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Schoolyard bullies and their victims: The picture fills out

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 12, 2004


Maybe it was because he was younger than the other seventh-graders. Maybe it was the President's Award he got for straight A's. Whatever the reasons, he endured a daily barrage of stomach punches, neck-jabs, and ear-twists from an older tormentor. His grades fell, he became withdrawn, and, according to his mother, he just grunted when she asked him how school was going.

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Betty Tom Davidson asked the Orange County, N.C., school system to pull her son out of class. But the school cited academic reasons for him to stay. So Ms. Davidson resigned from the school board last month, saying it was futile to try to work within a system that seemed to protect bullies. "He can't learn anything if he's scared to death," she says. "Complacency is unacceptable."

Five years after social outcasts made tragic history at Colorado's Columbine High School, experts say bullying remains a schoolyard constant - and may even be growing. Amid the offensive against heckling and hallway anarchy, with measures from anti- bullying assemblies to armed guards at schoolhouse doors, there are growing questions about whether such tactics really prevent bullying or ease students' fear. Those doubts, along with a rising awareness of school violence, are stoking a national debate over how deeply adults should get involved in playground politics.

In fact, some experts cite an explosion of bullying that might leave even Bart Simpson cowering in a high school bathroom: In one Kansas school, according to a recent study by Jim Snyder, a psychologist at Wichita State University, kindergartners bully each other once every six minutes.

Bullying "may be particularly problematic in American schools," says Jaana Juvonen, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies school culture. "The victims of bullying, unlike the bullies, are clearly suffering and, unfortunately they're suffering in silence."

Shame and a 'code of silence'

Experts estimate there are about 3.7 million bullies - defined as children who regularly verbally taunt or physically torment others - in sixth- to tenth-grades; and some research suggests that up to 20 percent of their victims suffer long-term effects, from falling grades to suicidal thoughts to violence. Two-thirds of school shooters in the past 15 years saw themselves as bullied, according to a 2002 study by the Secret Service. And bullies themselves often get in trouble with the law.

Even adolescent bystanders can feel a mix of shame and impotence (having its own repercussions, both on the playground and down the road).

"All kids are exposed to bullying, and most kids figure out how to deal with it," says Dr. Snyder. "But for chronic victims and bullies, there's a broad impact on their social behavior, affect, and ability to make friends."

Though kids' "code of silence" can make it difficult for states to track incidents, some say the situation is getting worse. Public schools' competition against both private schools and the voucher system may make it less palatable to report violence and thus be seen as a "problem" school. In the cavernous hallways and winding stairwells of large school buildings, loners may be all the more vulnerable to the reign of "hallway justice." A decades' long focus on self-esteem may have given some kids too much pride, making them more forceful with others. And psychologists suggest the focus on kids' confidence may mean a subsequent lag in mediation and negotiation skills - knowledge that could defuse volatile situations.

According to student rankings, says Dr. Juvonen, US schools are roughly on par with those in the Czech Republic as the least friendly in the Western world.

Confounding the issue is that many American adults consider bullying the natural order of childhood - a first, instructive taste of the dog-eat-dog world. Moreover, teachers, worried that they'll make the situation worse, often seem reluctant to step in: According to the Juvonen study, they now intervene only about 10 percent of the time.

Behind a failure to intervene