At the end of her first day of sixth grade at a Massachusetts middle school, Lisa Sonbolian came home feeling happy and excited, looking forward to the new school year. On the second day, however, the boy sitting next to her told her, "You've got a big nose."
Before she knew it, everyone else started joining in. "It got bad so quickly," Ms. Sonbolian, now a young adult, remembers. The next two years were nothing short of the ultimate adolescent nightmare. "From the minute I got on the bus, they would throw things, say things," she recalls. "Comments would be shouted out in class: Big Nose, Alien, Schnoz, Beakermobile - no one ever used my name anymore."
But perhaps most hurtful was the complete lack of caring intervention. "The teachers heard it and just ignored it," she says. Most of her friends deserted her. "It wasn't cool to hang around with someone who looked like me."
Sonbolian's story is hardly a new one. Picking on children who are different or vulnerable in any way has long been accepted by many as a sad reality of the schoolyard. But since the highly publicized school shootings at Columbine, and other violent incidents where being taunted by peers likely played a role, educators are less inclined to tolerate such scenarios.
As a result, schools around the United States are adopting curricula to teach both children and adults to respond to, not ignore, harsh teasing.
"Because of situations like Columbine, everyone can now see that when we look the other way [when children are bullied], we're looking for trouble," says Nancy Hollis, principal of the L.B. Merrill Elementary School in Raynham, Mass.
A new vulnerability to bullying?
Despite heightened attention to recent dramatic crimes, violent behavior among US students has actually declined in recent years, according to Youth Risk Behavior Surveys done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Between 1991 and 1997, the surveys show a 14 percent decrease in the number of students injured in a physical fight, and a 30 percent drop in the number of students carrying weapons.
But some experts worry that kids today are more emotionally fragile, and thus more vulnerable to bullying than ever before. Adolescents today share less one-on-one time with their parents than children of 20 years ago, and are more often exposed to images of violence, two factors that can render bullying more dangerous than ever, says Kevin Dwyer, senior adviser for prevention at the National Mental Health Association in Alexandria, Va.
"There are things kids do to each other that, if adults did, they'd be put in jail," Mr. Dwyer says. "We all need to be more aware of how deeply this can hurt individuals, how they can carry it into their lives as adults."
More states develop programs
Massachusetts has perhaps made the biggest splash by setting aside $1 million in grants to help six elementary schools implement two-year "bullying prevention" programs. But schools in a number of other states - including Texas, Georgia, New York, and Connecticut - have also been experimenting with programs to break the code of silence that often surrounds the cruelty that children can display toward one another.
One of the first walls of resistance to be broken through in dealing with the problem is the reluctance of many adults to act against bullying. They also often fail to take it seriously, says Nancy Mullin-Rindler, developer and co-author of Quit It - one of the curricula adopted in Massachusetts - and a consultant to the state on the project.
"One of the most common myths we encounter doing training is that this is normal, that 'kids will be kids,' " she says. "We hear people say, 'Oh, lighten up.' Some even think bullying builds character."
That's why part of the Massachusetts program focuses on training for all adults who come into contact with children during the school day - including bus drivers, janitors, lunch monitors, and parents - in an effort to heighten sensitivities about the dangers of allowing such behavior to continue unchecked.
Engaging the bystanders
But perhaps even more essential than the adult response will be the effort to teach other children not to allow bullies to prevail. Studies show that about 7 to 10 percent of children exhibit a sustained pattern of bullying behavior, while about 10 percent are frequent targets of such abuse, says Ms. Mullin-Rindler. "The bulk of the kids - at least 70 to 80 percent of them - are the bystanders."
It's those bystanders that some antibullying programs hope to engage. Through reading and discussion, curricula like Bully Proof (designed for Grades 3 through 5) and Quit It (aimed at students from kindergarten through third grade) work to nurture a sense of empathy in children, and to help them think harder about their responsibilities to others.
"Kids' notions of courage and of what it means to be a hero are a bit cockeyed," Mullin-Rindler says. Because bullying behavior is often glorified by children, "we need to reframe their ideas of what it means to be courageous. Not everybody needs to be a Martin Luther King or a Gandhi, but there are quiet choices they can make every day."
Both Bully Proof and Quit It encourage children to consider the feelings of the child being picked on and to intervene in some way, whether it be by notifying an adult, defusing the situation with humor, or perhaps just standing next to the target of the teasing to show some solidarity.
There has been some early evidence of success for such programs. In six Austin, Texas, schools that tested the Bully Proof and Quit It curricula, both principals and staff noted a decrease in bullying and teasing. One New York City elementary school that adopted Quit It reported a 35 percent decrease in incidents of bullying.
Although Columbine has caused concerns about schoolyard bullying to skyrocket, interest in the topic was on the increase some years earlier. Norwegian researcher Daniel Olweus did groundbreaking work in the field in the 1970s, and professionals around the world have been absorbing his ideas for the past two decades.
A global problem
Bullying among children is not peculiar to the US. A group of middle-and high-school students in Japan recently made headlines when they launched a Web site offering advice to bully victims, after a friend of theirs who had been mistreated committed suicide. In England, severe incidents included a playground attack in which schoolmates set a boy on fire. To deal with bullying in bathrooms, one British high school is installing unisex bathrooms, on the theory that such a setup will encourage better behavior and be easier to monitor.
In the US, teachers in small, rural schools report such behavior is as common as in larger, urban schools, and children in homogeneous communities are as likely to tease as those in more mixed groups.
Girls bully as frequently as boys do, although they more often resort to verbal taunts or exclusion rather than physical aggression to harm their targets. Some experts say bullying reaches a peak during the middle-school years, and then tapers off in high school as students begin to devote more emotional energy to one-on-one romantic relationships.
Opening society's eyes
Sonbolian says it took her years to overcome the fear and shame she experienced as the target of her peers' jokes. She continues to feel so strongly about it, in fact, that she would like to devote her life to opening society's eyes to the dangers of accepting such behavior.
"I hate the fact that it still goes on and it's tolerated," she says. "If I could help people, at least it wouldn't have happened for nothing."
Jane Swift, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and one of the state officials spearheading the antibullying project, agrees it is unfortunate that it took an event of the magnitude of the Columbine shootings to prompt concerted efforts to reduce bullying.
"We've always known that it happens in schools," she says. "Unfortunately, in government it sometimes takes a galvanizing event to make us do something that, once we're into it, we say, 'Why didn't we do this before?' "
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society