Efforts to stop children's intimidation of other
children appear to pay off
... outside the U.S.
Bully for them
To many adults, teasing and taunting among children
and teenagers is a natural and inevitable part of growing up.
But as a new school year begins, experts say such behavior is anything
but normal and should be taken seriously by parents, teachers and school
“Bullying is a public health problem (tied to) the larger issue of youth
violence in this country,” said Joseph Wright, medical director of
advocacy and community affairs at Children's National Medical Center.
Allowing it to go unstopped, he said, fosters crime and mental health
problems that can last into adulthood.
Wright and other child health experts urged parents, teachers and
community leaders to give the problem greater attention following the
publication this month of a study done in rural Germany that used six
months of family therapy sessions to treat 22 adolescent boys who had
bullying behavior. The report, which appears in the journal
Pediatrics, is a reminder that the United States lags behind other
countries in dealing with bullying, Wright said.
“We are really just at the recognition phase (in the United States) ...
We have defined the problem and are recognizing the problem and trying
to adapt,” Wright said. “This (study) just points out how far behind we
are in even accepting bullying as something that's not a normative
At least 22 states have passed anti-bullying laws since 1999, some
motivated by a 2002 U.S. Secret Service report that found that bullying
had played a major role in several school shootings, according to the
National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Maryland and Virginia
passed similar legislation this year.
The intent of such laws is to prohibit intimidation, bullying and
harassment in schools, reports the NCSL. Defining these unacceptable
behaviors has been challenging, but guidelines generally consider the
length of time threatening behavior has persisted and whether a
perceived imbalance of power lets a student or group of students
The Pediatrics study described measurable
reductions in anger and improvement in quality of life and interpersonal
relationships after family therapy. But several U.S. child health
experts said because the study included only families who lived in rural
areas, the findings are not likely to be applicable to large, urban
school systems in this country.
They also doubted that family therapy by itself could offer a solution
and disagreed with the measures used in the study to identify bullies.
U.S. researchers who have studied bullying say part of the problem is
that such behavior is often accepted, even encouraged by adults.
“There's a real value system around (bullying) that basically teaches
kids that it's not just okay — it's more than okay,” said Howard Spivak,
a professor of pediatrics and community health at Tufts University in
Massachusetts. “Social acceptability of bullying is a consequence of
many complex things,” including adults' approval and the influence of
television, video games and movies that “teach them that being mean is
not only acceptable, but good,” he said.
More than 16 percent of U.S. schoolchildren report
having been bullied, according to a 2001 survey of nearly 16,000
students in grades 6 through 10 funded by the National Institute of
Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). An estimated quarter to a
third of U.S. students are involved in bullying, either as a victim or
perpetrator, according to Spivak.
Research has linked bullying with violent and criminal behavior later in
life, as well as emotional, psychological and social problems. A
federally funded study published in the Archives of Pediatrics &
Adolescent Medicine reported in 2004 that bullies and their victims
had more health problems and poorer emotional and social adjustment than
But that relationship is often poorly understood by parents and school
officials. Parents often “have some concern if their kids have been
victimized,” said Bennett L. Leventhal, a child and adolescent
psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois
at Chicago College of Medicine. “But there are a lot of people who
believe that bullying builds character, (that) if you get through it,
you're better off.” He called that thinking dangerous.
According to the Department of Justice, bullying
encompasses a variety of acts repeated over time that involve “a real or
perceived imbalance of power, with the more powerful child or group
attacking those who are less powerful.” Bullying can take any of three
forms: physical (spitting, pushing, stealing, hitting and kicking),
verbal (name-calling, teasing, taunting and making threats) and
psychological (social exclusion, extortion, intimidation, spreading
rumors and manipulating social relationships).
The NICHD survey found that bullying was especially common in sixth,
seventh and eighth grades. Principal players include the bully, the
victim and a third type who alternates between the two roles.
Research shows bullying can make students reluctant to leave home or
attend classes. About 5.4 percent of ninth- through 12th-graders
reported feeling “unsafe at school or on (the) way to or from school” on
at least one day in the month before they were surveyed in 2003 by the
Department of Health and Human Services.
Betsy Pursell, executive director of the Empower Program, a D.C.-based
nonprofit that teaches strategies for dealing with bullying and
aggression, called that a logical reaction. “Students can't focus on
their academics if they're worried about walking through the hallways,”
Bullying's link to violence has been repeatedly
documented. For example, the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in
Littleton, Colo., by two students who had been bullied, resulted in the
deaths of 12 classmates, a teacher and the shooters themselves, and the
wounding of 23 others.
The Secret Service initiated its investigation after the Columbine
attacks, and released its Safe Schools Initiative report in 2002. The
agency, joined by the Department of Education, studied the causes of 37
cases of “targeted violence” — in which a school was “deliberately
selected as the location for the attack and was not simply a random site
of opportunity” — that took place between 1974 and 2000, according to
“In some of these cases the experience of being bullied seemed to have a
significant impact on the attacker and appeared to have been a factor in
his decision to mount an attack at the school,” the Secret Service
report states. “In one case, most of the attacker's schoolmates
described the attacker as 'the kid everyone teased.' ... Schoolmates
alleged that nearly every child in the school had at some point thrown
the attacker against a locker, tripped him in the hall, held his head
under water in the pool or thrown things at him.”
A variety of programs aim to reduce violence and
bullying in schools. A New York-based organization called Operation
Respect provides training for teachers, school administrators, students
and parents, helping them adopt behaviors and rules conducive to a
peaceful school environment.
One well regarded approach, developed by Norwegian researcher Dan Olweus,
has been the model for many U.S. programs. His method — which involves
schoolwide, classroom, and individual interventions — has been
thoroughly researched and is frequently cited in bullying research. The
program includes parental, school and student involvement and calls for
school rules against bullying and anonymous student questionnaires to
assess the prevalence of the problem.
Effective anti-bullying programs need to involve all of the
“stakeholders: kids, teachers, administrators (and) parents ... so that
bullying is not a behavior that's rewarded” and is instead seen as an
act with consequences, said Spivak.
Identifying bullies requires creating a comfortable
environment for students to open up to adults, agree experts. “The best
way to find out whether someone is a bully is to ask kids,” Leventhal
January W. Payne
23 August 2005