This schoolyard response to taunting seems first noted in G.F. Northall’s 1894 Folk Phrases of Four Countries, and later in the U.S., “Miss Lindsey,” by S.G. Gibbons (1936).
For some this gave slight relief; others knew the jingle, seemingly their only defense, but they still felt the sting of teasing that could become vicious. Now, in the 21st century, words are complemented by insulting images and taunting names “microphoned” for a global audience.
Mean girls and uncaring bullies have become lethal bullies driving their victims to suicide. According to one New Hampshire Educator quoted in a recent (February 2011) article on bullying in the Boston Globe, children in school are the “meanest ever” and have more ways then ever to express that meanness.
Where does bullying come from? A quick perusal of recent 2011 Superbowl commercials, for example, or simply flipping through television channels at any given time may give one a snapshot of the kind of culture and cultural norms that create an atmosphere ripe for bullying. The idea that we can and should put others down, through physical and/or emotional means, is quite pervasive in our culture.
A Useful Diagram
The dynamics of bullying can be better understood and discussed with the aid of a well-used diagram.
Bully (& Sidekicks)
This is the basic pattern of human oppression: the Oppressor, the Victim, and Bystanders. Well understood is the example of Nazi oppression against the Jews, their victims, witnessed by German Bystanders-and the rest of the world. The dynamics of bullying originate in a bully’s need for more power. Bullies target powerless or vulnerable Victims, aided or allowed by pleased, or apathetic, Bystanders.
Pondering these dynamics during our current bullying crisis, I finally realized that my clowning in high school came from my own sense of powerlessness (I wasn’t mature and big enough for sports-which I loved). I, along with others, have always smiled at my youthful antics until I came to realize I was the bully; teachers were often my victims, and my mostly applauding classmates were the bystanders.
Bullying can start with childhood social preferences and exclusion. It can be reinforced by taunting and sarcasm at a pretty young age. Taunts about clothes and body weight and appearance are common. Some bullying is ethnic or gender related. Taunts about a person’s sexual orientation are particularly cruel. Bullying can include physical harassment such as shoving, tripping or hitting; its social aspects may include lies and false rumors. Victims tell stories of bullies who take their lunch or money or possessions. In some cases bullying has escalated into rape.
A pioneer and expert from Norway, Dr. Dan Olweus, gives this definition of bullying:
Bullying is when someone repeatedly and on purpose says or does mean or hurtful things to another person who has a hard time defending himself or herself.
Olweus goes on to give a helpful distinction between teasing and bullying. Teasing is usually two-sided between or among friends. Bullying is not between friends, and it is possible because of an imbalance of power. It is the vulnerability and powerlessness of a victim that makes his or her situation seem so desperate and intolerable.
Stories of Desperate Suicides
Just eleven years old, his tormentors called him gay-that he acted like a girl and wore funny clothes. The boy, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, complained of this to his mother in September but said he couldn’t name his bullies for fear of increased torment snitching might bring. He was afraid of gangs and had to eat lunch with a guidance counselor at times.
It wasn’t that Carl was a loser. He was fine student, a football and basketball player, and involved in leadership and mentorship programs. He showed signs of leadership; could sing and perform. Still, there were those who chose to harass him-because they could. Carl’s mother quickly took action expressing her concerns to teachers and administrators. But, the bullying continued.
By early April the bullying had become intolerable. On April 6th, after another humiliating incident, Carl came home from school and wrote a note-apologizing to his mother, saying he couldn’t take it any more, that he loved his family, and was leaving his Pokemon cards to his little brother. Taking an extension cord, he hung himself from a third story rafter.
While preparing supper about 6:30 that evening, his working mother discovered the lifeless body of her son. It wasn’t that she hadn’t tried to avoid something like this. She had gone to administrators at the New Leadership Charter School after Carl first complained. The school, a Springfield, MA diverse 6-12 Grade charter school was planned for 300 students but had swollen to 500. By spring, Carl would tell his mother, “I hate this school.” There were plans for his attending a private academy, but this was not to be.
Milton Valencia of The Boston Globe staff wrote this of Carl’s mother, Sirdeaner Walker, 44, and mother of four (20Apr’09):
Walker did everything she could. She complained to teachers and administrators. She sat in one of Carl’s classes, to get acquainted with the school. She joined the Parent-Teacher Organization and became head of the Sixth Grade Group. She asked for help, saying no student, let alone her son, should be subject to such abuse.
Months later, on January 14, 2010, in another western Massachusetts town of South Hadley, attractive, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, an Irish immigrant, went home from school and hanged herself. It was two days before a school dance. For months, after being raped, she endured, from the boy himself, a friend, and especially four girl friends of the boys. Throughout the fall and into January, Phoebe had been stalked and harassed, in person and on Facebook, taunted as an “Irish whore” and threatened with physical harm. This group of six now face criminal charges.
District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel’s investigation was in agreement with school records, who had already identified this group of six. While studying in the library to escape the lunchroom, Phoebe was tormented openly while other students and even a teacher allegedly looked on. The DA’s statement continues:
It appears that Phoebe’s death on January 14th followed a tortuous day for her, in which she was subjected to verbal harassment and threatened with physical abuse. The events were not isolated, but the culmination of a nearly three-months campaign of verbally assaultive behavior and threats of physical harm.
Carl and Phoebe are among 15 school children, ages 11-14, who have committed suicide in Massachusetts between 2002 and early 2010. Of course youthful suicides can be traced throughout history, but nationally, in the U.S. suicide rates among 10-14-year-olds have grown more than 50% over the past three decades. A growing number of these have been induced by harassment and cyberbullying.
Stories of Desperate Homicides
On January 19, 2007 in a bathroom of Lincoln-Sudbury High School (MA), 16-year-old John Ogdren suddenly lunched at a smaller 15-year-old boy he hardly or didn’t even know and fatally stabbed him. The shocking news, reactions and interpretations, the trial and defense have lingered in The Boston Globe and local papers over several years. Asperger’s and other mental issues put John Ogdren into special programs until he was controversially mainstreamed into an environment where he was both victim of taunting and an oppressor of a younger, innocent victim. Yet, in all the coverage, the fact that Ogdren had been taunted and bullied, was largely overlooked.
Homicide and suicide (as suggested in Borgman (2003) Hear My Story), are two sides of a human response to hurt, anger and rage. Most remember Columbine’s Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold who killed almost 30 persons in April, 1999. Before that, in just two years from 1992-1994, ninety-nine students were killed in ninety-seven school shooting incidents across the U.S. In almost all these cases, the shooters were, among other factors-and not to remove their responsibility-bullied themselves, often for years.
Bullying is a sad, dark side of childhood and youth-often with terrible consequences.
Responding to and Preventing Bullying
In most cases, bullying has not reached a lethal point, yet it may still be causing annoying or even intolerable pain. Parents wonder how to protect their children in environments over which they have little or no control. The good news is that there are resources, advice centers, books and programs that offer help (Please see our Articles and Resource List.) These may or may not be adequate to alleviate the difficulty a taunted child or teenager finds her- or himself encountering.
We are confronted with the issue of helping the victims (to help themselves) as well as trying to root out the fad or trend of peer victimization. What we have learned is that mere school anti-bullying signs and a school assembly condemning bullying is of little effectiveness.
An Educational Issue of The Boston Globe (2May’10) ran a cover story: “The Secret to Stopping a Bully? After decades of research, no one has found a way to reduce bullying in US schools. But in the shadows, you just might find the solution.”
Reviewing the literature, Neil Swidey, the author of this article, concludes that the best and longest-term studies have been done in the Scandinavian countries-producing programs with some signs of effectiveness. But the more homogeneous population of these countries, in contrast to the U.S. and others, does not give provide us with high hopes.
This same article calls attention to the importance of a bully’s sidekicks, those beyond bystanders, who provide the bully with assistance.
Negative problems are best confronted with positive alternatives. Incivility in our youthful culture is a reflection of the current incivility of our politics, economics and entertainment fields. From the top down we need to work toward more civil styles of cooperation, reconciliation and even disagreement.
In given communities parents, educators, civic and religious leaders must come together to stem the tide of bullying. But adults can’t make this work without the cooperation of young people themselves.
The Olweus program www.olweus.org offers Six Steps in response to bullying:
Stop the Bullying: If you can safely do so, stand between bully(-ies) and those being bullied. Seek help if needed.
Support the Young Person who has been bullied in a way that allows him or her to regain control of his or her emotions and to “save face.” But don’t overdo support that will bring further shame.
Address the Young People who bullied by naming the bullying behavior and explain why the behavior is unacceptable. State what you saw/heard and label it bullying using a matter of fact tone.
Empower Bystanders with appreciation or information about how to act in the future. Praise bystanders who may have tried to help, or use matter of act tone to explain their inaction and how they could have helped.
If the Young Person who bullied is your child, impose logical, nonviolent consequences. If he or she was someone else’s child, consider talking to his or her parent(s), if you think they’ll be open to discussing the issue.
If possible, follow up with the Bullied Young Person later to make sure the bullying has stopped. Find other ways to keep this child or teen safe.
We would emphasize, again, the importance of collaboration among parents, teachers, coaches, concerned teenagers, civic, and religious leaders.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. Have you ever bullied someone in your life? Have you ever been the victim of taunting, extreme hazing, or bullying? What has been your reaction to having been a bystander of global atrocities or local bullying?
2. What is your reaction to this article? Is it a fitting introduction to this issue?
3. How would you help a child or sibling, or close friend, who is being bullied?
4. What more would be good to know about this problem?
1. If according to the National School Safety Center, American schools contain about 2.1 million bullies and 2.7 million victims; and if, according to the National Education Association, 160,000 students miss school every day for fear of attack or intimidation, it seems quite clear we have a problem.
2. The problem of bullying is quite universal; schools around the world are affected by it.
3. The Digital Age has seen a decrease in social skills among youth and an increase in the scope and severity of bullying. We must address the problem of cyber-bullying in homes, in school and religious classrooms, and through the media.