In thinking about Romney as a possible high school bully, a Columbine teacher's guide to shades of bullying might be useful thinking. Pictured here, about 40 students and parents from Corpus Christi, gather ed outside Flour Bluff High School last month to rally against bullying in memory of a former student there who committed suicide.

Romney a bully? A Columbine teacher's guide to shades of bullying

As Mitt Romney's high school buddies talk in the media about a case of bullying, a Columbine teacher's guide to the different shades of a bully may help guide your own analysis of his long-ago behavior or the behavior you see in teens today.

Ever since I blogged about reading Dave Cullen’s "Columbine," I’ve been following him on Facebook, so yesterday (April 28) I got a heads-up about his review of a book called "The Bully Society," by Jessie Klein. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t agree or disagree with Dave’s assessment of it.  (I hate it when people who haven’t read my books review them – and it happens more often than you might expect.)  

The review just got me to thinking about the whole bullying thing and how I hear adults talk about it or how individual kids talk about it, versus the big picture I see as a teacher.

When people talk about bullies, we mainly hear about one kid who is relentlessly picked on by another or a group of kids – ruthlessly harassed physically and/or emotionally.  As Dave points out in his review, we generally hear all about the kid being picked on. We get his point of view. We almost never hear about the bullies. We seldom get their side. This is important, because we can never hope to solve a problem unless we understand it, and you can’t just look at one side and gain any real understanding.  Also, we have to remember that both stories will be biased, that neither the bully nor the victim sees himself or the situation with 100 percent objective accuracy.

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The other problem is that we assume that all incidents of bullying are inherently alike. My experience has been that many adults who were bullied as kids (for that matter, many kids who are being bullied now) assume that Eric and Dylan’s experience at Columbine was exactly the same as their own experience as they perceived it.  I saw this on the last anniversary of the shootings when I was asked to speak at a “Break the Silence” rally for LGBT youth in Colorado Springs.  Several young people stood at the mic and told absolutely heartbreaking stories of cruelty at schools unable to adequately handle the situations. The thing is, I think I was invited to speak because they thought Eric and Dylan were them – fragile, gentle, confused. The idea that perhaps Eric was a psychopath, incapable of their tender, bruised emotions, was not anything they had ever considered.

Anyway, the combination of the book review and the rally got me thinking. I’m no expert.  These are just my opinions as an educator. By the way, I’m using the masculine pronoun as universal; these individuals can be male or female.

The classic bully: This kid is the one most of us think of when we hear the term “bully.”  He’s just plain mean, a predator who seeks out the weakest kid and picks, picks, picks.  He usually gets a few cohorts to go along.  Other kids don’t cross him out of fear.  Conflict mediation is wasted on this kid.  He smirks at his victim through the whole process and his apology is insincere – either openly sarcastic or saccharine-sweet.  At end of mediation, everyone but the bully is dissatisfied—the victim, the victim’s parents, the school.  Ironically, the bully’s parents are also dissatisfied because they see their child as the victim, forced to humble himself to a student who is beneath him.  They complain that schools have picked on their child his whole life, and their strident defense destroys any possibility that the kid will learn anything.

There are varying intensities of this kind of bully.  With some, a firm and absolutely genuine talking-to about future consequences for repeat-performances of the intimidating behavior will take care of it.  Some, the worst ones, require a lot more.  I do believe the best way to handle the worst kind of bully is repeated suspension and possibly expulsion.  Whenever possible, law-enforcement should be called. The victim need not (and probably shouldn’t) be involved in the conflict resolution, because it’s not about the victim.  If it’s not this kid, it’ll be another, and the victim’s involvement just offers the bully another chance to victimize them.  School and law-enforcement officials have to be unwavering and straightforward with the kid and the parents.  “This behavior will not be tolerated.  If you want your child to attend school, it must stop.”  Threats from the bully’s parents to bring in lawyers (and they usually do threaten this) must be met by the school and the school board without flinching.

All that said, I would have to guess this is a small percent of the bullying that goes on at school. Take care of this kind of bully, and you’ll help a small number of kids who are afraid to come to school.  At some point, if you really want to solve the problem, you have to look at the victim.

The classic victim: Again, this is the kid in the stereotype. He’s physically small (or in a girl’s case, often plain or overweight).  He may not fit the generally expected parameters of gender-role expectation.  He’s more intensely emotional than other kids, less confident.  I’d say this actually fits a lot of victims, because there are a lot of adolescents who are dealing with one or more of these issues.  This kind of victim is actually relatively plentiful in any school.  Welcome to the process of coming-of-age.

In cases other than the classic bully, conflict mediation can be great for these kids. It can empower them. The key is to prep them for the mediation ahead of time. Do some role-playing, actively and thoroughly teaching them to stand up for themselves, and in the process, helping them become a little stronger and more confident, making them a less likely victim.  I have often compared bullying to rape, because in the end, they’re both about power.  Just as rape is never justified, neither is bullying, but we don’t deal with rape only by punishing rapists.  We teach women to be bad victims – to walk with confidence and awareness, to set firm boundaries, to feel entitled to take measures to keep themselves safe.  We can teach kids this, too.  Predators (sexual and social) look for weakness.  They pass up the people who look like too much trouble.

There are other victims, though, ones we don’t like to talk about honestly because we’re afraid it will look like we’re blaming them. We have to get over that idea; honest assessment and blame are not the same things.  If we can’t address the whole bullying problem upfront, we’ll never solve it.

The overtly annoying victim: This is the socially awkward kid who compensates by condescending to kids with higher status.  He constantly asserts his intellectual superiority over classmates and teachers.  He (and yes, this characteristic shows up almost exclusively in boys) may make openly vulgar and sexist comments to the pretty girls most would consider “out of his league.”  In many ways, he is as much a bully as a victim, which makes this kind of victim especially hard to work with.  On the one hand, bullying this kid is not OK; on the other, it’s hard not to sympathize with the kids who get fed-up and feel the need to deliver a smack-down.  Teachers may have to consciously dig for compassion to help this kid, but dig they must, because this kid is a human being with feelings, even if those feelings are not immediately apparent or relatable.

How you deal with this kid depends upon who’s bullying him, so you’ll have to be patient.  This is why any solution to bullying can’t be overly simplistic.  To solve this issue, adults must be honest with this kid about the effect of his behavior on his peers.  It’s not justifying the bullying.  Put back in rape terms, it’s like explaining to a woman that changing her clothes in front of an open window, getting drunk with a strange man in a bar, and walking down a deserted alley at night are bad ideas.  They don’t justify rape, but they increase the risk.  A clash between this kid and the classic bully can be catastrophic.  You really want to help this kid?  Keep him safe?  Tell him that while his bully’s behavior is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated, he has to steer completely clear of his tormentor and reconsider how he speaks to his peers.  If harassment continues to be a problem, he needs to come to an adult, and that adult needs to take quick, active measures with both kids.  If this victim tries to deal with the problem himself, I can virtually guarantee that he will escalate the situation.  Again, this isn’t a justification of violence, but sometimes we have to choose between ideology and reality, and the reality is, if this kid doesn’t get a grip on his own behavior, he’s going to get his clock cleaned.  Punishing the other kid after the fact is appropriate, but it won’t help heal a broken nose (or worse).  Also, you must understand that this kid’s bullying, though lacking physical elements, may be just as remorseless as the classic bully’s, and that’s a whole other kettle of fish. Good luck.

The deeply fragile victim: This kid is profoundly but inoffensively odd. He looks very different – tiny or obese.  His gestures and gait are often obviously awkward.  He has a hard time making eye-contact or may have no concept of socially acceptable space boundaries.  These qualities may be caused by a history of abuse, mental illness, neurological issues, developmental disabilities, all kinds of things. Like the classic bully, there are varying degrees of this victim.  They are often the hardest ones for schools to protect, and yet the ones who most require protection.  They are few and far between, but every school needs tools at the ready, because these kids will likely go through school unable to develop adequate tools on their own.  Every adult in their lives should be on high alert if this kid ends up on a classic bully’s radar.

Now, back to bullies, the more complicated ones.

The socially dominant kid: He can look like a bully and may often engage in bullying behavior.  Because of this, he may be the “bully” many adults remember from their childhood, but he’s not truly ruthless. He’s competitive and must come out on top.  He gains this status by succeeding by traditional standards, but also by asserting his superiority over weaker kids. He isn’t relentless to the classic victim, but neither is he kind.  He doesn’t have to be relentless with the deeply fragile victim to inflict the same damage a classic bully can inflict, but he doesn’t know this.  If he beats up the annoying victim, he will be hailed as a hero by his classmates.  Conflict mediation, with thorough preparation by an adult beforehand, can be highly effective for this kid and all of his peers because he is generally seen as a role model.  Once he understands what’s going on with the victim, he can be taught appropriate ways to handle it, and adult acknowledgment of the fact that he is a leader will help provide motivation.  While his first impulse is to compete, he is capable of compassion and can be guided into tapping into that with a classic victim.  He can often be convinced to become a champion for the deeply fragile victim, a role that does wonders for them both.  He has to be allowed to be appropriately honest with the annoying victim.  Conflict mediation can be the best thing for both of them, but the adult has to be a strong, unbiased mediator.

The problem with “zero-tolerance policies” is that they treat this kid like a classic bully, and he finds this frustrating, which may escalate the behavior.  He doesn’t see himself as a bully.  He sees himself as a leader and a basically good person.  (A classic bully doesn’t give a rat’s ass about being a good person.)  Helping him see that adult intervention is geared toward making him an even stronger leader is much more effective than treating him like a thug.

Boys like this (and the classic bully) may sexually harass girls. The dominant kid truly may not get that sexual harassment is bullying.  Society tells him girls are attracted to dominance and flattered by his attention.  He may respond to a male teacher or coach whom he admires or who was much like him in high school.  That adult male needs to model compassion and respect for women.  Adult males who can’t do this have no business teaching.  Mediation between him and a girl of equal social status who will assertively set him straight may also help. She must be equal – he won’t necessarily listen to one lower on the ladder.  Does that suck?  Yes.  Ideology or reality – get mired in society’s flaws or solve the problem – take your pick.

If none of these solutions work, he’s probably a classic bully with high social status.  Deal with him like the classic bully he is.

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“Normal” kids (in quotation marks because it’s an admittedly inadequate term): These are the kids just trying to navigate high school and growing up.  They can be the “bullies” or the “victims.”  The classic bully may or may not take an occasional potshot at a “normal” kid who is conveniently around when a more likely victim is not.  “Normal” kids get stung and get over it.  They often don’t stand up for others around the classic bully because he’s scary.  They get justifiably irritated by the annoying victim and may unleash a few barbs of their own in self-defense.  They don’t understand and are therefore intimidated by the deeply fragile victim in ways they can’t comprehend because they’re kids.  Bullying may actually be a response to this intimidation.  They may engage in isolated acts of bullying as a result of peer pressure and immaturity.  Conflict resolution is excellent with these kids.  It’s a skill, like any other, and one they are often happy to learn.  If a class has a deeply fragile victim, explaining to groups of “normal” kids that his oddness is not his fault and that they will be better people for helping this kid out can also be effective.  Because these are “normal” kids, they can never be made perfect.  They will generally be kind and occasionally cruel.  The wounds they suffer will make them stronger.  Sometimes, the cruelty they inflict and the shame that follows will teach them compassion, especially if adults encourage this.

Finally, the only way to really get a grip on bullying related to sexual-orientation and gender identification is to become a more accepting society. It’s something we just have to keep working on.  Homophobia should be dealt with as we deal with racism.  (We’re far from perfect there, too, but it’s getting there.)  In the end, even all this is an oversimplification, I’m sure.  Feel free to add your own experiences and perspectives as comments.

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