Thursday, August 4, 2011

Anti-Bullying 101: Pt.3, Why You Should Care

It's 2003.  I am looking at the poster board at the back of the church, which is celebrating and advertising a family camp that many in our congregation attend each summer.  It's after service and the sanctuary is quiet.  As I admire the beautiful scenery and look for familiar faces on the taped-on snapshots I am joined by Sarah.

Sarah is a beautiful young woman.  Kindness seems to flow from her pale-blue eyes.  She speaks with an earnestness that is tempered by a gentle, almost wry smile.  She is a treasure in the congregation.  Everyone knows her, partly because of her willingness to share her gorgeous singing voice, but mostly because of the compassion and grace that palpably surrounds her like a fragrance.

"I haven't been to camp in a long time," I say.

"You should come next year," she replies.  Even a simple sentence like that sounds like music.

"Yeah, I should," I say, knowing I won't.

Her pale, slender fingers reach out and gently brush one of the pictures.  It shows several happy children crowded around a redwood gazebo, their faces alight with smiles.  The next words Sarah speaks are soft, but matter-of-fact.

"That's where I almost committed suicide."

The bottom drops out of my stomach.  I turn to look at her.  She hasn't taken her eyes off the picture.  Her face is calm, peaceful, like a Renaissance painting of the Madonna.  "Wh...what?" I stammer.

Her eyes widen.  "I never told you that?" She is genuinely surprised.

"No!  What...when?  Why?" I babble.

"It was years ago.  I was going into tenth grade," she says.  She seems concerned that she has upset me.  "Are you sure I've never told you?"

I walk to one of the blue padded chairs in the sanctuary and sit.  "You can tell me now," I say.

She takes the seat beside me.  She looks serious, though I can still see the hint of a smile on the corner of her mouth.  "You remember how skinny I was back then, right?"

I work up an image in my mind.  The time she speaks of was probably just a few months after her family started coming to the church.  Sarah had been a late bloomer... her pretty, porcelain face perched on top of a painfully thin frame.  "You were very slender," I say generously.

"I was skinny," she states bluntly, her eyes playfully reproaching my lack of candor.  "I felt ugly.  Girls at school accused me of being anorexic or bulimic, even though I wasn't.  I know I looked like I was but I really wasn't.  I couldn't walk down the halls without boys telling me how ugly I was.  They would shove me up against the lockers as I walked past."

She's looking out the window now.  The sunlight is dancing in the leaves of the giant oak that dominates the church's landscape.  "Every day.  I dealt with that every day.  It just wears you down, you know?  Finally I decided I just couldn't take it.  It was summer, but I knew summer would end and I would have to go back.

"And it wasn't spite.  I wasn't trying to get back at anyone.  I just wanted the hurting to stop."  She pauses.  The memory is fresh, yet there is no pain or malice in her eyes.

"So why church camp?" I ask.

"I don't know," she says.  "First of all, I didn't want to go.  I was determined to hate it there.  Maybe I knew I'd be away from my family, so they wouldn't have to find me."

She looks back at me and her eyes betray an intensity now.  "I had a plan.  I decided before I got to camp I would do it on Tuesday morning before anyone else had woken up.  I picked the gazebo the day I got there.  I even knew how I was going to do it.  I mean, I had a plan."

I shudder.  In terms of danger to herself, the girl she is describing is at Defon 5.  Mere hours away from unspeakable tragedy that would destroy her and permanently scar her family and community.

Fortunately, Sarah found a way out of her despair.  I will finish her story in a future blog.

Unfortunately, Sarah's story is a common one, and many of them do not have the miraculous ending that saved Sarah's life.  The statistics are as horrifying as they are grim:
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4400 deaths per year, according to the CDC. For every suicide among young people, there are at least 100 suicide attempts. 
  • Over 14 percent of high school students have considered suicide, and almost 7 percent have attempted it
  • Bully victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University
  • A study in Britain found that at least half of suicides among young people are related to bullying
  • 10 to 14 year old girls may be at even higher risk for suicide, according to the study above
  •  people who are bullied as children are more likely to suffer from depression as an adult than children not involved in bullying.
Of course, most bullying cases do not escalate to a matter of life and death.  Even so, targets of bullying are more likely to suffer from insomnia, nightmares, and stress-related illnesses.  They are more likely to experience a drop in grades and are more likely to stay home from school.

But it's easy sometimes to get lost in the statistics, because statistics don't have a face.  Statistics don't have a future. 

I think of Sarah now, calm, confident.  At peace with herself and the world around her.  Married to a wonderful man, the mother of two beautiful little girls.  

The teenager of so many years ago could not have known the wonderful future that she almost allowed the bullying to rob from her.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Anti-Bullying 101: Pt. 2, Bullying Defined


Math class.  Eighth grade.  He's at it again.  It has been happening for several days, and there is no sign that it will stop any time soon.


I know that sound means that Hobart, the boy sitting two desks behind me is dragging the empty desk between us back towards him with his foot.  There is a moment of silence.  During the pause I brace myself.


He pushes the desk forward with as much velocity as he can muster.   It slams into the back of mine, like a truck rear-ending a Volkswagen at a stoplight.  My head snaps forward with the impact.  The noise reverberates throughout the classroom, above the din of gabbing students.  A few of them chuckle.  One girl behind me says "That's mean, stop that!", but she's giggling as she speaks. 

"He doesn't even care," says Hobart.  "He never says anything."

To the contrary, I care deeply.  I keep hoping that the old adage about "ignoring a bully" will eventually work, but it never does.

The teacher, a timid, soft-spoken young woman, doesn't look up from the papers she is grading, though there is no way she could not know what is going on.


My heart is pounding.  I feel angry.  Angry at Hobart.  Angry at the girl and the other students who are enjoying my humiliation.  Angry at the teacher who refuses to have the courage to gain control of her classroom.  But most of all I feel angry at myself, that I neither have the tools nor the guts to confront the problem myself.

"Watch his head!" says Hobart.

I brace myself again.


The above story is true.  Of course, I've changed the name of the boy and don't mention the name of the teacher, although their true names are etched into my memory.  Although this is a mild example, I share this story because it has all the hallmarks of classic bullying:

1) An imbalance of power.  Often, targeted individuals feel helpless to stand up for themselves or get help.  In the story from my junior high years, although I towered over "Hobart," he was a tough kid and not afraid to get into a fight.  I, on the other hand, had been brought up in a home that taught Christian values, and mistakenly thought that "turning the other cheek" meant allowing myself to remain in an abusive situation.  I also knew that getting help from the teacher was not an option because she was too timid to confront the problem. 

Finally, none of the other students were willing to come to my aid.  There were only a few who actually seemed to enjoy the bully's actions, but the majority that might have been sympathetic to my plight were themselves too frightened to act or relieved that they were not the one in my situation. 

In other words, for whatever reason, the abuse continued because the I, the "target" could not or would not do anything to stop it.

2) Cruel actions.  In my situation, the cruelty was physical abuse, but this is not always the case.  Bullying can manifest itself in a number of other ways, including cruel words, theft, manipulation, social exclusion, and on-line or "cyber-bullying."  When establishing a definition of bullying, especially with children, it is important to be as vague as possible.  You don't want to run into excuses like "You never said I couldn't ram somebody with my desk."  When speaking to students I include in my definition that bullying is "being mean to someone..." 

It must be noted that intent is an important factor.  A bullying child is deliberately trying to hurt.  A bully might stomp on the target's foot, but that doesn't mean that everyone who steps on someone else's foot is a bully. 

3) Repetition.  The actions of the bullying child continue or threaten to continue because of the imbalance of power.  This is not to say that intervention is not necessary the first time the targeted child experiences abuse.  On the contrary, the sooner intervention happens, the better.  However, it is more likely that by the time the situation comes to your attention, a pattern will already have developed.

When I speak to elementary-aged children, I start with this definition:

"Bullying is when someone is repeatedly mean to another individual who can't or won't do anything to stop it."

I have tried to keep the definition something that students of any age can understand.  I recommend that schools who wish to tackle their bullying problem hammer out a definition of bullying that teachers and staff members can agree on.  Your definition should include the three "ingredients" I have listed above and be purposely vague.  I would be interested in learning what others come up with.

References and additional informantion:

Here are a few bullying definitions from other authors.

“Bullying occurs whenever one or more persons enjoy using power to repeatedly and consistently harm another.” (Voors, 4)

“Bullying…is the repeated, malicious verbal mistreatment of a Target by a harassing bully that is driven by the bully’s desire to control the Target… typically (through) a mixture of cruel acts of deliberate humiliation or interference…” (Namie, 3)

“Bullying is a conscious, willful, and deliberate hostile activity intended to harm, induce fear through the threat of further aggression, and create terror… Bullying will always include:
1.       Imbalance of power…
2.       Intent to harm…
3.       Threat of further aggression…
4.       Terror… "
(Coloroso, 13-14)

“Bullying is unfair and one-sided. It happens when someone keeps hurting, frightening, threatening, or leaving someone out on purpose."  (Olweus,

Coloroso, Barbara.  The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to High School—  HowParents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle of Violence.  New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

Namie, Gary and Ruth Namie.  The Bully at Work: What You Can Do to Stop the Hurt and Reclaim Your    Dignity On the Job.  Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2000.

Olweus, Dan.  Bullying at School.  Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1993.

Voors, William.  The Parent’s Book About Bullying: Changing the Course of Your Child’s Life.  Center City,             MN: Hazelden, 2000.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Anti-Bullying 101: Pt. 1, Introduction

Bullying is a hot topic.  Recent high-profile suicides have brought it to our attention.  There have been countless rallies and news stories and magazine articles and yes, blog posts.  It is a problem in elementary schools, high schools, homes, playgrounds, colleges, and even the workplace.  The question we always ask ourselves is "What can we do about it?"

If you are an elementary or middle school educator, or the parent of child in these grades, these next several blog posts, posted over the next few weeks, will be targeted for you.  I hope to give you some practical advice that is designed specifically for your situation.  I welcome your feedback and your questions.  Every situation is different, but together we might be able to find some answers.

Over the next several posts we will look at the problem from several angles.  We will come up with a practical and "kid-friendly" definition and think about why we should care about bullying.  I will identify the major players in the bullying drama and discuss ways to counsel, encourage, and confront those involved.  Hopefully, together we can create a climate at your school where everyone at your school--students and staff--feels safe.