INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK
9 MAY 2001
No longer a "rite of passage"
Taking Bullying Seriously
For Marie, the abuse started subtly. A snub here. A glance there. A whisper behind her back.
And then it got physical.
"She would come home with scratches on her face and body," said the mother of the south suburban ninth-grader. "She wouldn't talk about it.
"It was like a character assassination. They took my daughter and replaced her with someone I didn't know. They attacked her self-esteem."
Marie's story is all too common. Any veteran teacher, school social worker or juvenile cop can tell stories of the cruelty one child can inflict upon another, of that spiral of meanness that begins with a hard look and often ends in deep emotional or physical harm.
But for every story of a bully, there is today an anti-bully counterpunch. Almost every school district in the Chicago area claims to be taking strong and formal measures to combat bullies. Their efforts range from holding classroom sensitivity seminars to putting more cops in the halls to trying to identify future bullies at a young age.
Under a bill making its way through the Illinois General Assembly, every school district in the state would need such a plan.
A number of studies suggest such anti-bullying programs are proving successful in the United States and Europe, and might be the reason for an overall drop in bullying incidents between 1995 and 1999.
Teachers and parents a generation ago might have dismissed being bullied as something kids in the schoolyard had to work out for themselves. Today, they are more likely to view it as a serious threat to children - and to society.
"Being bullied is not just an unpleasant rite of passage through childhood," said Duane Alexander of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "It's a public health problem that merits attention."
Researchers have found that children who are bullied are lonelier and find it difficult to make friends, while those who do the bullying are more likely to have poor grades and to smoke and drink.
Other research has shown that people who were bullied are prone to depression and low self-esteem as adults, and that bullies are more likely to engage in criminal behavior.
"People always remember their bullies because for a lot of people it's their first real bad experience in life," said Dr. George E. Smith, who heads the Management Planning Institute and Parent & Community Training Academy and speaks at dozens of Chicago area schools about bullies. "For some kids, it's their most unpleasant memory."
For Marie, the tale ends with her missing two weeks of school because she was afraid to walk the halls. But the abuse continued in her absence.
Rumors spread - groundless but hurtful. At a time when boys are starting to become important, talk was that Marie was a lesbian. Then the talk was that Marie was a slut.
A gregarious girl at the beginning of the year, Marie turned inward. She openly questioned why the kids did not like her. What, she wondered, made her different?
"Eventually, my daughter started to get interested in other things and meet new people," Marie's mother said. "She came to the conclusion that she was the target only when she was around this certain group of girls. She realized that everywhere else, people liked her."
Still, Marie's torment ended completely only when the girls moved on to different high schools.
Such endings are not always the case. One major reason for the proliferation of anti-bullying programs in recent years has been a string of highly publicized school shootings in which kids apparently were pushed to the brink by bullies:
Almost everyone agrees bullying has become a major problem. The National Association of School Psychologists found that on a given day, 160,000 kids skip school because they fear bullies. Last fall, a study by U.S. Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center found that in more than two-thirds of 37 school shootings, the attackers felt "persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured."
The Secret Service report came down harshly on schools and parents who don't listen to kids who complain of bullying.
A more recent study, by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, concluded that 2 million American kids--30 percent of schoolchildren in grades six through 10--have been involved in bullying, as victim or perpetrator.
How the schools deal with bullying varies. From early prevention programs that deal with role playing to small-group forums, no one is sure which programs work best, although child health officials say any form of prevention can help reduce incidents.
Among the programs in use or planned in Chicago area schools:
Schools are making a genuine commitment to making sure that their children will be safe," said Laurie Flanagan, a prevention educator for the YWCA.
The U.S. Education Department recently examined anti-bullying programs and found a handful that, in a short time, are proving effective.
A peer mediation program in Lansing, Mich., reduced the number of suspensions by 14 percent, and 70 percent of the students said they feel safer in school. A study of an anger management program in a Wisconsin middle school concluded that participants had a 29 percent greater chance than non-participants of controlling aggression. After starting an anti-bullying program that relied on parent volunteers who would work in the schools and interact with kids, a Georgia elementary school reported that the vast majority of students - 92 percent - showed better behavior.
The Education Department says in its latest annual report on school violence that bullying is declining nationwide. In some areas, only half the usual incidents are being reported.
Most research into the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs is being done in Europe. A prevention program implemented in Norway, England and Germany reduced reports of bullying by about 50 percent.
But the stories continue to roll in.
A girl named Sally says she remembers exactly when the torment started.
"We were at a Valentine's Day dance, and he wanted to dance with me," said the ninth-grader at the private Progressive School in Chicago. "I said `no,' and that was when it started. He was my first bully."
In the hallways, he tormented Sally.
In class, he physically intimidated her. A shove. A flick on the ear.
"I had no way of stopping it," she said. "I would go home and cry. I would cry at school."
The harassment ended only when the bully moved away.
The Education Department has identified about two dozen anti-bullying programs that it thinks work best.
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