Posted on March 25, 2013.
In my view, the term “bullying” risks understating the severity of the offense, like calling someone a “troll” often soft-pedals the gravity of making sexist, racist and gratuitously incendiary online comments.
Bullying sounds too much like hectoring or bossing; not admirable, but not heinous either, at least inside the boys-will-be-boys culture.
Growing up, I witnessed lots of what we now define as bullying in the downscale urban schools and neighborhood of my Rockford, Ill., youth. Racial and ethnic diversity fueled constant tensions.
At school, there were the restroom strong-armings in the form of repeated “requests” for never-repaid loans of 25 cents or 50 cents. There was the singling out of victims in gym class for emotional and physical abuse, typically the smallish, skinny, bespectacled kids. And there was the whole separate category of bullying aimed at boys who seemed at all effeminate, or girls deemed insufficiently feminine in appearance or demeanor. Shamefully, most of us did too little.
Those memories linger.
So I was a bit surprised that researchers were surprised by findings from their recent study: after-effects of childhood bullying stay with those who encountered it in the form of higher risk of psychological disorders in adulthood. “To be honest, I was completely surprised by the strength of the findings,” lead author William Copeland, a Duke University psychiatry professor, told Slate.com.
His was a huge study. Researchers interviewed 1,400 children between the ages of nine and 16 years about their social lives and reconnected with them when they were between 19 and 26 years old.
The victims of bullying were four times more likely to have emotional disorders as adults than were others, while those who had been bullies and those who had been both — bully and victim — saw similar or worse long-term impacts.
Slate.com senior editor Emily Bazelon, whose new book on the subject is titled “Sticks and Stones,” writes that the Duke study reinforces much previous research showing that “bullying increases the risk for many problems, including low academic performance in school and depression (for both bullies and victims) and criminal activity later in life” among bullies.
Heck, the topic of bullying even made the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal last week when a Republican state legislator from Green Bay called for fining teachers and school employees $200 for failing to report bullying. (That “solution” reminded me of a GOP national convention keynote speech I witnessed in 1984 when the late Jeane Kirkpatrick proclaimed that, on foreign affairs, Democrats always blamed America first. In 2013, Wisconsin Republicans always blame public school teachers first.)
Kathy Halley, a psychologist for the Madison School District, tells me her past experiences with adult clients reinforce the Duke findings: “I was really surprised by the number of clients that I have in therapy who went back to their middle school years and talked about bullying,” she says. “You wouldn’t think that it would have that kind of impact on people, but it does stick.”
Bullying is generally defined as aggressive behavior that is repeated and involves unequal relationships, whether in physical size and strength or some other way. “I think there is definitely a change from sort of trying to differentiate bullying from aggression more generally,” says Amy Belmore, an assistant professor of educational psychology at UW-Madison and an expert on inter-ethnic peer relationships.
Belmore, in our conversation, says many national studies make clear that bullying is especially prevalent when the tally includes witnesses to it. “National studies suggest that numbers as high as 70 percent have experienced bullying at some point in their school career, but that is really misleading. Really it’s a few kids that experience it frequently.
“However, ‘experience’ is sort of an interesting word. So what we know is that a lot of kids are witnesses to it, and there is evidence that just even being a witness to it, just seeing it happen, also has negative effects on kids,” Belmore says.
What about the numbers in Madison’s schools? District social worker Mara McGlynn provided numbers from the last full school year:
* There were 523 official complaints from a total student population of 24,861.
* 71 percent came from middle schools.
* 85 percent were about non-physical bullying (verbal, spreading rumors, etc.).
* Most prevalent were incidents based on appearance; second was sexual orientation; third was race.
The Madison district has an explicit anti-bullying policy and all students from pre-kindergarten to 8th-grade take the “Second Step” program, which focuses on social and emotional learning and has specific lessons around anti-bullying, says Nancy Yoder, the district’s executive director of student services.
“That’s where kids learn that it’s not OK to bully,” says Yoder. “They also learn the important skills of how to take care of yourself if you witness bullying or if you’re the target of bullying behavior. So, self-advocacy skills, (and) having the tools that you need. You can walk away and report (bullying), you don’t have to stand there and be a victim. The importance of kids knowing that it’s not tattling if you go to an adult to report, reporting is different than tattling.”
Yoder adds: “I think one of the things that we know about our Madison data (is that) our biggest reason for bullying is around appearance. That includes race. We have a perceived sexual orientation, there’s a fair amount of bullying that happens around gender, (and) certainly race, but that’s certainly not the only thing.”
She adds that training for adults is important: “I think a huge frustration for children is if they go to somebody and say that something has happened to them and adults minimize it and say, ‘That’s kids being kids or boys being boys. You should be able to handle this.’ That’s not what kids need.”
It’s heartening that attention to bullying seems to have has steadily grown since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, where two students killed 12 other students and a teacher before committing suicide. That ignited a debate about whether the two shooters had been bullied. Turns out they were bullies themselves, but it got the conversation going.
Some readers, I suspect, may be thinking that adults are going overboard in intervening. Author Bazelon describes that view: “We risk raising kids who don’t know how to solve problems on their own, withstand adversity or bounce back from the harsh trials life inevitably brings.”
That’s eloquent, but I can’t help but think that many of those quick to dismiss bullying have never seen it.
The Cap Times - Paul Fanlund: The idea that bullying causes lasting harm gains credence