When you say the word “bully” most people tend to think of the caricature of a bully. One of my students described the thinking of this stereotype perfectly. “They probably got on my nerves or I really just don’t like them, so I’ll try my best to make their life as miserable as possible.”
But bullying takes many guises and is sometimes hard to identify. That is worth thinking about today as the Safe Schools Action Network observes 100 Days of School/100 Days of Bullying. If we really want to stop bullying, we need to see it clearly in its various forms.
Studies show that high school freshman are the most vulnerable to bullying, so I surveyed the ninth-grade class at my school to get a closer look at the issues.
I found that retaliatory bullying was common. My (completely unscientific) poll of 64 ninth-graders revealed that 32 percent had been bullied at some point, but more than half (57 percent) admitted to bullying others.
Several said that they bullied in retaliation for being bullied. “I have participated in bullying,” one student said. “But I did it to the bullier or other bullies when they provoked me.” One girl admitted: “Since I have been bullied before I wanted to feel what that person felt while they were bullying me. Also I wanted that person to feel what I felt, but now I understand it was very wrong.”
On our campus, ninth-graders who have been bullied are more likely to turn into bullies. In contrast, of the 67 percent who claimed they had never been bullied, only 39 percent admitted to bullying others.
Meet Alberto, a ninth-grader perceived as different because of Tourette syndrome. He has been bullied throughout his school years. He’s also taken to threatening others to ward off or stop attacks. “The other strategy to make them [the bullies] stay quiet is to say that I’m going to beat them up, which I’m not,” he said. ”I feel real bad saying that, but it’s the only way I can make them be quiet.”
Surprisingly, even though Alberto has experienced bullying, like many others he blames the victim. His friend Horatio, a student in the special day class, gets picked on a lot. “I told him, ‘Don’t get close to Marco [the bully],’” Alberto says. “But he doesn’t listen. He just goes ahead and makes them laugh at him.”
When bullying provokes teen suicides, there’s no doubt we need to do more to curb bullies. The good news is that some students are intervening. Tenth-grader Barbara said, “I actually get in there and say, ‘You guys need to cool it off because you will actually start fighting and not talking to each other anymore.’”
If we want to protect the Albertos and Horatios at our school, and also prevent them from becoming bullies themselves, we need more Barbaras to step in. But getting that to happen is not easy. Teaching Tolerance has many resources to help teachers with this difficult topic. You can go here, here, here, here and here for articles that provide tips and resources. Also, check out the new Teaching Tolerance documentary Bullied: A Student, a School, and a Case That Made History.
As a high school teacher, I am more focused on teaching content and skills than investigating incidents of bullying. But my research showed me that me that my priorities must be shifted. Kids who feel unsafe have a hard time learning.
Thomas is an English teacher in California.