By Meredith McGroarty
In 2009, Tyler Long, a Georgia high school junior who had been bullied for years by his classmates, committed suicide by hanging himself. One year later, 11-year-old Ty Field-Smalley shot himself to death after being suspended for standing up to a bully. In both cases, the schools had been unresponsive to parents’ complaints prior to the suicides, and in Long’s case, the bullies openly mocked the dead boy by wearing nooses around their necks to school after hearing of his death.
These two tragic stories, recounted in the 2011 documentary Bully, are just a few examples of the bullying that is pervasive in American schools. But instead of confronting the problem, adults are all too willing to let it continue, and they often even encourage it, according to David Dupper, UT professor of social work.
Dupper places much of the blame for bullying in the United States on the shoulders of adults, who are creating an extremely negative and toxic society that teaches children that using might and intimidation is the way to get ahead in life.
“Kids learn by watching how adults act—that’s part of social learning theory. And today, we have politicians loudly bullying each other every day and a lot of reality television shows where contestants win by dehumanizing and intimidating each other,” Dupper says. “And, of course, many children witness bullying within their own families or at school.”
Dupper has authored a new book, School Bullying: New Perspectives on a Growing Problem, scheduled for publication in 2013 by Oxford University Press. In the book, he examines a broad array of domestic and international research on school bullying, including bullying involving teachers and principals, as well as students. He hopes it will help shatter some long-held myths about bullies and bullying.
The first myth is the stereotype of the bully as an outcast with poor social skills and poor self-esteem. Research shows that many bullies are actually bright, popular children who are well liked among their peers and their teachers. This sociable personality, Dupper says, is part of what allows bullies to get away with their unsavory actions.
While most bullying happens out of sight from adults, instances of bad behavior brought to their attention may be easier to dismiss or excuse when the perpetrator is perceived to be a “good kid.” The adult’s lack of action not only allows the bullying to continue, but also impresses upon the child reporting the incident that bringing such things to an adult’s attention is pointless.
“If a kid witnesses bullying and thinks he or she should tell an adult, and the adult dismisses it, then the next time the child won’t tell anyone,” Dupper says. “When informed about an incident, adults need to take action. That’s one of the most important lessons.”
Bully illustrates how reluctant school officials—let alone adults in general—are to confront bullying. In the film, reactions to instances of bullying include an administrator who claims to have seen nothing but good behavior from the students caught on camera punching and choking another child, and a teacher ridiculing a lesbian student by placing her in her own category at roll call (outside the “girls” and “boys” groups).
The second myth Dupper aims to dispel is that of the powerless bystander. In the past, the role of children witnessing bullying was downplayed, but these onlookers actually play a large part in determining a bully’s future behavior.
“Most bystanders do nothing out of fear that intervening will turn the bully’s attention on them, and they’ll be the next victim,” he says. “Some kids will assist the bully, seeing it as a way to make themselves more popular. We need to do a better job empowering these kids to confront the bullies. Many researchers believe that will change the whole bullying dynamic.”
While encouraging children to treat each other with respect will help curb bullying, the problem won’t be solved until adults improve their own behavior, Dupper says. This is especially important in schools, where the principal’s treatment of teachers and other adults can influence student behavior. Likewise, the way teachers treat students and each other can have a large impact on their pupils’ actions. Some examples of adult bullying in schools include spreading rumors, public intimidation or humiliation, punishing staff with a heavy workload, or being verbally abusive at meetings.
Unfortunately, bullying among adults is a problem that extends well beyond the school environment. Dupper feels there is a startling lack of empathy among adults in the United States, and children are naturally adopting the same viewpoints and behaviors.
“There’s a level of meanness and cruelty today that is unprecedented,” Dupper says. “It’s a very interesting dynamic. We continue to say we’re concerned about bullying, but we don’t recognize at the cultural level that we are clearly sending kids the message that ‘might makes right.’ We elect the candidate who runs the most vicious campaign, or we decide to overwhelm a weaker country with force. We definitely live in a bullying culture.”
America’s current cultural climate, however, is not entirely to blame for its bullying problem. Historically tolerant Canada, for instance, has about the same reported rates of bullying as the United States, while pacifist Switzerland has higher figures than both countries. Several countries, including Australia and Sweden, have significantly reduced bullying by tackling the issue on a large-scale, societal level, rather than through the more individualistic, case-by-case approaches adopted by the United States.
While action may be needed on a much broader scale than individual schools and communities, Dupper cautions against overly restrictive zero-tolerance policies and broadly worded legislation, which can end up infringing on children’s civil rights. He admits that finding the balance between protecting a child’s right to attend school free of harassment and preserving freedom of speech in the classroom will be difficult. The key to preventing bullying is getting society to change how it views people who are different. Once we accomplish this, the need for measures against bullying will eventually diminish on its own.