HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. — 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 His grades fell, he became withdrawn, and, according to his mother, he just grunted when she asked him how school was going.
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."
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.
Despite all the antibullying assemblies starring characters like the infamous "Scary Guy," critics agree that victims are too often left to their own devices.
Certainly, a realization of one's own power to fend off a bully can be empowering. But such strategies don't always work - and can even backfire, precipitating violence instead of containing it. In Atlanta, a 13-year-old was charged with lashing out at a tormentor and injuring his eye with a pencil.
In other cases, students have gone outside their own districts to get relief - and, increasingly, they're going to court. Last Thursday, a teen in Tonganoxie, Kan., sued his district for failing to protect him from three years of bullying - an ordeal that finally led him to quit high school and earn a GED instead. The family says it wants to force the district to act in future cases so that other kids don't end up in the same boat.
Behind the persistent bullying, some see deeper cultural forces at work: a society that condones, even supports, rudeness as a means to get ahead - not just on the playground, but into adulthood ("Office jerks get perks," read a recent newspaper headline.)
Indeed, new studies - including one authored, in part, by Juvonen and published in the journal Pediatrics - suggest bullies are often the popular kids, protected not just by students, but by teachers and administrators eager to promote "superstars."
"Classmates are not keen to affiliate with a bully, but they recognize that these people have social capital and power," says Juvonen.
For many educators, getting to the bottom of bullying incidents is difficult and frustrating; and parents can unwittingly play a role. The Orange County boy, for example, had already skipped two grades. And though such promotions may seem like a good idea for high-achievers, they can cause their own problems - especially when students reach the notoriously geeky middle school years.
"The programs that look to be effective take the whole-school approach, that everybody from the principal to the school bus driver not only gets involved, but is trained to think about behavior from the kid's perspective," says Ellen deLara, a Syracuse University sociologist and the author of "And Words Can Hurt Forever."
"We used to think teachers stood in the hallway," she continues, "but now that doesn't really happen, because teachers are so stressed about what they need to accomplish in the classroom. It leaves kids a lot of time when [students] are on their own."
Some states are trying to formalize more adult oversight of lunchrooms and playgrounds. In Oregon, school districts are debating the rights of bullies and their victims. Lousiana and Florida lawmakers toughened antibullying legislation last month. Delaware has hired a "school climate" director and, this year, launched a reporting process for bully behavior. Last week, New York City Schools passed the "Dignity in All Schools Act" to get more accurate reporting about the problem.
"For too many students, the daily challenge is not a challenge of study, but of survival," says New York council member Alan Jay Gerson, the main sponsor of the bill. "For too long, the adult establishment has allowed this problem to continue and fester."
Even here in Orange County, the school board last week passed a first reading of a new anti-bullying measure. School officials here acknowledge now that they may have acted too slowly in the Davidson case.
The victim's mother says her son's deterioration and her own resignation should serve as a reminder to other school officials - especially principals - about the importance of collaring lunchroom loudmouths and hallway arm-twisters.
"There are all sorts of reasons for tuning into this problem, because ultimately we will pay for it in some fashion if we don't," she says. "It's just the right thing to do: If a kid reaches out for help, we have to try to reach back."
• Adam Parker contributed to this report from New York.