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The bullying epidemic

By Alice Bradley

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.

Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

...

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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suburbancorrespondent
Guest

There is a difference between workplace bullying and school bullying – a schoolkid often has nowhere else to go. And school is pretty much his whole life, and his self image is not well enough formed to withstand the negative messages bullying sends. Whether or not Billy’s parents win their lawsuit, Billy has spent 5 formative years being bullied – it is beyond me why they have not pulled him out of that damaging environment. The article did not explain it very well either. Bullying programs in school are a joke. They tend to address the victim as much as… Read more »

Sonja
Guest
Sonja

I was bullied in school. Never beaten or anything, but school was not a good time for me. It’s one of the main reasons that I will be home-schooling my kids. This is such a loaded topic. All I can say is that I’ve read a few books by John Holt (“Teach Your Own” stands out) that re-affirm my belief that putting 20-30 kids in a room with 1 teacher and then leaving the kids practically unsupervised for a large portions of the day (lunch, between classes, etc) is pretty much like letting the inmates run the asylum. Not good… Read more »

Kathy
Guest

Bullying is one of the harsh realities of life. I think there needs to be more education in schools about the effects of being bullied and how to handle it. I plan to have many discussions with my kids about this. Mean people suck.

Angela
Guest
Angela

My son started 1st grade at a new school this year and he was beat up almost every day for 3 weeks. The teacher thought he was being singled out for being different – he is currently in the process of being tested as gifted. Even though I thought maybe the teacher was sympathtic it turned out she really wasn’t. She was mad at him for causing trouble – by inciting the anger of the other children with his sophisticated vocabulary. One day we found out he had been kicked in the chest and knocked to the ground, head beaten… Read more »

Kari
Guest

I am a high school math teacher, and I try to be very conscious of status issues in my classes, but I only see these kids one hour a day. And having been a bullying victim myself, I try to be extra sensitive. At the end of my first year teaching in a suburban Northwest high school (I had just changed from a semi-rural high school), in the last month of school, I had three girls, sophomores, ask to speak to me after class. As soon as the room cleared, they hugged their books to their chests and practically shrieked,… Read more »

Kristen
Guest
Kristen

I’m sure I’m not the youngest person who will post an experience on here, but I figure, since you asked so nicely for me to share, then I will. Looking back, middle school was the worse part for me. I first off went from a private school to a public school in the middle of 7th grade. That was a huge slap in the face. I was a sheltered 12 year old at my private school and went right into the harsh world of public school. With that in mind, I was made fun of every day for a number… Read more »

ozma
Guest

Wow Angela, what a horrible story! That’s so disturbing. I guess I did not fear physical abuse of my child but more psychological abuse, as she is a girl. However, I definitely got beat on by other children, as did most other students in my school. As I recall, we thought it was normal. When I look back, I cannot believe the savagery of grade school. And yes, there wasn’t much interest on the teachers’ part. The teachers seemed like these distant aloof figures and we were in our mad jungle, trying to survive. It felt like they had so… Read more »

kim
Guest
kim

Bullying is dreadful. Dreadful. I’ll say it again. DREADFUL.
Of the zillions of “helpful” books out there, are there any books that are actually useful on the topics of
1- Teaching your kid how not to be bullied, and
2- Teaching your kid how not to BE a bully?
Mine are 3 & 5, but I’d read books addressed to any age of childhood, really.

Chris
Guest
Chris

Sonja (the first comment) mentioned John Holt’s book “Teach Your Own”. My wife and I read that book. And what do we think about bullying? Well, it’s something that my two children will never ever know. Poof, the entire concept of schoolyard (and class room and cyber) bullying vanished into thin air. I find it comical when people suggest that the school experience is part of normal socialization and an essential, necessary part of growing up. Uh, depression (which would manifest itself in about 10 million horrible different ways) and SUICIDE! brought on by bullying are things I want to… Read more »

Elleff
Guest
Elleff

I’ve just started reading “Hold On To Your Kids” by Neufeld and Gabor, and I highly recommend it. The authors discuss our current culture of “peer orientation” and how kids need to be attached to their parents rather than other kids. Bullying and child suicide are among the problems they attribute to peer orientation.

miep
Guest
miep

Kim John Payne has done incredible work on bullying and teasing in public and private schools around the world. Bullying is one of the main topics of conversation and work among faculty members where I teach. Our school is small, and we can work individually with children who are bullying and those who are being bullied, and with the classes as groups. The oldest students in the school work with the others to resolve issues and create plans for change. It’s our first year working extensively with this program, and it’s making a huge impact on the way the children… Read more »

Sara
Guest

To Sonja and Chris: I appreciate your desire for a better situation for your children, but I wonder if avoidance is really the solution. As Alice’s article mentioned, bullying is something that happens in more than just schools.

falwyn
Guest

To Sara: I’m also just starting homeschooling my daughter (we’ll take it one year at a time and see what happens, is our current philosophy). I see the avoidance of bullying (and other social nightmares, like I went through in middle school) as merely a perk though — it is hardly my primary reason for homeschooling. My personal hope for my kids is that having the chance to mature in a safer environment, reinforced more by parents and others than by a constant barrage of peer pressure, will have the perspective, sense of worth and self, and confidence to better… Read more »

Anonymous
Guest

Bullying is a terrible thing to endure, and sadly, it often starts at home–whether bullies are themselves physically or emotionally abused, or their parents allow aggressive behavior that leads to bullying. It’s important to teach respect and tolerance. Teachers can only do so much in schools–parents are responsible for laying the foundation…

Andrea
Guest
Andrea

I was bullied in school, but I also learned how to stick up for myself and others. I have always been one to stand up for the under-dog, so to speak, because of it. At my high school, there was a program (I forgot the name of it) of other students who were chosen by faculty. They attended a conflict-management seminar and then they handled the conflicts that occured on school grounds (with counselor help, of course). This method really seemed to help decrease the amount of bullying in our school. It was used as an intervention and “court” system,… Read more »

Anon
Guest
Anon

I was concerned about the possibility of bullying at our elementary school, so I decided to do something about it. I found out from teachers and admin where incidents of bullying had occurred in the past. Yup; lunch, hallways and recess. So, I now volunteer in the areas and during the days where the most incidents occurred. In the time I’ve been doing it, I’ve intervened in numerous situations and reported the stuff to admin. Another thing a few parents do is help the teachers with paperwork, photocopying and grading of papers, so the teachers are more inclined to go… Read more »

elswhere
Guest

Bullying sucks, for everyone. I’m always horrified when I hear about teachers and administrators who hear about bullying and ignore it or blame the victims. And yet I’m sure that, like Kari, there are many many bullying incidents that I failed to notice in the nine years I worked at a school. One current trend that seems hopeful is that of teaching kids who are neither bullies nor bullied– the bystanders, who make up the greatest proportion of a school population, and who often feel powerless and scared as witnesses to bullying– to stick up for kids who are being… Read more »

Jem
Guest

I was the one who got bullied the most at my school, I’d guess, although it was pretty much only emotionally. And it still hurts me now. I’m 24 now, and I find it really hard to talk to people, and I have panic attacks before I go out in public sometimes. Pretty much every day was a nightmare for me back then, because every thing I did/said was laughed at and mocked. I used to skip school all the time because of it, and I almost got in trouble when the dean called me at home, but LUCKILY that… Read more »

Alice Bradley
Guest

Anon, you’re awesome. I just love how proactive you’ve been. It’s amazing that some of those simple, practical changes don’t occur to the school administration, but too often they don’t.

Meaghan
Guest
Meaghan

I’m not a parent and I don’t have much personal experience with bullying, but it is something that I have always been concerned about. Roots of Empathy is a Canadian program that seems to be having some success:
http://www.rootsofempathy.org/index.html

Elizabeth
Guest
Elizabeth

I was bullied badly in high school too. I was on anti-depressants at 14, and had a nervous breakdown at 16. They let me “skip” my senior year of high school and go to college a year early on my therapist’s recommendation, which literally saved my life. I went back for graduation and was pushed off the top row of bleachers by some girls who still hated me after not seeing me for a whole year. When I read the NY Times story, I wished there was a comments section, or a way for me to get in touch with… Read more »

Sonja
Guest
Sonja

Sara, Being in a school where no one cares about you, where you are demoralized regularly, where you feel like a piece of crap and everyone tells you that you are one, is different than being bullied as an adult in a work situation. Generally, people choose their jobs, and if they don’t like the job they have, they can get a different one. Kids with parents who are unwilling or unable to take them out of schools where they are being abused (emotionally and/or physically) are victims that can’t do anything about their situation. As someone who was bullied,… Read more »

Jenny
Guest

It’s important for children who are being bullied to have different circles of friends so that school isn’t their whole life. Enroll them in a dance/judo/swimming/bible/art class where there are a different group of kids. If you live in a small town, take them to the next town over. Expand their horizons, it will help them get through it.

Didi
Guest
Didi

When I was in freshman year of college I took a critical thining class and I remember one woman’s story about bullying. She grew up in the projects (the ghetto, for those who dont know) and everyday for several months a boy would make her bring in 50 cents to give to him. The girl would steal the 50 cents from her mother’s wallet and eventually her mother found out and was furious at the situation. The next day she couldn’t pay the bully the 50 cents, so the bully beat her up. To my surprise, when she got home… Read more »

Chris
Guest
Chris

Dear Sara,
Avoidance? Serisously. Of course it’s avoidance!
I also avoid rush hour traffic. I work form home, I’m self-employed and completely empowered. Thus, I have also avoided working for other people. I had to learn that bosses can sometimes be just like bullies. My kids will too. Just because we home school doesn’t mean we live in a bubble. We’re not immune to the crappy crap the world has to offer.

Erika
Guest
Erika

My husband and I have taken the stance that kids can say what they want to say, but if they touch you or put their hands on you or hurt you in any way then you defend yourself. My son hasn’t had any issues. We may be lucky but I think if you are not going to remove your child from a threatening situation, you should give that child a way to defend themselves. Counting on teachers and administrators to protect your child is a joke, especially since they are not around adults most of the time in school.

Terry
Guest
Terry

There are *so* many variables involved in this topic. First is the self-confidence of your child. I want so badly for my own son to be confident enough to laugh and not be uptight. The uptight make the best marks for bullying. Unfortunately, sometimes that just doesn’t matter. Sometimes your kid just gets singled out by a few no matter the reason. Depending on the maturity of the kids, simply having them work together cooperatively can help. That maturity and a measure of empathy has to reside in both kids first, however. Some people can simply be missing empathy. I… Read more »

kate
Guest
kate

Anti-bullying programs aren’t well supported in the research to date, mostly because they’re not adequately addressing the more global issue of social-emotional learning for all students. Lots of communities have glommed on to Character Counts! and character education. But we need to explicitly teach social-emotional curriculum every day in the classroom and work together (parents, schools, communities) to develop a supportive, engaging culture and climate in our schools. The fact of the matter is that we need to teach our kids how to label, recognize, and cope with emotions; how to respect themselves as much as others; how to accept… Read more »

beth
Guest
beth

Suggestions to all parents, take your child’s comments and concerns seriously. My seven year old daughter would tell me that everytime the teacher would change seat assignments, she would put the same child who has behavior issues next to my daughter. I kept being positive and telling her that her teacher must do if for a reason and that she (my daughter)was doing the right thing being nice to him.,,,,etc,etc.Well, now that the school year is almost over,I have discovered something of the things he has beens saying to her. Two weeks ago he called her (whispered it to her)… Read more »

Melissa
Guest
Melissa

Well Sonja, we are slightly off topic from bullying, but I do not think that the reason people are glad they don’t have to go back to highschool is because it was so horrible to not get one on one attention and have lunch with classmates rather than being taught by mom, and eating lunch with mom. Yes maybe the bullying is why. And also maybe the hormones, and the new abstract thinking they are just getting used to using in social environment. No one wants to have to relearn hard lessons of growing up, but being a teen is… Read more »

Laura
Guest
Laura

One resource that I have found to be VERY helpful is Easing the Teasing by Judy S. Freedman. It discusses what it looks like and how to deal with it for grades K-12, what to do if your child is the bully, and how to handle the situation with teachers and administrators.

Alice Bradley
Guest

I don’t know why there’s hostility being expressed toward the parents here who refer to homeschooling as an option. If you can homeschool your children and you feel it’s the best for your kid, that’s absolutely wonderful. If one of the reasons you’re doing it is to protect your child from an abusive environment, that’s not avoidance, it’s dealing with the problem. How much learning can be going on if your kid is terrified of school?

pnuts mama
Guest
pnuts mama

ooh, alice, that was an interesting observation, b/c i was going to say that i felt that perhaps some of the reactions to sara was what was actually harsh- sara’s comment seemed even-toned and was raising a point that she was concerned with. when i read some of the reactions to her comment i felt the sting (dare i say a little bullying?)- now granted, i can understand where the homeschooling community as a whole has had to deal with a lot of crap and often reacts from a posture of defense, but still. when i read sara’s comment i… Read more »

Alice Bradley
Guest

Yeah, pnuts, you’re right–it was that last comment (by Melissa) that I took exception to. The rest of it, including Sara, was fine. Anyhow! Bullying is a problem for all kinds of people who can’t or don’t want to homeschool, and they shouldn’t be made to feel that it’s their only option. So I like all the practical suggestions, here.

Sue
Guest
Sue

Thanks for the even-handed nature of your article, Alice. I get a little weary of parents thinking bullies are other peoples’ kids. I have by turns wondered if mine was a bully or being bullied. From all the reading I’ve done, neither seems to be the case in a chronic way but the potential is there in both directions. Fact is, we live in a culture of fear that is so ramped up about the horrible violence perpetrated by bullies and their victims that we can at times exaggerate the nature of the problems. I understand that denial is f-d… Read more »

Earth Girl
Guest

When my son was in 7th grade, he tried to stop a girl from bullying another girl. She grabbed him by the collar and repeatedly bashed his forehead in the wall. The school nurse called me and when I determined there was no physical damage, I grabbed both his hands and intensely told him that he did the right thing, I was proud of him, this didn’t change who he was, and all the things in a mother’s heart. The assistant principal had come in the nurse’s office unknown to me and, with wet eyes, gave Ricky the male version… Read more »

Ken
Guest
Ken

I thought your article was right on target in discussing both the impact and pervasiveness of bullying. One correction: Studies have been done of bullying prevention programs. In particular, studies by Dan Olweus, a professor of psychology in Norway, who is often seen as the father of bullying research, has shown that implementation of comprehensive bullying prevention programs in schools can result in a 50% decline in bullying incidents. When you consider the dramatic impact that these incidents can have on kids (one survey indicated that kids identified bullying as the worst experience of childhood other than losing a loved… Read more »

Melissa
Guest
Melissa

Just to clarify. I am not against home schooling. At-all. I just don’t think that public highschool is to blame for why kids have a hard time going through the teen years and look back on it negitively. That’s all I meant to say.

braine
Guest

The following doesn’t diminish the validity of the issue at all — in fact, it even more starkly underlines the pervasiveness and chain-reaction consequences of bullying — but the New York Times apparently did some shoddy research in their original article, missing the police report on Billy Wolfe’s own abusive behavior.
http://www.nwanews.com/nwat/News/63772/

KitKatsKnits
Guest

I do not have children of my own to raise, and when I do have children of my own they will be going to public school. However, I do have children that I teach on a regular basis. I am a martial arts instructor. One of the things that we teach here is self-control. We tell our students that it’s okay to get mad at someone or something but not to act on that anger. It’s only okay to hit if you are afraid for your well-being. There are 4 other principles that we teach here. Effort, Etiquette, Sincerity, and… Read more »