Bullying used to be viewed as something of a normal part of school, from the earliest elementary years to college fraternity hazing. Research, though, reveals bullying causes damage and sometimes death. Virtually every school shooting in America can be traced to bullying. Hundreds of thwarted shootings contained the same pattern.
Beyond these high profile situations, thousands of children are diminished when victimized by bullies. Some drop out of school, while others withdraw into themselves and live lives of quiet fear and avoidance.
The issue of bullying is particularly important for students with exceptionalities, too. As increasing numbers of students with special needs are included in all classrooms, bullying increases. Many students also often lie about or otherwise minimize or hide their academic talents in order to avoid being targeted.
Bullying is usually defined as behavior toward another person that is intentional, repetitive, and hurtful, resulting in an imbalance of power between the bully and the target. It can take many forms: physical, verbal, social, or emotional. It can be overt or covert, as simple as name-calling or as complex as social exclusion. It may also include having money or other things taken by students who bully. It may include racial and sexual bullying. It typically reaches its peak in the middle-school years but occurs at every grade level.
Another form of bullying has emerged is the growing use of cell phones and electronic media. Cyber bullying involves harassing someone or spreading rumors about an individual through e-mail, chat rooms, text messages, instant messages, or social networking web sites. Ironically, for children who are socially isolated, it may be their only social outlet. They should be taught to never reveal personal information online, to report improper or threatening conduct immediately, and to keep copies of inappropriate messages they receive but not respond to them.
Victims of bullying suffer from embarrassment, fear, and anxiety. These can lead to depression, which can then lead to absenteeism, poor academic performance, and, in the most extreme cases, suicide. The effects can linger well into adulthood and even prevent someone from reaching his or her full potential.
Real or perceived differences in appearance, behavior, or ability, may trigger bullying. Many children with special needs exhibit such characteristics. Some studies indicate that students with behavior disorders and who display physical differences are many times more likely to be the targets of bullies.
The increasingly diverse and inclusive makeup of student bodies everywhere requires renewed efforts by everyone to assure a safe, secure environment.
In some situations, children are driven to gangs for refuge and protection and then engage in bullying as a form of retribution or recruitment.
Combating bullying begins when schools formulate and carry our effective policies that ban harassment, bullying and discrimination of any kind. They should clearly define bullying, define why it is harmful, how and to whom to report it, and what the consequences are. All school staff should be trained on the policy and enforce it fully and consistently. All means all. Training should then extend to the student body and parents and other community members.
There are a number of well-developed programs with proven records of effectiveness, backed up by research. None provides a quick fix, but they help initiate and maintain a positive change in community culture. My favorite is the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program that has been employed in more than a dozen countries and was recommended and supported by Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) District Attorney Stephen A. Zapalla, Jr.
It is a school and community program that has a proven history of reducing bullying when employed assiduously and will increase attendance while improving school and classroom climate. It is also a longer term strategy for creating safe learning communities. The program works, but only when assiduously applied by well trained professionals with sufficient resources for full implementation.
This level of commitment underscores not only the severity of the problem, but the urgency to solve it. If you need more of a reason, ask a child who has been bullied or, if you were one of those children, take a good look into the mirror.
Dr. Terry Wallace is a Senior Fellow at the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia, teaches on the graduate faculty at Muskingum University is a board member of the West Virginia Access Center for Higher Education.