Mean Kids: Seeking solutions to childhood bullying

Annie and Thomas Walchuk
Zenith News

I was homeschooled until age 13, when I decided to give middle school a try...It never crossed my mind that I would be such an outcast. On the third day, some kids approached me in the hall. I was thrilled at first, thinking maybe I’d make new friends, but that wasn’t what they had in mind. Every flaw those girls could find they were sure to shame me for it. They made up horrible nicknames for me and soon the whole school was saying them.
    ~Sophomore female, East High School

 


One in four U.S. students between the ages of 12 and 14 have experienced some form of bullying, according to a 2009 survey by the National Center for Education. Seventy percent said they have witnessed bullying in their schools, but less than 30 percent of those bullied have ever told an adult.


In 2014, the Minnesota legislature passed the Safe and Supportive Schools Act, which requires local school districts to develop a policy to address bullying, to implement anti-bullying programming (such as “train[ing] student bystanders to intervene in and report incidents”), and the law establishes a School Safety Technical Assistance Center within the state Department of Education, to help with getting this new mandate off the ground.


The Duluth School District already has an anti-bullying policy, adopted in August 2014, based on a model policy from the Minnesota School Board Association. The District is currently compiling data on bullying and plans to update the policy this August, according to Ron Lake, the “climate coordinator” for the Duluth Schools.


“We have had anti-bullying language in place for many years. Our current policy efforts are in response to change in legislation.” The position used to be “Violence and Harassment Prevention Specialist,” but now it entails “more coordination of policy and compliance with statutes, professional development, and positive school climates.”


They’d wait for me every day by my locker, ready to pounce with their insults and bodily jabs. I was humiliated and lonely. I hated going to school. I was even afraid.
    ~Freshman male, East High School


The Safe and Supportive Schools Act defines bullying as: “intimidating, threatening, abusive, or harming conduct that is objectively offensive and:

(1) there is an actual or perceived imbalance of power between the student engaging in prohibited conduct and the target of the behavior and the conduct is repeated or forms a pattern; or
(2) materially and substantially interferes with a student’s educational opportunities or performance or ability to participate in school functions or activities or receive school benefits, services, or privileges.

“The power card is very important,” says Lake. “It has been paralleled with domestic violence in terms of the fear it instills in its victims.”


“I would say that, if there is not a particular power imbalance and two kids are having a conflict that may escalate into name-calling, or even violence, then we are more likely dealing with straightforward disruptive and/or assaultive behaviors,” says Paul Goossens, a child and family therapist at Harbor City Psychological Associates.


“It is when one party uses his or her power (and/or status as power) to intimidate...particularly repeatedly. For example, Billy punches Johnnie because he perceived that Johnnie disrespected Billy’s mother. That is not necessarily bullying...that’s a single episode of aggression.


“If Fred repeatedly calls Roger names, teases and clenches his fist at Roger when he walks by him...for the purpose of keeping Roger fearful and intimidated, and Roger is, indeed, fearful of Fred, perceiving him to be much more physically and socially powerful...then that is bullying behavior—a pattern of behaviors that are exhibited in the context of a power differential, and that serves to maintain and intensify such power differential.”

I think the anti-bullying/respect thing is good. It’s making kids aware of how to treat others. But sometimes there is so much talk about it, kids take light to it and even joke about it.
    ~Seventh grade female, school withheld


When a bullying incident occurs in the Duluth schools, reports are sent to Lake, who says the response depends on the children’s ages and the severity of the incident, ranging from parental engagement for young children, to suspension or expulsion for repeat or severe offenses.


The new law doesn’t require districts to report incidents to the Department of Education, but the School Safety and Technical Assistance Center (651-582-8364) can be notified if a district is believed to be out of compliance.


“Intervention and education are much more useful tools," says Lake. "Suspension and punishment are not the answer. It is a way of removing the bully from the target, but what we know about punishment is that it only works when it is short and when it is supervised. It doesn’t change or alter behavior. Punishment only causes resentment.”

I never told anyone about what they would do to me because I didn’t want to be a tattletale, but they would even follow me into the bathroom and look over the stall. I would start crying because I was so embarrassed. I began to fake illness to stay at home. I finally talked to my parents, and they talked to my teacher and principal, who promised they would do as much as they could to help, but a week later, things got a lot worse.
    ~Eighth grade female, school withheld


Minnesota schools rank 49th in in the nation—second only to California—in poor student-to-counselor ratios, according to 2008-09 data from the US Department of Education. The Department recommends a ratio of 250 students to one counselor. The national average is 457:1. Minnesota’s ratio is 759:1.


“Columbine,” says Lake, pinpointing the start of the anti-bullying movement as the April 20, 1999, high school massacre in Colorado. “When Columbine happened, the media played a huge part in bringing bullying into the national spotlight.”


Ironically, five years later—almost to the day—the FBI released a much-debated Columbine investigation that dismissed bullying as a cause and pointed to the individual mental health problems of the two perpetrators. Nevertheless, Columbine stuck in the popular imagination as a symbol of the adolescent outcast.


But the idea first surfaced in 1978, when Dan Olweus, a PhD child psychologist at the University of Bergen in Norway, published Aggression in the schools: Bullies and whipping boys, based on his decade-long study of physically dominant children picking on their weaker peers.


Olweus devised a graphic called “The Bullying Circle” to conceptualize the social roles that support bullying behavior. Olweus did not preclude the idea that any of the roles in the model—from Bully to Victim to Disengaged Onlooker—might be played by adults.

 

 

 
Georgia was the first state to enact an anti-bullying law—in 1999, but it was introduced four months before the Columbine shooting. Today, all 50 states have anti-bullying laws, though they vary widely as to what behavior is prohibited, whether sanctions may be criminal, and whether parents can be fined.


A handful of skeptics have expressed doubts about anti-bullying programs. Concerns range from imposing an unfunded mandate on the schools, to reluctance about labeling a child so uncharitably while so young.


In 2013, University of Texas criminologist Seokjin Jeong published a study in the Journal of Criminology, analyzing data from 7,000 students, representing all 50 states. He found that children in schools with anti-bullying programs were more likely to report being bullied than children in schools without the programs.


The data are correlational (meaning the programs may not be causing the bullying; they might even be increasing reports), but state programs are so different that it’s hard to compare them. Overall, a lack of data prevails.

I’ve been bullied a lot in middle school. All it does is make me sad and reclusive. I have been bullied since pre-school. To this day, I am still bullied. I can’t tell anyone about it because if I do, they do nothing to help.
    ~Seventh grade male, Ordean East Middle School


“I wouldn’t necessarily call it bullying,” says Barbara Westerberg, a kindergarten teacher at Lester Park Elementary School. “At this age, kids model what they see, unaware of, really, what is right and wrong. So we strive to talk about what a bully is through books and stories and communication...The tricky thing is that now these kids associate any bad behavior with bullying.”


“The power card for boys is generally physical—shoving, punching,” says Goossens. “For girls, power is derived from emotional torture connected to a sense of belonging. Of course, boys learn from girls and girls learn from boys, but that is the general dynamic. In middle school, there is such a transition in ego, identity, and hormones. It is a time of great developmental vulnerability.”


“Education and open dialogue about bullying is the key,” says Kim Flaa, a counselor at Morgan Park Middle School. “This is Respect Week, thought of and created by our student council. Kids have submitted videos explaining what respect for others means to them and how it can be implemented in our school. Today, we are having a silent lunch in honor of kids who cannot speak for themselves. Still, not all kids speak out. Ideally you’d like to be able to help every student, but they need to come to us.”

No one knows who did it except for me. Do I tell? It’s between what is right and wrong, and what will ruin your life. Keeping quiet will ruin her. And I don’t know if I care...I wonder if she could ever forgive me. She can get over it, right? Forgive me...
    ~Eighth grade male, school withheld


The 2006 suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier, near St. Louis, Missouri, drew attention to “cyberbulling.” After a falling-out with a friend, the friend’s mother posed as a boy on MySpace, showing great interest in Megan.


The two formed an online friendship. Then friend’s-mom-as-cute-boy turned cold, finally messaging Megan, “The world would be a better place without you in it.” Megan went to her bedroom and hanged herself.


Since 2006, all but two states—Alaska and Wisconsin—have included language about “electronic harassment” in their anti-bullying laws.


According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, girls are more likely to post mean comments online, while boys are more likely to post hurtful pictures or videos. Statistics on cyberbullying are all over the map, ranging from 5.5 percent to 72 percent who report being cyberbullied.


“Despite the range of figures reported in our research, the actual number of youth who experience cyberbullying is probably lower than some would have you believe,” says Justin Patchin, a criminal justice professor at the University of Wisconsin and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

 

“Some media reports would like us to think that we are in the midst of a cyberbullying epidemic, or that it is increasing dramatically. In my experience, one teen experiencing it is too many...but it is misleading to characterize it as an epidemic that is out of control.”  


“Monday morning, I always come in wondering what has happened online over the weekend,” says Kim Flaa at Morgan Park. “Schools can regulate what happens on school computers, but cell phones are an entirely different matter. We can notify parents that we are aware a problem exists, but after that, it is out of our control.”


The link between bullying and suicide may also not be as strong as high-profile cases would suggest, according to Goossens. “Suicide typically revolves around hopelessness. Bullying may play a part, but it is only a part. The public likes to simplify things: You are either a bully or a victim. But rarely do we see a bully who hasn’t felt his or her own sense of powerlessness, whether from family, peers, or the community...It’s important to remember that in our school cultures. If we focus solely on the bullying victims, we miss out on half of the youth that needs help.


“We seem to think schools are the problem-solvers, but it’s really a parent and community thing. We, as a society, are shifting to expect schools to do more and more parenting. But a school that is purposeful in creating a better culture and school environment can bring about change.


“Can bullying be stopped? No. Isn’t it human nature to feel powerless and want to be powerful? You can’t stop people from being human beings. But as far as the school system goes, the mere fact that a position like Ron’s—climate coordinator—even exists today gives me hope.”

 

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