To the seasoned bully, Scott Scribner was a walking target: He was the new kid. A seventh grader, he was a whole grade younger than the bully on his school bus. And loaded down with his lunch, backpack, and trumpet, he had little means to defend himself.
Regularly, as Scott tried to exit the New Orleans public school bus with his gear, the bully would trip him. This continued until one day he fell all the way down the front stairs of the bus.
The family struggled over how to handle the incident. "You've submitted your child to the greater structure, and the greater structure doesn't provide protection - what do you do?" Scott's father, Richard Scribner, found himself asking.
With the level of violence in schools increasing, kids behaving more aggressively at younger ages, and more weapons appearing in schools, more people are asking the same question, says Richard Havler, professor of counselor education at Ohio University in Athens.
The news that a young girl in England recently killed herself to escape persistent bullying, and reports that Japan has experienced serious incidents of bullying over the last few years, elevate the problem to an international issue.
"People have such different ideas about what to do" on bullying, notes Nancy Mullin-Rindler at the Wellesley Center for Women at Wellesley (Mass.) College. Ms. Mullin-Rindler has worked with teachers and education experts to help develop a curriculum to teach kids how to respond to bullying.
Central to the curriculum are bystanders, who Mullin-Rindler says are also affected by bullying and very able to help diffuse it. Children are given an opportunity in class to problem-solve, act out what they would do if they encountered bullying, and think about what it takes to intervene. Other researchers are also working on solutions that involve bystanders.
Such approaches are welcome at a time when parents and teachers struggle with the age-old problem of bullies. Many teachers don't believe children's reports of bullying or feel a child should work out the problem on his or her own - a strategy akin to telling a sexual harassment victim to work out the problem with the harasser, Mullin-Rindler says.
Parents often don't know what to do - fight for their child, accuse the child of exaggerating, or instruct the child to work out the problem alone.
Mr. Scribner wanted to call the bully's parents, but Scott resisted until his father promised to keep his complaint anonymous. Scribner succeeded in stopping the bullying, but the incident was not without complications: The bully's parents had caller I.D., traced the call to determine who had made the complaint, and sent the police to the Scribners' house, citing harassment. Two years later, Scott's father still wonders if he did the right thing.
When a bullying situation arises, Mullin-Rindler has several suggestions for parents: "Listen and ask your child what he or she wants to happen: What support do they want from the adult? Do they want words to use on their own? Do they want parents to talk to the teacher?" She encourages parents to give kids a repertoire of responses for different situations.
Believing the child is key
If a child comes to an adult for help, believe what that child is saying, she adds. "They're coming to you because they really don't know how to solve it on their own. As one kindergartner told me, 'If I knew what to do, I'd have done it myself,' " she says.
Education experts cite an imbalance of power as a reason for bullying.
Professor Havler, who has written a book on interventions for bullying and violence, believes that the middle-school years are a key time for bullying as kids find a wealth of power associated with the physical, social, and emotional changes taking place within them.
Because children don't automatically know how to use this power, schools, parents, and friends must help them - bullies, victims, and bystanders - understand how to respond when power is misused.
Whither the school system?
As children continue to describe bullying incidents in their schools, many parents question whether the school system really is helping.
Marianne Lewis of Baton Rouge, La., felt frustrated when her son Eric faced constant bullying at his locker in middle school.
"When kids change classes, they are penalized for getting to their next class late. Eric had a top locker. When he bent down to put a book in his book sack, the same kids would come up behind him, slam his locker and lock it," Ms. Lewis says.
By the time Eric dealt with the kids, reopened his lock, and got what he needed, he'd often be late for his next class. He never told his mother about the bullying; she discovered the problem after the pink late slips started coming home.
"My son asked me not to go to the teacher, so out of respect to him I didn't. But how could a teacher help that? It happened in the hallway 'out of class,' " Lewis says.
The locker is a common place for bullying, according to Vicki Flerx, assistant research professor at the Institute for Families in Society at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. If schools are serious about dealing with bullying, teachers should be standing by these lockers during class changes, she says.
Bystanders play a role
Professor Flerx joins a growing group of educators who are developing strategies - from curriculum models like Wellesley's to whole-school approaches - for combatting bullying.
Flerx's model, a whole-school approach, directs every adult in the school, from teachers to janitors to lunchroom staff to bus drivers, to intervene when they see bullying. This approach sets a standard for zero tolerance and rewards anti-bullying behavior in other students.
"It's harder if you're the nerdy kid to stick up for another nerdy kid, especially if he's being bullied by a popular kid," notes Mullin-Rindler. Children, she says, "need different levels of courage to respond to different situations."
What Parents Can Do
Research done in the last five years on bullying offers a number of approaches parents can take to help their children:
* Encourage bullied children to develop more friends. Bullies like to isolate their victims - either physically getting them alone, or socially putting the victim in a position where other children are uncomfortable supporting them.
* Help the child see the bullies' strengths and weaknesses. Ask the child, "Why would she be doing this to you?" to give the child more direction on how to respond.
* Help the child practice assertive behavior. Experts note that when a child becomes a victim, often the shoulders stoop, the head goes down, and the child does not make eye contact. These physical signs become cues to bullies that this child will be no problem.
* Suggest the child do the unexpected. Bullies believe they know what's going to happen; they don't expect a real fight. Talking back or standing up to the bully may remedy the situation.
* Help the child come up with words to use in a difficult situation, or help the child find ways to completely avoid a bully.
These suggestions should help put children in a position to handle the problem on their own. But if a child needs protection - if he or she suffers physical harm, or cannot concentrate on school work because of distractions related to being bullied - it is appropriate for parents to get involved.