Karl paused at the classroom doorway, his thin face pinched with apprehension as he stared down the hallway.
“Is everything all right?” I asked.
Startled, he looked at me almost guiltily. “Uh—I’m fine. Everything’s fine.” Karl risked being late by the time he darted out.
Later in the teacher workroom, I encountered my friend Helen. Karl was in her homeroom. “Do you know if Karl is being bullied?” I asked her. I described our exchange in the doorway and several earlier observations that made me think he was fearful of someone.
“Karl’s been late to my math class several times this week,” said another teacher, looking up from the copy machine. “He never wants to say why.”
After comparing our observations, we began to suspect that two or three other boys might be bullying Karl. Doing something about it was a puzzle, however. For one thing, we had no proof that anything was actually going on.
We began a quiet observation campaign, pulling one of the school counselors and the boys’ coach into the effort, along with more academic team members. We also recruited Karl’s bus driver and some of the school’s custodians to the project.
Helen and Dominic noticed that Karl seemed especially withdrawn and fearful around two boys, Tim and Leon. A custodian caught the end of a lopsided scuffle between Karl and Leon one afternoon by the dumpster. On another evening, while waiting for students to board his bus, the driver glimpsed Tim shoving Karl. He alerted the counselor, who had bus duty that night.
The boys scattered when they saw her coming, but the next day she called each for an interview. Tim shrugged it off as “nothing,” but Karl described a pattern of teasing, intimidation and humiliation meted out by the two larger boys.
The counselor changed Karl’s class schedule for the rest of the year. That kept him out of contact with Tim and Leon, but it also disrupted his friendships and removed him from the concerned attention of the teachers who had first tried to help him. Looking back, I might have offered Karl a buddy or peer ally to walk with and definitely made sure all staff looked after Karl between classes and after school.
Talking with Tim and Leon did not solve their problem. The boys and their parents resisted. One dad even suggested the school was harassing his son. Soon the two found another victim.
In retrospect, we wondered how much good we truly accomplished. We should have included administration immediately and discussed a school-wide plan to address bullying. Perhaps we could have explored the behavior of the bullies and given them other ways to have power, like a sanctioned leadership role.
I’ve often thought of Karl, Tim and Leon as I read of schools developing anti-bullying programs in recent years. The guidelines now are clearer.
Although we tried to intervene, we didn’t have effective tools to help them. The school climate accepted bullying as an inevitable evil. Our options for intervention were too limited. Today we would adopt anti-bullying policies, provide training, explore the social-emotional behavior of the bullies and set clear consequences for bullying.
The recent shift in attitudes about bullying is encouraging. We owe it to both victims and bullies to support the understanding throughout our schools and communities that bullying is neither “normal” nor healthy behavior.
What strategies have you enlisted to help prevent bullying?
Gephardt teaches private art classes in Kansas.