about it.
Most bullying is not physical in nature. Children ostracize, spread rumors, give looks, pass notes, taunt, ridicule – the list goes on. A significant amount of bullying goes on in the classroom with the teacher present.
Many bullying programs and policies currently in use are reactive in nature. In order for a program to be effective, it needs to focus upon prevention as well as intervention. Students need to know not only the rules about bullying, but what bullying is and is not. They also need to understand the role each of them plays in a bullying situation.
Bullying is a learned behavior, and it can be unlearned. Today’s children live in a virtual world where taunts are considered funny and characters die but return the next time they play the game.
Parents and children alike live with a cell phone, Blackberry or iPad in their hands. They are overscheduled, over tired and incredibly impatient. They want their demands met immediately, think nothing of belittling other people, and criticize anyone and everyone who does not meet their standards. I still hear parents say “bullying is just part of growing up”. “No”, I respond, “it isn’t. It’s abuse.” Children live this attitude every day and do not understand that it is wrong to treat people in an unkind manner.
For example, one day, I was standing in a rather long line in the grocery store. Ahead of me was a mother with two children wearing soccer uniforms- one boy and one girl. Mom could not stay off the phone for more than 10 seconds. There was an elderly lady ahead of them. She slowly unloaded her cart, carefully went through her coupons and when the time came to pay, she carefully wrote out her check.
The mother in front of me was clearly annoyed. She tapped her foot, drummed her nails on the cart handle, and sighed loudly. Then she began complaining to her children about people not willing to live in the 21st century. The three of them were not worried in the least about being overheard as they whined about how long this was taking and how they were going to be late and why can’t people use credit cards like everyone else?…and on and on and on. I can’t tell you how proud I was of the cashier who held the check for this sweet little lady and how she told her not to worry and to take her time. She became increasingly shakier as this family tantrum continued behind her. As she exited the line the mother in front of me practically ran her cart into the lady. My daughter and I loudly discussed how sweet and gentle the lady looked, how much she reminded us of my late mother who also never learned to use a check card and how incredibly rude some people are when they cannot give an elderly lady respect. If the family ahead of us heard, they took no notice (although the cashier and the folks behind us smiled and agreed). Perhaps we too were beneath them.
Dr. Dan Olweus, a pre-eminent research in bullying prevention defines bullying as: “A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending him or herself.”
-Dan Olweus, author The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program
There are three important components in this definition:
1. Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted negative actions
2. Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time
3. Bullying is an imbalance of power or strength
Bullying can take on many forms:
- Verbal: including derogatory comments and name-calling
- Social: exclusion or isolation
- Physical: such as hitting, kicking, shoving and spitting
- Lies and rumors
- Money taken or belongings damaged
- Threatening or forcing someone to do things
- Racial slurs
- Sexual comments
- Cyber bullying (via cell phone or internet)
The question “why do kids bully?” often arises. The answer is twofold; the easy answer is that it works. But in reality, it is so much more complex than that.
Students who bully have a need for power, either physical or mental in form. They enjoy dominating others in a negative way. They also find satisfaction in causing injury and suffering to others. Bullies enjoy watching others cry, but cannot always explain why. These results are a form of reward for them.
Students who have been bullied exhibit depression, low self-esteem, health problems, poor grades, and suicidal ideation.
These issues tend to follow the individual through the lifespan.
They continue to believe they are inferior to others and find themselves in the victim role over and over again.
Victimized students don’t understand why no one will help them.
They, themselves, are afraid to ask for help.
Fear of reprisals keeps the victim quiet.
Victims have a high rate of absenteeism, illness, anxiety and stress related somatic issues.
Some students victimized by bullying become bullies themselves. These students are referred to as provocative victims. They almost appear to “be asking for it”. They are often socially awkward, and have trouble making friends. They invade your space and do not know how to begin or end a conversation appropriately. Their poor social skills make them stick out. Children with Asperger’s Syndrome are often in this category. When a victim sees that the bully is not paying a price for their behavior, they may take it upon themselves to do the punishing. They begin to call names, spread rumors, push, hit or threaten. They are not able to get away with the bullying for as long because they are not as practiced at it and do not wait until the teacher’s back is turned. These students are more often caught and given a consequence for their behavior.
Students who bully have a variety of characteristics which seem to be quite opposites, the common link between them being the desire to hold power over another person. Students who bully may be experiencing abuse or bullying at home from a parent, sibling or neighbor. They may feel the only way to improve their status in life is to control others. These students often:
- get into fights (verbal as well as physical)
- steal or vandalize
- have poor grades
- dislike school
- carry a weapon
Some students are exactly the opposite. They befriend the teacher, get good grades, exhibit good social skills and are quite skilled at ingratiating themselves with adults. These bullies often go undetected by teachers who have a difficult time believing that someone so well put together, charming and intelligent could possibly mistreat others.
The impact of bullying on both the student being bullied and the student who bullies is far reaching. Until recently, not much thought has been given to the impact of bullying on those who witness the bullying. These bystanders also suffer long term effects stemming from bullying situations.
Bystanders too suffer from bullying which goes on around them. They suffer from feelings of guilt, fear, powerlessness and, if the adults fail to react and to put an end to it, they often find themselves joining in. They become frustrated by the lack of action on the part of the adults and the inability of the victim to stand up for themselves. Later in life these same students suffer from feelings of guilt and depression for not having done more to help a classmate.
Let’s examine each form of bullying in detail:
Verbal bullying consists of making rude or derogatory comments about another person’ looks, clothes, weight, or intellectual ability. Comments about sexual orientation or race also fall under verbal bullying. Calling someone a name, using foul language toward them in an effort to intimidate and making insulting remarks about another persons’ ethnicity or heritage are also included under verbal bullying. These examples are also considered harassment and usually have specific consequences associated with them. As an outgrowth of Title IX; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, educational institutions were prohibited from discriminating against race, ethnicity and gender as of 1972 when the act was expanded. Therefore, racial slurs and sexual harassment are taken very seriously.
Verbal bullying not only covers what a person says with their mouth, but also what they write, text or post on the internet.
Relational Aggression is a complex form of bullying which includes verbal bullying and social exclusion. Social exclusion is usually associated with girls, although boys have been known to do it as well.
Social isolation occurs in girl groups referred to as cliques. Although girls despise the term ‘clique’ and will often deny their existence, insisting instead that they have clubs, cliques are a real part of the bullying landscape from about first or second grade all the way up to ninth.
In her book Queen Bees and Wannabes, (Three Rivers Press, 2003) Rosalind Wiseman likens the clique to a beehive ruled by a queen bee surrounded by a number of worker bees. The queen bee is the girl everyone wants to be. She is the most popular girl in class and is quite often seen as a teacher’s pet. She ingratiates herself with the teachers who sometimes find it hard to believe that she can be mean to anyone. She dictates the rules for membership in the clique and directs the behavior of others who hesitate to go against anything she says. Her next in command carries out her orders and risks being the one to get caught and take the blame. It is worth it to this person to take the risk in order to be one of the queen bee’s “friends”.
The term “friend” in girl world is used quite differently and is an entire article unto itself. Being part of the clique means you have friends, even if you have to do something you know is wrong, to belong. If you don’t belong, then you are nothing. To be out is a terrible feeling.
One member of the hive, referred to as a banker, or note-taker, is a collector of information. They bank this information for possible use at a future date. No one is immune to having information banked by the clique-even adults.
There are frequently more members of this group who play various roles. There is almost invariably a hanger on who is a wannabe. They will do almost anything to be accepted by the clique. Various authors have referred to these additional clique members as: henchmen, banker, floater, and sidekicks. Their function inside each clique varies from gathering information to carrying out the queen’s orders. Although each clique may have a slightly different infrastructure, the members are easily identifiable.
Cliques utilize verbal intimidation, social exclusion and isolation, lies, rumors, threats, cyber bullying and force members to do things they otherwise would not do. One form of bullying used exclusively by cliques and usually maintained by its leader is a “slam book” or “burn book”. Although this book goes by a variety of names in the hopes of not being detected by adults, the slam book contains a wealth of banked information, slurs, derogatory comments, lies and rumors about many people.
The clique, for obvious reasons, is a very dangerous group of young ladies to run into. I ran up against a clique when I was in 8th grade. The teachers never believed me because the queen bee had them all cowed. She was smart, athletic and the boys thought she was hot. The girls wanted to be her, except for me. I thought she was mean and unfriendly. I suffered at her hand for an entire year, but it seemed much longer. I had lies and rumors about me spread and written in crayon on the blackboard (so it would not wash off). They stole a necklace my brother gave me out of my desk and when I saw her wearing it and told a teacher, she lied and the teachers bought it. She even had a boy willing to pick on me and make fun of my clothing just because she told him to. I ate alone, played alone and was never invited to parties. My phone at home rang frequently with requests to speak to me, but they were all prank calls. I was made to feel like the lowest of the low, mud on the bottom of their shoes; worthless. The pain today when I think of it is just as fresh as it was 35 years ago. The only thing I am grateful for is that we did not have internet, social media or cell phones. If we had I probably would not be here today writing this article.
The newest form of bullying to hit the scene is cyber bullying. Cyberbulllying is the term used to describe any kind of bullying by electronic means. Texting, phone calls, instant messaging, Facebook, My Space and other social network sites are all used for bullying. The newest trend in cyber-bullying is sexting. Sexting refers taking a picture of yourself or someone else with a cell phone without clothing and sending it via text messaging to another person. This has raised an entirely new set of issues for school administrators, police officers and prosecutors who now have children engaging, sometimes willingly, in child pornography.
Many children, and most parents, do not realize that once you put something out in a text message, email or posting on a social network site, it is out there forever. You can never take it back. Like feathers in the wind, messages on the internet blow far and wide and can never be reclaimed. This is the first generation to grow up in the age of such technology. The implications of everything you say being available forever are astounding.
Students need to be made to understand that putting something out on the internet or via text will be found even years later when they apply to college, military service or a job. If they wish to ever hold a security clearance, they will be in danger of not receiving one should they misuse the internet.
A few years ago, a mother phoned me. She stated that her son was being harassed over Facebook and wanted my advice on what to do about it. Another boy at our school had posted on her son’s wall that he is gay. She was very upset, as was her son. The two did not know each other prior to middle school and she had no idea why this young man would say such things let alone post them on her son’s wall.
Knowing full well that both boys were only sixth graders and had just turned 11 recently, I discussed with mom the facts about facebook usage, the age of the user and the dangers of allowing such a young child unsupervised access to the internet. She was unaware of the age requirement (most parents are), didn’t realize that computer usage by minor children should be supervised as all of her children have computers in their bedrooms (this boy is the eldest) and promised to rectify the situation immediately. In the meantime I assured her I would be checking into the situation.
That afternoon I spoke with the young man writing nasty things on a classmate’s wall. He acknowledged that he had done so, because “the kid is gay. He dresses and wears his hair like a girl.” He felt this completely justified his actions. I asked where his computer was (bedroom), did his parents know he had a facebook account (yes), and was he supervised when using the internet (no). Since the other child’s mother had sent in a print out of the page, I told him that I was going to call his mom and discuss the issue while he was still in my office. Mom was unaware that her son was calling this child names, because she always reads his facebook. She checks everything her children do on the computer. When I told her that her son was sitting in my office, she finally admitted that she did not supervise computer usage for either of her children (her daughter was in third grade) and that their having a computer in their room was not a problem because they did not know how to access the internet. After a bit more conversation in which I told her I had a print out of the verbal insult, she became very quiet and admitted that perhaps they could access the internet and she would look into it.
This young man continued to have issues all through middle school as his parents continue to sweep all of his behaviors under the rug with a “boys will be boys” mentality. They told their son to apologize in front of me to the other boy, which he refused to do. They denied their son had anger issues despite multiple suspensions for hitting and told me not to worry; their daughter was a much nicer child.
When I asked what their hopes were for their son’s future and what he planned on doing when he graduated from high school, they said college, grad school, and FBI. I reminded them of our first conversation three years earlier and told them that if their son wanted a career in law enforcement, he’d better find a real good excuse for the language that he chose to use on the internet because delete only deletes it from plain sight, not from the internet. Needless to say, they left looking a little pale.
Oh, and their daughter, she is a much nicer child.
We hear a great many platitudes these days about “taking a stand against bullying”. I believe that most of these people are honest. They do wish the best for the youth of America and do want bullying behaviors to cease. The problem is that everyone wants a quick fix. There is no quick fix. It takes time. Kids did not learn how to bully over night and they will not unlearn it over night. But they do want to learn. When I go into a classroom whether it’s a second grade, or middle school, or any in-between, I have an extremely difficult time getting out of the classroom if I start talking about bullying.
Kids want to be good. They want to help. They do not wish to see classmates hurting. But most of all, they want us to tell them what to do when they know it is going on. I started this article talking about being proactive. Not burying our heads in the sand and pretending like we seem to be better educators if our school has no bullying going on. We need to let the children know we will do something about it, not just turn our heads in the hallway and pretend we did not see. There are many good programs out there, but there are just as many poor ones. Look for one with data to back it up. Choose one which utilizes the bystander as well as the teacher. It should involve every member of the school community: students, teachers, parents, staff, administration, cafeteria, bus drivers, and community businesses. If everyone is saying and doing things the same way, giving the kids the same message, modeling appropriate behavior, showing respect, and building community, the program will work.
-MaryAnn Byrne, BullyingEducation.org contributing author