Schoolyard bullies and their victims: The picture fills out
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Despite all the antibullying assemblies starring characters like the infamous "Scary Guy," critics agree that victims are too often left to their own devices.Skip to next paragraph
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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.