The bullying epidemic
The New York Times this week profiled Billy Wolfe, a high school sophomore who has been the target of emotional and physical abuse at the hands of his classmates. Three years ago, for whatever mysterious, cruel reason, the school bullies determined that he was unacceptable. Since then he has been beaten and terrorized, again and again.
The parents have documented the assaults, kept careful records, and complained repeatedly to school officials, but still they continue. After Billy was beaten in shop class, a school official refused to call the police, because “it looked like Billy got what he deserved.” In an MP3 that goes along with this story, Billy recounts another time he was beaten and threatened and the assistant principal told Billy’s mother there was nothing he could do. This sort of thing, the assistant principal explained, happens “all the time.” “I guess death threats are normal,” Billy says quietly.
Sadly, Billy Wolfe is hardly alone. There’s an epidemic of bullying, and it’s only getting worse. It’s estimated that 160,000 children in the United States miss school each day as a result of being bullied. Parents who dismiss bullying as part of childhood are playing a dangerous game. Children who are bullied suffer long-term physical and emotional damage; they’re at risk for suicide as well as violent acts. (The perpetrator of the Virgina Tech massacre was a bullying victim, as were many other school shooters.) Adding to the emotional and physical abuse that can occur in real life, there’s now cyberbullying. (Even adults—hello, fellow bloggers!—are all too aware of how much easier it is to be cruel when you’re not face-to-face with your victim.) According to author and psychologist Dr. Michele Borba, bullying these days is “far more intense, far more relentless and occurs at younger ages,” than before.
The bullies, meanwhile, need help just as much as the bullied. It’s easy to demonize them, but we should all realize that 1) they’re troubled, and 2) they may just be our kids. A recent study showed that most children bully others at some point. Over a third of kids surveyed said they bullied at a moderate level throughout school. And bullies suffer from their misdeeds: just like their victims, they have an increased risk of depression and suicide; in addition, they are more likely to be convicted of crimes in adulthood.
The problem of bullying doesn’t end with graduation, either: a recent survey showed that 37% of American workers reported being bullied on the job. These adult bullies’ assaults may be more subtle, but being terrorized emotionally can wreak even more long-term havoc than being punched. Workplace bullying has been found to be more emotionally damaging than sexual harassment, possibly because sexual-harassment victims have more recourse. Verbal and psychological abuse can cause workers to spiral into depression and even leave their jobs. Some states are pursuing anti-bullying legislation to protect workers, but just as in schools, a bullying environment is often seen as part of the workplace culture. It’s how things are, and if you can’t take the heat, you know where to go.
It’s this acceptance of bullying that leads to its pervasiveness. The bullying expert Dr. Warren Blumenfeld observes in one article that “the culture has to see bullying as a problem of society, not just a youthful problem that will go away…We need to look at systemic reasons why people are perpetrating violence.” The increasing problem of workplace bullying shows how true this is. Bullying doesn’t go away: it changes. And no matter when it occurs, it can have a devastating effect on all parties.
It’s clear that bullying has to be addressed early and aggressively; there are several anti-bullying campaigns and programs being used in schools, but no real studies yet on their effectiveness. Meanwhile, what can the parents of bullied children do? In Billy’s case, The parents are pursuing what they believe is their only recourse: suing the bullies. In addition, they’re considering suing the district. To my mind, the school should have been the sole focus of their lawsuit: under Title IX, schools are legally obligated to create a non-hostile environment for all children. It’s obvious from the response of Billy’s school administration that they failed utterly in that task. And in doing so, they’ve harmed both the bullied and the bullies.
As always, please share your thoughts and personal experiences.