On any day, certain students in every school in the nation wake up dreading the experiences that may lie ahead of them.
They will be teased and taunted because they are different, and threatened or assaulted if they respond. Some know they will be assaulted even if they don't respond. They are resigned to giving up their lunch money, picking up their belongings and brushing off their clothes every time a bigger or stronger student chooses to mistreat them. They also know that school officials will do little or nothing to change the outcome of their day — or their lives for that matter.
The dynamics of bullying in school have been around for as long as there have been schools. Some educators feel that “kids will be kids” and the exchanges between bully and victim are part of the passage into adulthood. I disagree.
Administrators have a duty to step in whenever they become aware of an incident of bullying in their schools. They also should forcefully address the issues that precipitate incidents of bullying to prevent recurrences.
The need to address this topic has become more pronounced. Students expect school officials to intervene and take corrective action. When that does not occur, some students may consider taking action on their own. Administrators must take steps to prevent that.
PICKING ON THE POWERLESS
Bullying behavior involves repeated oppression, physical or psychological, of a less powerful person by a more powerful individual or group. The dynamics of bullying always involve a power imbalance that makes the mistreatment of a victim possible. Acts of bullying can include physical assaults, teasing, exclusion from group activities, stealing or damaging personal property, and verbal abuse. It can even take place in a chat room on the Internet.
Every student falls into one of three different groups in relationship to bullying: the bully, the victim or the bystander. Depending on the circumstances, a student might be in different groups at different times. In order to minimize incidents of bullying in school, educators must first recognize each of these groups. Once that is done, they can focus on which students are in which group. Each group will require specific responses.
For example, it is not uncommon for a bully also to be a target of aggression. Occasionally, a school bully is being abused by a guardian or older sibling. If school officials learn of such activity and initiate an intervention, either within the school realm or through outside agencies, the effort might break the “bully cycle” and help resolve the problems the bully is creating at school.
A target of a bully might be building up emotions fueled by the indifference of school officials. School officials must recognize that when they acknowledge an inappropriate incident, but take no corrective action, they in effect have endorsed the behavior. When a bully's victims conclude school officials are not going to address the problem, they might decide to take matters into their own hands. That is not what we want to happen.
Other students in the school don't qualify as bullies or victims. Bystanders include students who are aware of a situation but do nothing; are aware and intercede, either personally or by reporting it to an authority; or are unaware of the situation.
Officials should not minimize the effect any act of violence may have upon witnesses and bystanders. Observers often experience anxiety and fear, which may result in a change of behavior that has a negative impact. In other instances, bystanders feel a duty to intercede and carry out acts of violence similar to a vigilante. Again, we do not want that to occur.
School officials must recognize that many of the acts perpetrated by bullies are crimes. All states have laws addressing assault and battery, extortion, harassment, criminal mischief and making threats. If a coworker or neighbor committed one of those offenses against them, they would seek legal remedies. Although such measures may not be warranted for many school incidents, administrators should consider the option of pressing charges when appropriate.
School officials also are learning the hard way that failing to act may result in tragedies. The Secret Service Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) studied 37 school shootings between 1974 and 2000, and found that in several of the incidents, victims or shooters exhibited bullying behavior before violence erupted. The report suggested that school officials might have been aware of the activity but did little to address it.
Clearly, the worst event that could result from a failure to act would be the loss of life. School officials also have been named in lawsuits contending that their failure to act led to violence.
Being bullied is not a normal rite of passage. No one should be subjected to a bully's cruel treatment. School officials must recognize that and take appropriate action to minimize incidents on the school campuses. Doing so will move the school district one step closer toward minimizing the possibility that one of their buildings will be the site of the next school shooting.
SIDEBAR: Safe schools
The Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) was created to provide leadership and guidance to the emerging field of threat assessment. Specifically, NTAC offers advice to law-enforcement and other professionals and organizations with responsibilities to investigate and/or prevent targeted violence.
As part of its mission to provide leadership and guidance in the prevention of instances of targeted violence, the NTAC initiated a data-based research project to examine the incidents of school-based attacks. A preliminary version of “USSS Safe School Initiative: An Interim Report on the Prevention of Targeted Violence in Schools” is available at www.ustreas.gov/usss.
Dunn is a career police officer who worked several years as the chief of campus police for a large high school district. He has conducted site assessments and training programs with dozens of school districts.