WASHINGTON — Lydia Langford was becoming exasperated with her 12-year-old son's complaints of being bullied. For two years, he had been whacked on the back of the head in class, tripped in the halls, and teased about his band affiliation. Nothing serious, in her mind. "I started blaming him for handling it badly," she says. "Finally, and I know this was wrong, I told him to just pick the biggest kid and beat the heck out of him."
Mrs. Langford heard nothing further until last March, when she returned to her Arlington, Texas, home to find the front door battered and her son inside, crying. Three boys had chased him home from the bus, hurling rocks as he struggled to unlock the door. Once inside, he found his BB gun and began shooting at his tormentors. "I'm convinced," Langford says, "that if there had been a 44-magnum in the house, that's what he would've used."
The encounter never made the evening news. But parents and educators say that for every school shooting that does, there are many "near misses" like the one Langford experienced. And such incidents, they add, could be prevented by curtailing a common rite of passage: bullying.
Because it is so often an underlying cause of school violence, the National School Safety Center now calls bullying the "most enduring and underrated problem in American schools."
The issue has been a consistent red flag in the lives of students from Pearl, Miss., to Littleton, Colo., who shot peers. But they are hardly alone. Nearly 1 in 4 kids reported being bullied with some regularity in the previous three months, and 1 in 10 were harassed at least once a week, according to a 1998 study by Susan Limber of the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
Despite bullying's prevalence, many schools have been slow or at best misguided in their response. Ron Stephens, executive director of the center, says that "schools make the mistake of reacting to school violence with everything from metal detectors to closed-circuit TV." Yet, he adds, "the single most effective deterrent may well be stopping bullying among children."
A full 70 percent of children believe teachers handle episodes of bullying "poorly," according to a study by John Hoover at the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks. But some schools are working hard to do better.
At McCormick (S.C.) Middle School, principal James Nolan took a "bully survey" and was shocked to find that half of students reported problems. When asked anonymously who was responsible, students "named the same handful of kids," Mr. Nolan says. The school then trained a close eye on those students.
"When you put bullies on notice that they're being watched, they tend to shape up," says Barry McNamara, co-author of "Keys to Dealing with Bullies."
Many districts, including McCormick, are training bus drivers and cafeteria workers to spot trouble and fill out reports. Nolan also relandscaped the school yard to improve supervision. In the two years since, fights have declined 40 percent.
John Malzone, spokesman for Shuller, Ferris, Johnson, and Lindstrom, a Fayetteville, N.C., architecture firm that is building 10 schools designed to stem bullying, says a number of schools are rethinking their structures. "In the past, schools have been big sprawling things, and that means lots of areas where big kids can pick on little kids." The new schools have wider halls and smaller playgrounds, he says.
School counselor Paul Von Essen says students are a key resource as well. Five years ago, his school, Highline Elementary in Aurora, Colo., began "Bullyproofing Your School," which now serves as a model for 300 schools. The program relies upon the majority of students who aren't bullies or victims to come to the aid of fellow kids - a necessary step, since some 60 percent of students do not intervene, Mr. Von Essen says.
Highline also posted classroom rules: "We will not bully other students. We will help others who are being bullied by seeking out and getting adult help. We will use extra effort to include all students in activities...."
This means, Von Essen says, that "if a student sees another being left out of a kickball game, or sitting alone at a cafeteria table, they include them. It's made a huge difference, since it's the isolated kids who are more likely to be picked on." Misconduct reports have been cut nearly in half since the program began.
Not all schools are as responsive. After the BB-gun incident, Langford met with numerous school officials, but "they ignored me." Finally, she got on the school-board agenda and proposed a statute to compel schools to charge bullies with assault. Her son hasn't had a run-in since. Says Langford: "I'm sure what finally convinced them was when I said, 'If my son comes to school ... and starts shooting, I want you all to know that you could have done something, and didn't.' "