The Bully Action Guide
How to Help your Child and Get your School to Listen
By Edward F. Dragan
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2011 Edward F. Dragan
All rights reserved.
THE MANY FACES OF BULLYING
KEYCEPT: School should be a place where children feel safe and secure—a place where they can count on being treated with respect. The unfortunate reality is that many students are the targets of bullying, resulting in long-term academic, physical, and emotional consequences. School personnel often minimize or underestimate the extent of bullying and its harm. In many cases, bullying is tolerated or ignored.
The school bully has been around forever. The stereotypical bully—the schoolyard tough guy who is quick to fight, intimidate, and threaten for his own gain or to look good in front of other kids—has become so much a part of the school environment that, in some situations, school administrators consider this intrusion into the school culture as the norm. This response is unfortunate in light of today's understanding about the scope of bullying and the psychological damage it inflicts—up to the point of suicide.
Today's bully isn't just the schoolyard punk who shoves other kids around or double-dog dares them. It's the seventh-grade girl who tells lies about a classmate to keep her out of the "girl group." It's the handsome student council president who pushes a wheel-chair-bound child into a wall. It's the tenth grader who says something on Facebook about someone that she wouldn't have the guts to say to her face. It's the aide on a school bus who sexually assaults a four-year-old while sitting next to him. It's the teacher whose punishment of a student doesn't fit the "crime." Bullies can be athletic, academically smart, attractive, and cunning. School administrators don't see them in the crowd. They blend in and work under the radar. They bully when no one is looking and intimidate their victims, who are too afraid to tell.
Today, it's more urgent than ever that parents learn new techniques for dealing with these situations.
EXTENT OF BULLYING
Let's first take a look at what's happening in our nation's schools.
Various reports have established that 15 percent of students are either bullied or are initiators of bullying behavior on a regular basis. Almost 30 percent of sixth- through tenth-grade youths in the United States (more than 5.7 million kids) are thought to be involved in bullying as either a bully, a target of bullying, or both. In a 2001 national survey of students, 13 percent reported bullying others, 11 percent reported being the target of bullies, and another 6 percent said that they both bullied others and were bullied themselves.
A large survey of sixth- through tenth-grade students by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development reveals the breadth of the problem:
37 percent have been victims of verbal harassment.
32 percent have been subjected to rumor spreading.
26 percent have experienced social isolation.
13 percent have been assaulted physically.
10 percent have been cyberbullied.
The relationship between "traditional" (or direct, face-to-face) bullying and cyberbullying is interesting; more than 6 of every 10 cybervictims have been subjected to traditional bullying. Because most children who are bullied directly are tortured at the hands of classmates, it should come as no surprise that there is frequently a school component to cyberbullying.
Face-to-face bullying increases through the elementary years, peaks in the middle school / junior high school years, and declines during the high school years. While physical assault decreases with age, however, verbal abuse remains constant. A school's size, racial composition, and setting (rural, suburban, or urban) are not distinguishing factors in predicting the occurrence of bullying. Boys, however, engage in, and are victims of, bullying behavior more frequently than girls.
When teachers and administrators fail to intervene, some victims ultimately take things into their own hands—often with grievous results. In a recent analysis of 37 school shooting incidents, the U.S. Secret Service reported that a majority of shooters had suffered "bullying and harassment that was longstanding and severe." In many other cases, bullying has prompted suicides among our children. The use of the Internet only worsens the cycle of ugliness, with suicide victims being maligned online after their deaths and anonymous websites subsequently springing up, dedicated to berating those who still bully even after their victim's death.
Though bullying is a fact of life, it clearly has negative repercussions on children, and parents want to know what they can do to stop it. And sometimes, this requires parental intervention. That's what this book is about—how you, as a caring parent, can do something about bullying. This book is for the mother who needs to intervene when she finds out that her daughter is being excluded from the girl group that spreads rumors about her. It's for the father who needs to intervene when he finds out that his son was called a fag on the playground and had been tripped by an older student. It's for the parents who have been stonewalled by school administrators and who need to make the school live up to its duty to protect their child.
WHAT IS BULLYING?
Bullying can be a severe single occurrence intended to hurt someone physically or emotionally. More often, a key component of bullying is a series of events that, over time, creates an ongoing pattern of harassment. Either way, it always includes an unequal distribution of power between two people or groups of people. Two boys of the same age and size getting into a fight is not bullying, but a child who hurts another child in a situation where one has power and the other does not is bullying. The power dynamic may be size or age, but it also could be class, race, sexuality, gender, a disability, or something else. The success of the bully is predicated on arrogant disregard for simple decency and a willingness to brutalize an innocent, vulnerable person simply because the bully is stronger and others are unwilling to intervene.
My granddaughter is a 14-year-old child with Down syndrome. One day, on the way to the bus, the teacher felt that Victoria was not listening and took her to a "time-out" room. During a call to Victoria's mother, the teacher said, "If she doesn't listen, you'll have to pick her up from school. She won't be allowed to take the bus. By the way, when she was in the isolation room she took off all her clothes and was screaming and banging on the wall." Victoria isn't able to speak clearly because of an expressive language disorder. She wasn't able to tell her mom that the teacher had put her in a six-by-six-foot cinder-block room at least four times recently for "fooling around." Victoria's inability to communicate clearly frustrated the teacher and led her to bully Victoria.
In another story of teacher bullying, a North Carolina middle school teacher wrote the word LOSER on his student's paper. Other students saw the paper and felt emboldened to turn against their classmate. Luckily, the student's mother also saw the paper—her son hadn't volunteered the information to her—and she contacted the principal. The teacher was suspended for two weeks without pay and was mandated to undergo professional and ethical training before returning to the classroom. The superintendent also required the teacher to write a letter of apology to the student. In his own defense, the teacher said he was trying to relate to students by using their lingo, but the school's administration made it clear in a statement that the teacher's action was irresponsible: "Regardless of the intention or context, demeaning or derogatory comments made to students by school staff are unacceptable and will not be rationalized or justified by the school system."
Contrast the North Carolina superintendent's swift and appropriate action with that of the principal at Brooklyn's PS 161, where kindergarten bullies punched five-year-old Jazmin and cut off her hair. Somehow, the students were allowed access to scissors. One has to question the supervision in this class. Jazmin's mom and grandmother said Jazmin endured months of anguish during a year in which most children enjoy story time and snacks. "This is too much for her," said Jazmin's grandmother. "She's waking up screaming in the middle of the night, saying someone's hitting her." Jazmin was hit in the face, and her lunch was knocked to the floor. Later, she was beaten in the bathroom and came home missing a big clump of hair, telling her mother that another child had lopped off her braids. "When I saw that bald spot in the back of her head, I was about to cry," said Yvonne, her mother. "I'm scared to have her go to school." And so is Jazmin, who once couldn't wait to walk to school in the morning but now has to be dragged, literally, to it. Still, the principal denied there was a problem: "I know that Jazmin isn't mistreated in the classroom. We have all the other kindergartners in the school, and they're fine."
It's not uncommon for administrators to take the stance, "If I say it didn't happen or it can't happen in my school, I don't have to deal with it and this parent." We'll talk more about this in chapter two.
And what about my personal experience with bullying?
I got my share as a child. While in the sixth grade at St. Joseph's Elementary School, I had a run-in with the boys in my class. I don't know where they got the rope, but at least three kids pushed me down, held me on the ground, and tied my feet and hands. The bell rang, I struggled, and they ran. The shame and humiliation I experienced was extreme. And to this day, I sometimes think of that pain. Somehow, I wriggled from the restraints and sadly made my way up to the door of the principal's office for a late pass. I would never tell what happened. I was too humiliated.
"Why are you late?" I was asked.
"Oh, I didn't hear the bell 'cause I was over by the ball field."
Quite a lie to tell a nun—who also happened to be the principal! A double lie, so I thought. But like many kids, I felt justified in keeping the secret. Why didn't I stand up to these three older and stronger boys? Because I thought I was a weakling and I didn't want anyone—the nun, my parents, or anyone else—to know that. Not only that, but those kids had smirked at me as if to say, "Mess with us, and we'll do it again."
TYPES OF BULLYING
Whether perpetrated by kids, teachers, or others, bullying takes on many forms: sexual, disability, and gender-identity harassment; ethnic, religious, and racial harassment; lies and innuendo; hazing or initiation into a group; and harassing phone and text messages, to name several. Generally, there are four broad types of bullying: physical, verbal, social, and cyber.
Physical bullying may include hitting, kicking, pushing, or spitting on another child. It can also include damage to property or theft of property. When most people think of bullying, this is what they imagine.
Verbal bullying, which may be used along with other forms of bullying, includes name-calling, teasing, threats, and misuse of authority. Racial, sexual, and homophobic epithets are considered verbal bullying.
Social bullying relies on groups and relationships within those groups. Forms of social bullying include spreading rumors, exclusion from a group, and positioning someone to take the blame for something they did not do.
Cyberbullying, also known as electronic bullying, is done via the Internet or through the use of cell phones. This type of bullying occurs through texting, email, online games, instant messaging, videos or photographs, and chat rooms. Cyberbullying can include sending threatening or vulgar messages or images, posting private information about someone online, or posing as someone else in an attempt to make the intended victim look bad.
Boys and girls bully differently. Boys tend to use physical aggression. Bullying is also more socially acceptable among boys and the adults who supervise them. Bullying in the macho world of sports is still reinforced; even after so many lawsuits directed at coaches who have allowed bullying or hazing—and in some cases, even encouraged it—it still takes place. What do we teach our kids when a coach laughs at a group of boys who taunt the weaker one who can't run as fast as the others?
Girls who bully are more apt to engage in more indirect forms of aggression, such as social isolation. Girls tend to bully other girls by gossiping about them. Girls are also more likely to be the target of sexual bullying, which may include rumors about their sexual activities. Because girls' bullying behavior is often more covert, schools and parents may not notice it quickly.
Though bullying comes in many stripes, each form of bullying should be fought in the same way—a way that will allow you to learn how to penetrate the schoolhouse, open the door to the principal's office, and become an active participant in the protection of your child. This book will teach you how to recognize bullying and nip it in the bud before it takes on a life of its own.
WHY ARE SOME KIDS BULLIES?
There are three interrelated reasons why students bully:
1. Bullies have a strong need for power and control. Bullying is purely about power and about capitalizing on an imbalance of it by intimidating a weaker, more vulnerable child.
2. Bullies find satisfaction in causing injury or suffering to other students. They share a lack of empathy for others and may have positive attitudes about violence.
3. Bullies are often rewarded in some way, materially or psychologically, for their behavior. Psychologically, the reasons are complex, but one factor that contributes to bullying is having parents who rarely show warmth, leading the child to seek appreciation from peers.
In fact, parenting and family relations play a large part in the emergence of a bully persona. Some bullies have parents who are overly permissive, set few limits, or do not supervise their children well. Bullies also frequently have other "bully role models," such as their own parents, older siblings, or friends who bully and harbor an acceptance of violence.
You might not be surprised to learn that bullying in childhood is a gateway to significant behavior problems in adulthood. Studies in Scandinavian countries have established a strong correlation between bullying during the school years and experiencing legal troubles during the adult years. In one study, 60 percent of those characterized as bullies in grades six to nine had at least one criminal conviction by age 24.13 Chronic bullies maintain their behaviors into adulthood and have difficulty with positive relationships. All of these facts are good reasons to seize bullying as a teachable moment and intervene—not just for the sake of the victim, but for that of the bully, too.
WHY ARE SOME KIDS BULLIED?
If you are reading this book, chances are your child is being bullied or has experienced bullying at some point in time. Why?
Sometimes, there is little rhyme or reason for it—the bully simply thrives on what he perceives as superiority over your child. There are, however, several factors that make some kids more likely to be bullied than others.
Some children may unintentionally exhibit certain behaviors that can make them a target. Do any of these apply to your child?
does not make good eye contact
is upset easily by (or does not understand) teasing and reacts strongly to it
does not understand body language or other nonverbal cues
tends to misinterpret some benign words or actions as aggressive and reacts fearfully
When children who exhibit these behaviors are taught appropriate interpersonal skills, their chances of being snubbed by their peers are reduced.
Children who are typically anxious, insecure, or who suffer from low self-esteem rarely defend themselves or retaliate when confronted by students who bully them. These children are often socially isolated and lack social skills. In one study, children said that the main reason they thought kids were bullied was because the victims just "didn't fit in."
A small group of children known as provocative victims may unintentionally invite bullying from others. Many of these children may have an underlying issue, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or a learning disability that promotes this unfortunate situation.
The first social need of any human is to be liked. Some children can feel like strangers in kid-land. They don't understand the basic rules of operating in society, and their mistakes are usually unintentional—but often lead to isolation, harassment, and bullying.
One evening, I was about to turn on the news when my daughter, Heather, called to tell me that Silas, her 13-year-old, came home from school crying. He had been attacked and hurt on the school bus that morning. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Bully Action Guide by Edward F. Dragan. Copyright © 2011 Edward F. Dragan. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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