When I was in third grade, I was bullied by a kid named Ronald.
Ronald was tall and strong. I was the smallest kid in class and relatively new at school. He would catch up to me in the coat closet and block my path so I couldn’t leave. Often he’d stand close, stick out his massive chest and call me “shrimp.”
I dreaded the coat closet. I dreaded Ronald. And although I felt helpless and embarrassed, it never occurred to me to tell an adult. I thought bullying was, well, normal.
Things are different today. Most children are told about bullying in kindergarten. They’re instructed on what bullying looks like and urged to report it immediately. Many schools have implemented zero-tolerance policies; one bullying incident, and you’re out.
Unfortunately, according to a new report issued this week by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, these efforts aren’t working — not well enough, at least.
The report, titled “Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice,” argues that bullying among youth poses a serious public health problem with significant psychological consequences — including depression, anxiety and the abuse of alcohol and drugs into adulthood. And it’s not just the victims who suffer. Youth who bully others are more likely to be depressed, engage in crime and other high-risk activities and have adverse outcomes later in life, the report says. Both victims and perpetrators appear to be at great risk for poor psychological and social outcomes and may even be significantly more likely to contemplate suicide.
And those zero-tolerance policies? They aren’t just failing — they’re making matters worse.
“There is emerging research that widely used zero-tolerance policies — those that impose automatic suspension or expulsion of students from school after one bullying incident — are not effective at curbing bullying or making schools safer, and should be discontinued,” the report states.
Not only are these policies leading to increased academic and behavioral problems among those labeled as “bullies,” the report goes on to say, but they are causing bystanders to remain quiet out of concern that the schools will implement overly harsh punishments. Which, of course, they often do. As the report suggests, those who bully often suffer as much as those being bullied.
I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to think the only time schools should exercise “zero tolerance” is when it comes to zero-tolerance policies.
What constitutes bullying is a source of some debate — and it’s easy to see why. Generally, bullying is defined as unwanted and repeated aggressive behavior by youth, not including siblings or current dating partners (for some reason), that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance. Bullying can be physical, verbal or cyber. It can involve damage to a person’s body, emotions, reputation, education or property. One of the least-researched areas of bullying is that which occurs online – in chatrooms, through social media and via text message.
There are many reasons people bully, of course. First, there’s what I would call “low-level bullying.” This is the sort of hurtful teasing kids receive because they are perceived as “different” — too tall, too short, wrong hair, wrong skin, wrong weight, wrong neighborhood, wrong clothes, wrong interests, wrong friends, wrong gods — the list is endless.
Why do kids do it? Well, sometimes they don’t know any better: They’re young and still figuring out the right way to behave, or they’re blindly repeating what they’ve heard at home.
Bullying is taken to another level when youth actively try to hurt others. These kids most likely feel powerless in their lives and are trying to fix that by exercising power over weaker kids. Other times, it’s a result of low self-esteem and insecurity. Kids are trying to be popular by making others unpopular. They truly believe the only way to be “in” is to cast others out. (And, depending on the group, they may be right.)
The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report hopes to be the first step in bringing bullying under control once and for all. Among its recommendations are that more research be conducted into bullying — specifically cyber-bullying — and that federal agencies come together to create a new multi-tiered, multi-component approach that focuses not just on prevention and intervention in a universal sense (that is, targeting all children — not just those at risk of bullying or being bullied), but on providing specific, targeted prevention and intervention for those who are at-risk. Teaching “more intensive social-emotional skills or de-escalation approaches” have proven effective.
“This is a pivotal time for bullying prevention,” the report says. “Reducing the prevalence of bullying and minimizing the harm it imparts on children can have a dramatic impact on children’s well-being and development.”
My bully Ronald (which is not his real name, by the way), didn’t make it to the fourth grade — not at my school at least. He was expelled at the end of the year for kicking a glass door so hard it shattered. When I look back on it, I realize Ronald must have had enormous pain in his life. He was a bully, yes, but he was also a boy. A 9-year-old boy. And to have that much aggression inside his body at such a young age — what must his home life have been like?
Looking back, I regret that I remained silent. Not because it prevented me from getting the help I needed — though that would have been nice! — but because it prevented Ronald from getting the help he needed.
Or maybe he did eventually get some help. Maybe some teachers or counselors or mentors at his new school saw through Ronald’s bullish exterior and decided to intervene — not with punishment but with compassion. Maybe they unearthed the reason for Ronald’s behavior. Maybe they taught him some new coping skills. Maybe they showed him, by example, how to empathize with the weak and the broken and the troubled.
After all, they are the ones who need it most.