Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander

Bullying is pervasive, persistent, ageless, boundary-less. It's in our schools, our homes, our jobs, our on-line networks. Even though we're increasingly aware of bullying, we know it's hard to stop it. The bully has the power to silence the bullied. A bully can silence one person,an entire family, a staff or even a community. Some kinds of bullying are officially discriminatory acts against someone due to their age, sex, race, sexual orientation, disability, class, job description, ethnicity, and so on. Some kinds feed on less obvious differences. But in every case, the bully has power over the bullied. It's often illegal and it's always unfair.

How do bullies get their power? How do they keep it?

Sometimes, the power difference is actual. The bully is older or bigger or has a higher status (teacher/student, boss/employee). Sometimes, the power difference is perceived. We see someone as being able to hurt us or take something away from us and we don't know how to stop them without coming out worse in the bargain.

Letting them bully us appears preferable to the alternative. Being labeled a tattle-tale. Being exposed as someone "different". Losing our jobs. Being alone.

I just read about four sixteen year-olds who formed a teen rock band called Radio Silence NYC which is touring to denounce bullying. They want to let kids know it's okay to be themselves. It's a great message, and I wish it were that easy. Many times, kids who are themselves are teased, taunted, shamed, even hurt until they conform or are too hurt to respond. As a country we try to say we are multi-cultural, we try to say we embrace differences, yet according to

+Eight in ten LGBT students had been verbally harassed at school
+Four in ten had been physically harassed at school
+Six in ten felt unsafe at school
+One in five had been the victim of a physical assault at school

And, according to The University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School’s Center for Problem-Oriented Policing’s director, Michael Scott,

+Bullying is widespread and perhaps the most underreported safety problem on American school campuses.
+Bullying occurs at all grade levels. It gets more subtle as kids get older.
+Boy-bullying tends to be more "direct" - physical aggression; girl-bullying relies more on "indirect" methods - teasing, exclusion, social isolation, rumor spreading.
+Bullies have little empathy for their victims.
+If there's no intervention, young bullies tend to grow up and continue bullying.
+Previously bullied students have been the attackers in at least two-thirds of recent school shootings.

In the classroom, we tell kids to come to a grown-up if they see or experience bullying. But victims worry that telling a grown-up won't help. By coming to us, they worry that they invite further bullying.

In the grown-up world, where can we go? In many cases, we stay silent because we (rightly) worry about the outcome of reporting. Blow the whistle, lose your job or your friends or your status. Get undesired attention. Be shunned.

Sometimes, it seems easier to put up with being bullied.

Interestingly, it turns out that being a bully is actually bad for the bully. According to,
+Childhood bullies are much more likely to commit a crime by age 24
+Often, childhood bullies are violent when they are older
+Childhood bullies may not change and may be bullies as adults
+Bullies are more likely to get into fights and steal, to drop out of school or to get bad grades.

Many anti-bullying programs in schools are ineffective because the bullies are clever enough to act when they are out of earshot of the adults. Fortunately, there's another ingredient in the bully mix: the bystander. The one who hears it, sees it, or hears about it. This might be another child in the school yard, a co-worker at the office, or another visitor to a Facebook page.

Ken Rigby has been researching bullying since the 1980s. He has found that while most children don't report bullies and bullying generally happens in front of peers, rather than in front of teachers, most children want it to stop.

Often, the bystander does nothing because:

+They felt it was none of their business.
+They feared consequences, including embarrassment, being branded as a “sissy,” and the bully turning on them.
+They felt the victims should take care of the situation and stand up for themselves. As students move into the teenage years, they tend to become less sympathetic toward victims of bullying.
+They felt helpless to stop the bullying – or feared that their intervention might make things worse.

Importantly, at least half the time when a bystander speaks up, the bullying stops. The bystander can take action, knowing that most kids don't like bullying and will support him/her. Also, bullies like an audience and when their audience doesn't approve, they change course.

Bystanders seem to have the most power in the bullying situation. Speak up. Talk about what is wrong. It's not risk-free, but it's worth the risk. As Edmund Burke identified it: ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’”

1 comment:

  1. I am so glad your thinking about this, Jan! I wonder if we can find time to discuss it at school more next year.