Bully, Bullied, Bystander...and Beyond

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“After all there are no innocent bystanders. What
are they doing here in the first place?” 
— William S. Burroughs

A 14-year-old hangs herself. a 19-year-old jumps off a bridge. A 13-year-old shoots himself. Another loads his backpack with stones and leaps into a river. Still another swallows her father’s prescription meds to get rid of the pain and humiliation. A 17-year-old is found hanging outside her bedroom window. Two more 11-year-old boys kill themselves within 10 days of each other.

These young people all had two things in common: They were all bullied relentlessly, and they all reached a point of utter hopelessness. Bullying is seldom the only factor in a teenager’s suicide. Often, mental illness and family stresses are involved. But bullying does plainly play a role in many cases. These students feel that they have no way out of the pain heaped on them by their tormentors—no one to turn to, no way to tell others. So they turn the violence inward with a tragic and final exit.

Most of the bullying that helped cause these tragedies went on without substantial objections, indignation, intervention or outrage. The bullies were far too often excused, even celebrated. The bullied were usually mourned after their deaths. But at times they were also vilified in order to justify the bullies’ actions. We are devastated by the final act of violence but rarely outraged by the events that lead up to it.

An Act With Three Characters
There are not just two, but three characters in this tragedy: the bully, the bullied and the bystander. There can be no bullying without bullies. But they cannot pull off their cruel deeds without the complicity of bystanders. These not-so-innocent bystanders are the supporting cast who aid and abet the bully through acts of omission and commission. They might stand idly by or look away. They might actively encourage the bully or join in and become one of a bunch of bullies. They might also be afraid to step in for fear of making things worse for the target—or of being the next target themselves.

Whatever the choice, there is a price to pay.

Actively engaging with bullies or cheering them on causes even more distress to the peer being bullied. It also encourages the antisocial behavior of the bully. Over time, it puts the bystanders at risk of becoming desensitized to cruelty or becoming full-fledged bullies themselves. If bystanders see the bully as a popular, strong, daring role model, they are more likely to imitate the bully. And, of course, many preteens and teens use verbal, physical or relational denigration of a targeted kid to elevate their own status.

Students can have legitimate reasons for not taking a stand against a bully. Many are justifiably afraid of retribution. Others sincerely don’t know what to do to be helpful. But most excuses for inaction are transparently weak. “The bully is my friend.” “It’s not my problem!” “She’s not my friend.” “He’s a loser.” “He deserved to be bullied—asked for it.” “It will toughen him up.” “I don’t want to be a snitch.” Many bystanders find it’s simply better to be a member of the in-group than to be the outcast. They’re not interested in weighing the pros and cons of remaining faithful to the group versus standing up for the targeted kid.           

But injustice overlooked or ignored becomes a contagion. These bystanders’ self-confidence and self-respect are eroded as they wrestle with their fears about getting involved. They realize that to do nothing is to abdicate moral responsibility to the peer who is the target. All too often these fears and lack of action turn into apathy—a potent friend of contempt (see resources).

The Rewards of Bullying
Bullying often appears to come with no negative consequences for the culprits. Indeed, it can provide a bounty of prizes, such as elevated status, applause, laughter and approval. The rewards contribute to the breakdown of the bystanders’ inner objections to such antisocial activities. As a result, you soon see a group of peers caught up in the drama. Once that happens, individual responsibility decreases. The bully no longer acts alone. The bully and the bystanders become a deadly combination committed to denigrating the target further.

This “trap of comradeship” reduces the guilt felt by the individual bystanders and magnifies the supposed negative attributes of the target. “He’s such a crybaby. He whines when we just look at him.” “She’s such a dork. She wears such stupid clothes and walks around with her head hung down.” The situation becomes worse when the victim’s supposed friends stand idly by—or, worse, join in with the bullies. The hopelessness and desperation of the target is compounded by the realization that these “friends” abandoned him.

All this leads to more serious problems. The lack of sanctions, the breakdown of inner objections, the lack of guilt and the magnification of a target’s weakness all contribute to the cultivation of a distorted worldview. This worldview reinforces stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination. That, in turn, hinders kids from developing empathy and compassion—two essentials for successful peer relationships.

The Fourth Character
Another potential actor can bring the curtain down on this tragedy. This fourth character—the antithesis of the bully—gives us hope that we can break out of the trap of comradeship. This character can appear in three different and vital roles—those of resister, defender and witness. He or she actively resists the tactics of the bullies, stands up to them and speaks out against their tyranny. The fourth character might also defend and speak up for those who are targeted. Bullying can be interrupted when even one person has such moral strength and courage. This fourth character is a reminder that choices are possible, even in the midst of the culture of meanness created by bullying. Here are some examples:

  • When the high-status bully in eighth grade told all the other girls not to eat with a new girl, Jennifer not only sat with the new girl, but took in stride the taunts and threats of the bully and her henchmen: “Miss Goody-Two-Shoes, you’re next!”
  • When a group of teens mocked a student because of his perceived sexual orientation, Andrew refused to join in and shrugged off the allegations: “What, are you chicken?” and  “You’re just like him.”
  • When a group of 7-year-olds circled Derek, taunting him with racial slurs, another 7-year-old, Scott, told them “That’s mean.” He turned to Derek and said, “You don’t need this—come play with me.” The bullies then targeted Scott. Derek told him he didn’t need to play with him if the others were going to target him, too. Scott’s response: “That’s their problem, not mine.” 
  • When 15-year-old Patricia was tormented by her peers at a small-town high school, one senior named Brittne stood up for her. But Brittne’s courage cost her dearly. She was cyberbullied, verbally attacked at school and nearly run over on Main Street. For the girls’ own safety, they were moved to another school in an adjacent town. Brittne had been in line to be valedictorian. Moving meant she had to give that up, costing her several scholarships.  Yet Brittne says,  “I would defend her again.”

Fifty Pink Shirts
Bullying can be challenged even more dramatically when the majority stands up against the cruel acts of the minority. For instance, seniors David and Travis watched as a fellow student was taunted for wearing a pink polo shirt. The two boys bought 50 pink shirts and invited classmates to wear them the next day in solidarity with the boy who was targeted.

Most bullying flies under the radar of adults. That means kids can be a potent force for showing up bullies. But speaking out can be complicated, risky and painful. Even telling an adult can be a courageous act. As parents and educators we must make it safe for kids to become active witnesses who recognize bullying, respond effectively and report what takes place.

Establishing new norms, enforcing playground rules and increasing supervision are policy decisions that can help reduce the incidents of bullying. So can having a strong anti-bullying policy. It must include procedures for dealing effectively with the bully, for supporting and emboldening the bullied and for holding bystanders to account for the roles they played.

Merely attaching an anti-bullying policy to the crowded corners of our curriculum is not enough. With care and commitment, together with our youth, we must rewrite this script—create new roles, change the plot, reset the stage and scrap the tragic endings. We can’t merely banish the bully and mourn the bullied child. It is the roles that must be abandoned, not our children.

We can hold bullies accountable and re-channel their behaviors into positive leadership activities. We can acknowledge the nonaggressive behaviors of the kid who is bullied as strengths to be developed and honored. And we can transform the role of  bystander into that of witness—someone willing to stand up, speak out and act against injustice.

Bullying takes place because some people feel a sense of entitlement, a liberty to exclude and intolerance for differences. We can use the stuff of everyday life to create a different climate in our schools. This new climate must include a deep caring and sharing that is devoted to breaking the current cycle of violence and exclusion. It’s a daunting task but a necessary one. 

Illustration by PJ Loughran

Comments

I am a white adult with

Submitted by Lorraine Ventura on 10 April 2011 - 3:54am.

I am a white adult with Italian-American heritage that has two children adopted from China. They are now 17 and 12 years old. Living in Western New York, I have seldom found relief when complaining about my children being bullied or treated differently. My younger daughter is now in a 6-1-1 program for emotional issues that stem primarily from her early experiences in an orphanage and more sadly, her experiences at the hands of white adults. In fact. if it weren't for the latter experiences, she wouldn't have the need of this program.

When we adopted our older daughter, we lived in the Hudson Valley in New York state and had few problems. But we moved when she was 5. Now, at least 2 or 3 times a year my children experience horrific emotional situations at the hands of white adults, and unfortunately that includes those in the education community. I also have been attack personally for standing up for them.

The most recent is my 12-year-old, who takes a small bus to her school with other children from this community. There is oneb downs syndrome child on the bus but the rest are there for emotional issues. None of these children are violent, by the way. The afternoon female bus driver and bus aide have picked on my daughter all year long. Four days ago they "wrote her up" for "refusing" to stop her sneakers from squeaking - yes, that's right, her sneakers were squeaking when she moved her feet! She was also written up for being "disrespectful" for defending herself and for finding the situation humorous.

My daughter is a good kid and avoids both talking to adults she doesn't know well and getting into any trouble. She is always described as enjoyable and well-behaved. Yet on Friday, she almost missed the morning bus - with a different driver who deals very well with the bus ride - because she was determined to clean the bottoms of her sneakers so they wouldn't squeak.

I have decided to fight this, since we have had to speak to the bus garage several times this year about the situation. What amazes me is that none of those involved have commented on how insane it is to harass a child over her sneakers squeaking, a not uncommon occurrence with sneakers.

As usual, I have yet to find an adult in this very white district to "do the right thing."

I will continue fighting this and have decided to spend the money to hire a lawyer who deals with school issues. There are many other things I could use this money for but after all these years of advocating for my children I am worn out and too angry to continue on this path alone.

I often hear educators complain about parents, but maybe parents would be easier to deal with if we didn't have to endure our children being abused by teachers and other employees of the district. Until schools start enforcing treating children with respect the situation will continue to deteriorate and our tax dollars will be wasted on the district hiring lawyers to defend bus drivers from listening to squeaking sneakers.

My hispanic son was targeted

Submitted by Judy Neufeld-Fernandez on 13 January 2012 - 10:55am.

My hispanic son was targeted for bullying by his fourth grade teacher. Teachers and the principal actually illuminated me to the horrible classroom dynamic. Peers began to follow the teacher's lead and excluded my boy daily. When I elevated concerns regarding teacher bully suddenly the teachers and principal changed position and publicly vilified my son, me and my husband. Nine families submitted 83 page testimony of five years of children suffering under this horrible teacher's care. Teacher behaviors included locking nine year old girl outside, alone and unable to join class, crying and confused, lengthy screaming tirades over perceived offenses, isolating specific children with armpit washing and publicly spraying with teacher's special aerosol deoderant as humiliation tactic, isolating one boy in front of class and instructing rest of class "to look him in the eye and think bad thoughts about him", sending students back to earlier grades because teacher felt they didn't belong in current grade, calling kids "stupid", throwing books and pens across room in bursts of anger and screaming, and so on. When I pulled my son to home school him, the principal frightened staff from ever speaking to me. I tried to bring up concerns at a school site council meeting and the principal sent me a threat to arrest letter. Even though the meeting was recorded and transcript proves my behavior was fine and principal is lying, district stands behind principal and bully . Other concerned parents who took a stand were vilified and had to remove their kids and privately educate them. Bully teacher has even more power to abuse and continues to torment small children.

Remainig parents are too afraid to take a stand. We are finding this is acommon dynamic in schools. Too few will have moral courage to stop bullying.

Not going to lie but there

Submitted by Anonymous on 9 April 2014 - 11:34am.

Not going to lie but there are teachers out there like at my school that do that, just cause Im Mexican doesn't mean i don't know English, all im saying is there some teachers out there who are stereotypical.

What a shocking story, Judy.

Submitted by Anonymous on 20 September 2013 - 11:25pm.

What a shocking story, Judy. I am a pre-service primary teacher in Australia and I am just horrified by the behaviour of the teacher, principal and school! I hope you have happier and more supportive times in the future. Anna

Hi Judy, I am Puerto Rican

Submitted by Lilly on 13 June 2012 - 10:27pm.

Hi Judy, I am Puerto Rican but raised in NC for the majority of my life. I was bullied in 4th grade too by the teacher as well as the students. I had a learning disability that was not recogized at the time. I was pulled out of math class to go to a reading program. My teacher called me to the board to do a big division problem. I couldn't do it b/c I didn't know my multiplication. She than told me that I was "stupid and would never amound to anything!" The whole class laughed at me. It was humiliating! Now, I am in my mid 30's and have three boys. My oldest was in public kindergarten when he was being bullied by 4 kids in the same class. I went to the school to talk to the principle but I was repremanded because I was GIVEN the opportunity to talk to those 4 kids by another teacher. I didn't know it was against school policy. So for the remainder of the year I wasn't allowed to go beyond the school office. I couldn't eat lunch with my child nor go to his classroom w/o special permission from the principle. I endured it for the remainder of the year but that summer I also learned that my child has an LD. So it made my decision easy. I also pulled him out of public school and now homeschool 2 children. Oh, and the principle also sent the crossing guard to my house with a letter to tell me about my prepramand instead of having me to come in for a face-to-face meeting. I never did get to sit with her that one day. I had no choice but to talk with the assistant princible. Regardless, the principle was not on my side or my child's. It's a shame that the kids where I live have to go to a school like that where the leadership are in the wrong. It seems that parents these days don't really have a choice in a lot of matters except when we take drastic measures like pulling our kids out to homeschool them. What a shame! But good for you for homeschooling your child.

I am a junior in high school.

Submitted by Emma on 14 March 2012 - 9:48am.

I am a junior in high school. I have been bullied and I have been a bystander. But i have also stuck up for people that have been bullied because i was pushed so far a almost commited suicide. But i realized i would be giving up and they would win the war. All the way through 1st grade to 10th I was bullied everyday because I wasn't the pretty skinny preppy girl. But honestly I don't care. I love who I am now. My boyfriend has brought up my confidence and made my life a lot easier. I wish I could start a program or law saying that bullying is illegal. I am truely sorry to all the parents that have lost a child to bullying and anyone that is being bullied stick up for yourself :) I know its hard but you can do it. Ive done it and you can too! :)

"Friends for Keeps"

Submitted by Anonymous on 10 August 2013 - 9:31am.

I wrote a book during my senior year of high school, because I had been the victim of bullying on multiple occasions throughout elementary, middle and high school, and I realized that so many others could benefit from the lessons I had learned. When you're being targeted, it's your choice whether or not to let yourself become a victim. It's so important know how to stand up for yourself in the moment that the event occurs, and to realize the bully needs to be educated. Confidence comes from within yourself. The bully, bystander, target, victim, and upstander roles are all addressed in my story. My book is great for adolescents and their support systems. The bullying takes place around a 7th grade girl, Ava, who suddenly finds herself in this dilemma. Many people, children, teens, and adults, have told me that "Friends for Keeps" has helped them heal from past experiences, and to prepare for the future. Kind of like a fire drill, it helps to rehearse in your mind how you will react, if the situation does occur to you or a friend. According to the research I've found, at least 80% of school-age kids admit to being involved in one or more of the bullying roles. This problem has become epidemic in our society. I hope you'll check out "Friends for Keeps" published by www.BrysonTaylorPublishing.com, a part of The Crown CARES (Creating A Respectful Environment in Schools) collection of bullying prevention awareness books. I hope you'll check out "Friends for Keeps." It's available on Amazon.com or at Bryson Taylor Publishing.
*Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Friends-for-Keeps/50321845306199
*Website: http://misswifriends4keeps.weebly.com

Hello

Submitted by Anonymous on 24 October 2013 - 8:01pm.

The best thing for you to do is to ignore them because there just messing with you because they don't have any thing else to do and there not happy with there life's so they want to mess with other people. And if you ever need any thing just send me an e-mail at Anorwood@hotmail.com or anthony.norwood@kernhighmail.com

Hi Emma,I wanted to tell you

Submitted by Lilly on 13 June 2012 - 10:16pm.

Hi Emma,I wanted to tell you that I am in my mid 30's & came across this website b/c I'm taking a writing course. I wrote a story about being bullied. I can identify with you on the length of time being bullied b/c I was bullied from Kindergarten until ninth grade when I finally stood up for myself. It's a shame that kids put other kids through that kind of mess.
That year I was in several sticky situations. I had held in a lot of anger & sadness all those years but when I finally stood up on about 3 occassions that year, by the end of it all, I was a lucky girl that was heard about from three schools nearby. I was lucky b/c later found out the the boy I got in a fight with carried around a gun. I didn't even know him. But here I am today alive and well. I grew with confidence that I wouldn't be bullied again. So now I have three boys of my own and one of whom was bullied in Kindergarten. I actually took him out of public school b/c he was not bullied by 1 kid but by 4 kids in his class! He was also an easy target b/c last summer we found out he has a learning disability. Even though he is homeschooled and has an LD, he & his brother take Karate for self-defense. Sometimes I still have to tell them to stand up for themselves b/c "mommy & daddy" can't always be right there to help them. So, good for you for standing up for yourself. And I encourage anyone to stand up but to be careful not to become a bully too in the future. Good luck!