Magazine Feature

The Bully Trap

Young tormentors and their victims find ways out of anger and isolation.

Last September my son Jacob, then 11, was attacked twice by a bully. The first time, the bully and his sidekick asked for money. When Jacob said he didn't have any, the boy asked for Jacob's psychedelic pencils. Jacob handed them over and got several kicks to his legs and groin.

The second time, the bully knocked Jacob's glasses into the road. For days, Jacob dreaded school and walked the long way home. "Mom," he said, "school can never be the same."

In America's culture of violence, macho showdowns are a social norm. Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers solve problems through physical aggression. Even teachers, many of whom are witnesses to weapons and drugs in schools, may view bullying as one of the more innocuous rites of passage.

But for any child assaulted by a bully, the shock of unprovoked meanness endures. One in seven children -- male and female -- is either a bully or victim of bullying, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. And the consequences of those roles persist. A 1991 study found that 60 percent of boys tagged as bullies in grades 6 to 9 had at least one criminal conviction by age 24.

Victims of bullying are likely to bear lasting scars in the form of poor self-esteem and depression. Seven percent of America's 8th graders stay home at least one day a month because they're afraid of other children, concluded a 1992 study at the University of Michigan. "Even victims of mild abuse view school as an unsafe and unhappy place," says George Batsche, associate professor in the school psychology program at the University of South Florida.

Besides its affront to personal freedom and dignity, bullying detracts from learning -- for both the bully and the victim. As violence in schools increases, teachers are more and more often called away from teaching to intervene in bullying situations.


Who are the bullies?

Bullies are kids who need to feel powerful, and they have learned that bullying works. What distinguishes them from a one-time tease is a pattern of repeated physical or psychological intimidation. Although most bullies are boys, girls can be antagonists as well, more often using words or exclusion than fists.

Angela (students' names have been changed), a 5th grader at Jesse Keen Elementary School in Lakeland, Fla., already was sexually active, a fact that fascinated the other girls. She excelled at gossip. "If a girl did not do exactly what Angela wanted, she would send around the cruelest gossip," says Susan Glass, a Title One support teacher at Jesse Keen.

Angela had regularly intimidated Mary, an intelligent but insecure girl, into doing Angela's homework. One day when Mary didn't complete the work, Angela told every girl who would listen that Mary had herpes. Several girls explained to Mary what herpes was, and Mary, mortified, went to Glass.

Glass held an impromptu workshop on gossiping for Mary and the girls who had shared Angela's gossip. She asked them: What does gossip do? How do you stop gossip? "By the time the day was over, the girls were friends again, so the bully's control was gone," says Glass.

On day two, Glass included Angela in her gossip workshop, repeating the lesson. She praised the victim for coming to her and not taking the gossip elsewhere. She praised the girls who stopped the gossip. "When you hear something, write it on a piece of paper, hand it to me, and together we'll tear it up and throw it away," Glass told the girls.

Now Angela was on the outside watching everyone else get praised. Soon she too was scribbling any gossip on a piece of paper and ripping it up. "If you catch the circle instead of the bully, the problem disintegrates from the inside out," says Glass. "You defuse the bully."

For bullies like Angela, belligerence has become a habit. To bullies, the world seems a hostile place. They strike out with little empathy for their victims, usually a younger, weaker or smaller child. They often see themselves as the victim, imagining threats where none exist.

Some children develop these habits because they have been victims of their parents' physical or verbal abuse. "Typically they come from homes where parents prefer physical punishment," says Batsche, "where they teach their children to strike back, or are inconsistent or overpermissive." Criticized repeatedly at home, the bully expects attacks in kind from teachers and students.

Experts agree that punishing the bully usually backfires. The bully's worldview is verified -- that the world is a harsh place where he can survive only by striking out first -- and he's more likely to re-wallop his victim than repent. Still, teachers agree a bully is hard to like and, at times, nonpunitive solutions seem scarce. The first step, of course, is recognizing the bully.

Glass can spot a bully by the way he approaches other children, telling them what to do, never compromising. Andrew, a 5th grade bully, made his way through the classroom by knocking into each child he passed. An overweight child, he lashed out before other children had a chance to call him names. Every day, he'd arrive in class without a pencil, singling out a smaller boy, David, to grab a pencil from.

Once she recognizes such a child, Glass works hard to earn his trust. "I want him to understand that my classroom is safe. If something's going on in the family, it's OK to tell me. It won't go on the front page." When Andrew smacked other children and refused to participate in group activities, for example, Glass kept him after school, acknowledged his unhappiness and asked about family and friends. "My stepfather hit me," the boy said finally.

Glass arranged for Andrew to talk to the school guidance counselor, and together they decided that, when his stepfather started yelling, Andrew would go to a safe place like his room to read or play. She also began to work one-on-one with Andrew and his victims. She taught David to speak up for himself, to say "No, I didn't give you my pencil, and I want it back." Each time David stood up to Andrew, Glass praised him. "Suddenly Andrew realized David's getting all the attention," she says.

It was important to help Andrew explore what he hoped to accomplish by pushing David around, Glass said. She discussed each bullying incident with him and eventually discovered that what Andrew really wanted was friends. "This is no way to get them," advised Glass. Then she asked both Andrew and David, "What do you each want in a friend?" David wanted to be chosen for a team -- that was a sign of friendship. So Andrew chose him to play flag football, and the former victim was all grins.

Glass also increased her general supervision of Andrew and his victims, making sure Andrew had no chances to act up. She zeroed in on group work, placing Andrew with children who were sure of themselves and good listeners. "I want bullies to notice that someone is listening but not accepting everything at face value," says Glass.

Andrew's parents became involved when Glass offered them the social skills training she uses in her classroom so that they could reinforce what she was teaching Andrew, helping him evaluate choices and think about consequences. In sessions with the school counselor, parent and child practiced listening skills as well. The counselor and Glass set ground rules: no accusing and no insults. "They talk about how they feel, what they are afraid of," says Glass.

For a year Glass and Andrew's parents worked to support nonbully behaviors. "We started by sending notes back and forth from home to school," Glass says. "All I wanted to do at first was make Andrew realize we were talking. The notes were simply to get a communication going. So if he brought the note back, he got a reward [sparkle pens, stamps, stickers], whether the note said he'd had a good or bad day."

After 10 days of notes, the counselor and Glass also began addressing home issues. For example, Andrew's stepdad wanted him to make his bed every day. So the stepfather sent Andrew to school with a smiley face note every time he made his bed.

"I typed up a script for Dad and Andrew, and one for Andrew and me so the stepfather would know what I was saying, too," says Glass. "We held to that script for 10 days. I said, 'I'm very proud of you for making your bed. What are you going to do tomorrow?' 'I'm going to remember to make my bed,' said Andrew." Together Andrew and his stepdad kept a bed-making chart, so the successes were visible, verbal and immediate.

By clarifying the rules of her classroom, Glass helped Andrew separate the school environment from the home one, a technique advocated by William Porter, author of Bully-Proofing Your School and coordinator of pupil services at Cherry Creek Schools in suburban Denver. "You can say to them, 'It may be rough for you at home, but we're going to try to make it safe at school, so you don't need to do that here.'"

George Batsche suggests giving the bully consequences that are helpful to the school and appropriate to the crime. For instance, a 5th grade bully might hand out stickers to 1st graders who are treating each other well.

"He gets recognition from the younger kids as a powerful caring person," says Batsche. "And he learns to recognize a positive interaction. The bullies love it because they gain the same sense of power [they get from bullying] by doing positive things."

The process has worked with Andrew. One day near the end of their year together, when Andrew saw one child picking on another, he went to Glass. "Do you want me to help?" he asked.


Who are the victims?

He's not always the stereotypical "nerd," although he probably is smaller than his tormentor. The bully's victim is often "a kid who doesn't know the social ropes," says Will Joel Friedman, a clinical psychologist and former elementary school teacher in Loma Linda, Calif. "There's a learned helplessness; he figures [being bullied] is his lot in life." Like the bully, he may be the victim of his parents' bullying. Or he may have overprotective parents who keep him from learning how to stand up for himself.

Lowered self-esteem and depression are common among victims of bullying, and many skip school. Bullies gain power, in part, because victims don't know how to react. Victims develop an incapacitating sense of fear, says William Porter.

And fear is what teachers must address first. "Just comforting a victim won't solve the problem," says Porter. "Encumbered with the fear is a sense of self-blame, the notion that 'If I do what the bully asks, he won't pick on me.'"

Porter suggests that teachers take the victim aside and acknowledge the fear: "The teacher's first inclination may be to rectify the situation, but instead you need to allow the child to talk about how he can solve the situation." Porter suggests asking the child, "What kind of things have you done to solve this?" The child may say, "I take a different way home" or "I bring candy to school to make Johnny happy." That's when a teacher can help the student realize he doesn't have to accommodate the bully: "You have a right not to live in fear. It's not your responsibility to make this kid happy."

Teachers can then enlist other students to help support a victim on the playground or when he's walking to and from school. "Kids want to be helpful," Porter says. "They respond positively to such requests."

Porter also teaches victims exercises to help them know what to do -- for instance, whom to join on the playground. Victims are often loners, unsure of ways they can surround themselves with children to stay safe. And he teaches them to ask for help from teachers and classmates, and to assert themselves by saying, "I don't like what you're doing. Stop it."

He suggests ways victims can affirm themselves through "self-talk," where they acknowledge to themselves the bully's abusive behavior but deny its validity. A child being victimized because of his size might learn to repeat to himself, "They may think I'm a short runt, but I know I'm OK."

Like Porter, Susan Glass teaches victims how to handle a bully, beginning with prerequisite skills: how to ignore, how to talk in a brave voice or join a group. She then tackles bullying head-on through role-playing exercises. "First I talk about what a bully is. Then I ask what they can do when they are bullied. I want them to come up with choices. I teach them to ignore, to break eye contact, turn their bodies and walk away. Or I teach them to ask the bully to stop."

Once the students have come up with choices, Glass models a lesson, showing them how she would handle a bully. Then she asks if anyone has had a problem with bullies. She picks one child to tell her story, and the child picks someone to play the bully. "Nine times out of ten, they pick the real bully," says Glass. "So now the bully is standing there with all the kids staring at him."

Together bully and victim play out their frictions, the bully bullying, the victim responding by ignoring him, or talking in a brave voice, until the bully stops. Once that happens, Glass praises both children. "There are no confrontations, no arguments. The children handle it. And after that, whenever there's a bully-victim problem, I stop the children and repeat the lesson."

Whatever steps a teacher takes to help a bully, victim or bystander, the first has to be establishing trust, says Susan Glass. "You are the permanent person in that child's eyes. You should be the one to discipline and to encourage. These children are often living in chaos, and they need the stability. But they also need to be able to handle themselves in a group because that's what society is -- a group. We can't run off to the Klondike and pan for gold anymore. We are social creatures, and if you don't learn how to behave socially, you're going to find work, life and relationships very difficult."