March 24, 2008
In A Boy The Bullies Love to Beat Up, Repeatedly, on the New York Times web site, the story of Billy Wolfe is told. As I read through the story my own emotions were in turmoil. As a child all through out grade school, junior high, and the first couple years of high school I lived in terror of the bullies. My experiences forever colored my view of that subset of men who seem to have but one emotion: anger.
My experiences, in light of what happens in the article and in other incidents I have read, seem pale by comparison, but the constant knot of tension, the equating of school with pain, the sense of helplessness that pervaded my days in school, was no less damaging.
That we have created, and allowed to exist, an environment where people are singled out and attacked again and again is utterly appalling. Well meaning organizations have emasculated the school’s ability to control students by removing any real punishment or incentive to behave. The bully exists solely because the system allows him (or her) to exist. Placing the onus on the target of the attacks, and their families, only further victimizes them.
Bullies are cowards themselves, and they mask their fear and cowardice by picking on those they feel are weaker and unable to defend themselves. Corporeal punishment would only serve to convince the bully that they were justified in lashing out at others. Embarrassing the bully through public censure and exposure, while perhaps gratifying to think about, is only its own form of bullying. In order to end this problem I feel there are several things that must happen.
We need an atmosphere of zero tolerance from day one in school. I know that there are zero-tolerance policies in place already, and that there are many stories of children wrongly or absurdly punished through these programs. In order to make such a policy work you must sit down with all participants in the system and explain each action and its consequence. Merely having a policy and invoking it after the fact won’t work. Obviously, the policy would mature as the age of the participants matures. It might even be possible to involve more civically active students in the creation and maintenance of these policies by the time they are in high school. All of this would be an excellent exercise in citizenship and participatory government.
Counseling needs to be in place for everyone involved in a bullying incident. Not just the person attacked but the person or person doing the attacking. Drawing a parallel between this type of violence and domestic violence, programs where both sides are mandated into a counseling program are the most effective. Only addressing one side of the equation creates an imbalance that will result in escalation of the underlying causes, and will result in more violence.
Finally, society as a whole needs to step up and say that violence in the form of bullying, taunting, and teasing are not part of growing up. They are aberrant behaviors that, left unchecked in extreme cases, result in catastrophic violence; how many American schools have been the sites of shooting rampages? If we create a cauldron of angry emotions, clamp a lid on it, and ignore it, then we can’t be shocked or act innocent when it blows up and people are hurt or killed.