Turning the Tables on the School Bully
I went to a crowded public school in an urban setting, so fights were an inevitable component of entertainment and horror on a weekly (if not daily) basis. But for every explosive outburst of violence, ass kicking, and exacting of justice, there were countless other cables of tension and hostility among individuals and groups of students that never fully developed into uninhibited ferocity. These were the instances of taunting, terror and simple bullying that dictated where to walk, who to be friends with, how to talk and in general shaped my fellow classmates for better or for worse (more often for worse).
While I was never really bullied (one classmate taunted me for a while, until I challenged him with a threat that was obviously so profoundly disturbing that he never talked to me again), I have seen it and, sad to say while I didn’t participate, I allowed it to transpire.
In July, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is set to release an updated version of an official policy statement on the pediatrician’s role in preventing youth violence and bullying. This comes on the heals of a long awaited reckoning that youth violence and the phenomenon of bullying is hardly a “normal” component of childhood and not something that should easily be dismissed as “kids just being kids.” One intriguing element of this policy revision is the adoption of a prevention model developed by Dan Olweus, a research professor of psychology at the University of Bergen, Norway. Olweus prevention model, according to a recent New York Times article, ” focuses attention on the largest group of children, the bystanders” and thereby reveals the bully (or aggressor) as the person with the problem (not the poor victim getting pummeled), placing the bystander in the position of acting in defense of the victim. Considering that a quarter of all children report that they have been involved in bullying, either as bullies or as victims, this approach has the potential to make a huge impact.
But as we all know (and as I mentioned earlier) bullying is not always about explosive bursts of violence. Often it is manifested in the form of quiet taunts, vandalism, intimidation, and now (thanks to the internet) something called “cyberbullying” and even a video game. For the most part, bullying involves repetition; as the child is repeatedly targeted with physical and/or verbal attacks, often in the form of indirect bullying (rumors, exclusion, and general nastiness).
While I applaud the AAP for attempting to stay current on a widespread issue, as well as reframing the way we think about casual bullying, I wonder if this updated approach is not a little naive. Considering the multifaceted nature of bullying and youth violence, along with recent evidence that has linked bullying to undiagnosed emotional and conduct disorders, I can’t help but being reminded of the hugely laughable “just say no” anti-drug campaign of the 1980s.
No doubt, bullying is a huge problem that can, and will, follow children (both the aggressors as well as the victims) into adulthood; causing untold social and emotional problems. So, is the answer zero tolerance? Should we severely punish the aggressors and protect the innocent? Is it up to parents, teachers, or school administrators, to instill the sort of moral values that would make these incidents a rarity, and not the norm?
If anyone out there were the victim of bullying, or possibly the bully at some point in his or her life, we would love to hear from you?
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.