____________________ EDUCATION ____________________
BY TERRY BRENNER
School bullies have been around probably as long as schools have. Most bullies are boys, and most of the time their bullying ways have been passed off as Oh, well, boys will be boys.
This laissez-faire attitude was commonplace until fairly recently, says Rick van den Pol, UM curriculum and instruction professor.
When I taught classroom management 20 years ago, he says, I taught teachers that you ignore this stuff and let kids solve their problems. Although this philosophy is still gospel to many parents, he says, educators are changing their tune.
Now we think that kids dont spontaneously learn conflict resolution, van den Pol says. They just naturally become more aggressive, more violent, because that behavior gets them what they want.
This new thinking has fostered increased awareness of various behaviors that appear early in a childs development, such as discourtesy, teasing, putdowns, threats and disrespectful speech to adults and peers. These behaviors have potentially far-reaching consequences, and van den Pol, who directs UMs Co-Teach program, says he now encourages teachers to let their students know such behaviors wont be tolerated.
The long-term impact suggests that bullies at age 8 third or fourth grade are six times more likely to be convicted of any crime by age 24 and five times more likely to have a serious criminal record by age 30 than nonbullies, he says. Studies show that 60 percent of children identified as bullies in middle school go on to have arrest records. And bullying is included with chronic lying, cruelty to animals and fire setting as a behavior that predicts bad outcomes for a child.
Educators now believe its imperative to nip bullying in the bud before it blossoms into something worse. When bullying is tolerated, it can progress to sexual harassment, drinking, vandalism, hate crimes, rape, murder and, at the top of the ladder, suicide.
Bullying also forebodes other risks. People who demonstrate their strength through aggression have shorter life spans, less satisfactory marriages, higher incarceration rates, lower incomes, higher rates of substance abuse and more frequent hospitalizations, van den Pol says. Obviously, anyone on a bullys hit list will suffer, too.
But more subtle forms of bullying, such as socially excluding or spreading rumors about a child the kind of bullying girls are prone to can have lifelong effects on victims, as well, he says, unless adults intervene and try to help the bully and the victim find alternative ways of interacting.
Bullying cant be squelched overnight or by hit-and-miss tactics. It takes a systemwide, communitywide approach, says UM psychology Professor George Camp, who specializes in school psychology.
Teachers, administrators, counselors, pupils and parents need to be involved, he says. With a systemwide approach, Kids learn to avoid conflict situations that pit a child against a bully, everybody knows what bullying is and how its going to be handled, and children know they can tell a teacher or someone else in authority.
Countries worldwide from Sweden to New Zealand and Japan are developing such plans. The following information is gleaned from various sources, including the Olweus program, which the Missoula County Public Schools has adopted.
Olweus takes a communitywide approach and recognizes the need to deal with bullies when theyre very young.
Bullies cause problems, and kids dont like other kids who cause problems, van den Pol says. So bullies often suffer rejection from their peers. Peer rejection often leads to academic failure and further isolation. When isolated students form relationships with one another and become a group, theyre just a short step from becoming a gang.
Where does bullying come from? Camp says ancient cultural patterns that put men in the aggressive hunter role are partly to blame because such patterns are hard to interrupt. But he and van den Pol also implicate the home environment. Bullies at school often are victims at home.
The probation folks tell us that if we have a bully in school and we end up charging that child, the likelihood is quite high that when Dad comes in, well see evidence of bullying behavior, van den Pol says.
Television watching is another culprit, he and Camp say, because of the high incidence of TV violence and the fact that the hero often initiates the violence but rarely suffers a negative consequence. So parents should monitor the television, Camp says. Reading to children, instead, gives them a caring, nurturing interaction. Twenty-five years ago in something like 75 percent or more of families, parents either read or told stories to their children. Now that number is down around 20 percent, van den Pol says.
Parents also should avoid aggressive behavior in the home, foster equality and task sharing among all family members, teach children how to handle conflict, demonstrate empathy, and teach, praise and reinforce appropriate behavior instead of dishing out harsh punishment.
For children on the receiving end of bully tactics, van den Pol and Camp offer a few strategies: Try defusing an insult with a comment or joke. Change the subject. Ignore or walk away from the bully to show he hasnt upset you. Train yourself to stare someone down it gives the impression of confidence. Check your body language to make sure it doesnt betray fear. On the playground, move closer to an adult or to a peer counselor, if there is one. Tell someone in authority.
That last strategy is tough for children because if they tell, they face being called a tattletale. But van den Pol waves that aside. He says educators have tried to help children understand the difference between being a tattletale and preventing someone, including the child himself, from getting hurt.
The code of silence becomes a conspiracy of silence if you allow someone to be
hurt, he says.
We are, as a nation, struggling with the aftermath of a number of multivictim homicides that have occurred in schools, he says. Weve had some heartbreaking scenarios where the victims not knowing what to do and sort of embracing the concept of punch back [but] knowing they couldnt punch back have instead brought a gun to school.
Still, schools are among the safest places a child can be, he says. Studies show that risk of violence and aggression against students at school is one-third the risk they face in the larger community.
But we know we can do better, he says. Thats why you see all these international efforts to educate people about a problem thats been tolerated too long, he says.
Thats not to say, however, that the zero tolerance policy many school districts have adopted is the solution. Its too simplistic, van den Pol says, and overlooks the importance of progressive discipline. For instance, if two boys were fighting on the playground and the school had zero tolerance for fighting, both boys would get the same punishment even if one boy is in his first fight, the other in his 10th.
When you blend progressive discipline with zero tolerance, you find that the boy
who is in his 10th fight suffers a more severe kind of consequence, he says.
Most of us would embrace that kind of approach.