Here’s a true story, courtesy of an old friend. Last year, a teacher overheard my friend’s son saying that a girl had called him “gay.” The teacher talked to the boy, who told her that he wasn’t upset by the comment. Under a new state anti-bullying law, however, the teacher felt compelled to report the incident.
The next day, the school principal called my friend to announce that he had commenced an “investigation.” Several students were interviewed, triggering a new buzz in the school. Kids divided into “teams,” according to whom they supported – the girl or boy. In the end, the girl was found “guilty” and received some kind of sanction, although my friend’s son never heard what it was. And that’s the kind of story you rarely hear about bullying in American schools.
We usually hear about bullying only when there’s a terrible tragedy like the death of Rebecca Sedwick, the 12-year-old Florida girl who committed suicide last month after being bullied online.
The kids’ reported taunts – including “Can u die please?” – are abhorrent, and anyone who sent such a message should be disciplined severely. But that does not necessarily mean that online bullying caused Sedwick’s death. Nor does it mean we should address this problem with anti-bullying laws, which might cause more harm than they alleviate.
Every state except Montana has passed an anti-bullying measure since 1999, when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed a dozen students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado. News reports said that the boys were trying to exact revenge from “jocks” who had bullied them.
But that explanation wasn’t true. Klebold and Harris were “popular kids,” not alienated loners. Nor is there any evidence that the 2007 Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, was a victim of bullying, as was also reported at the time.
So why do we seize upon the bullying narrative? I think it’s because we’re scared, and we want an answer. And we also are reluctant to address the main root of these tragedies: mental illness.
According to a Secret Service study commissioned after the Columbine murders, three-quarters of school shooters had histories of suicide attempts or suicidal thinking. Like Klebold and Cho, nearly two-thirds had a documented history of feeling extremely depressed or desperate.
That’s also true of the victims of what’s being called “bullycide.” Rebecca Sedwick had been hospitalized last year after cutting herself – a symptom of depression. Bullying may exacerbate depression, but it shouldn’t be presumed to cause suicide.
Reports of an “epidemic” in bullying also need scrutiny. Forty years ago, when the Swedish psychologist Dan Olweus coined the term, he reported that 15 percent of elementary and middle school students in Norway and Sweden were routinely involved in bullying – either as perpetrators or victims. Most studies of American bullying today don’t show it has increased much beyond that, even with all of the new online opportunities to engage in it.
What has changed are our definitions of it.
Olweus was careful to limit his concept of bullying to behavior that was abusive, persistent, and – most of all – unequal: It had to involve a stronger kid dominating a weaker one. So a one-time slur from a non-threatening peer – as my friend’s son experienced – wouldn’t meet the standard.
We shouldn’t hamstring our educators with complicated and draconian laws, which add costly administrative burdens and prevent us from making important distinctions. If every slight is defined as bullying, we’ll empty the term of its meaning. And we’ll end up raising a generation unable to resolve their own conflicts.
Most of all, we need to expand mental-health services in schools, and in our society. Millions of children get bullied, but only a small fraction of them physically harm others – or themselves. We need to identify those kids, and offer them the help they deserve. The biggest bully in the room is mental illness. It’s time we all stood up to it.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).