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Bullies Beware!, Part I

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Classroom bullying is more prevalent than many educators think, and experts say it should no longer be tolerated as 'part of growing up.'

A 5th grader terrorizes a smaller boy on the playground. A middle school girl, mature for her age, stands up to speak and her classmates begin "mooing." Sixth grade girls spread malicious rumors about a loner in their class.

It happens all the time in schools around the world. Bullying, one of those seemingly timeless fixtures of childhood, takes many shapes and forms. Yet for all the sunny childhoods darkened by taunts and torments, research on the subject is rare--especially in the United States, where researchers have focused more broadly on violence.

The small number of studies that have cropped up in recent years speak to the subject with remarkable unanimity, however, and offer some useful lessons for educators.

Teachers and principals, the research suggests, underestimate the amount of bullying that takes place under their noses--on playgrounds, in hallways, even in classrooms. And too many educators are reluctant to get involved.

"Kids say that when they tell the adults about the bullying, adults don't take them seriously, or they make them feel responsible for going back and working it out," said Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass.

Some adults dismiss such complaints, reasoning that "kids will be kids." To them, bullying is inevitable, something everyone must learn to handle.

But researchers who have studied the issue say the problem is too pervasive and too damaging to ignore.

"You're talking 10, 11, 12 percent of kids saying their lives are miserable in school," said John H. Hoover, an associate professor of teaching and learning at the University of North Dakota. "I don't think that's something that kids need to go through."

Looking to Norway

The father of much of the current research on bullying is Dan Olweus, a professor of psychology at the University of Bergen in Norway. He began studying the phenomenon when his country launched a national campaign against bullying in the early 1980s. The public outcry in Norway came after three boys, ages 10 to 14, committed suicide in 1982. All three had been frequent victims of bullies.

Mr. Olweus surveyed 130,000 children in Norway and 17,000 children in Sweden. Of that group, he found, 15 percent said they had been bullied "now and then" or more frequently.

Similar or higher rates have turned up in surveys from Japan, Canada, England, Finland, Ireland, Australia, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Studies from the United States have involved smaller numbers of children, and their findings about the prevalence of bullying vary: Anywhere from 10 percent to 24 percent of American students say they have been bullied at some recent time in their school careers.

Virtually all the studies on the subject, however, confirm the wide gap between the amount of bullying students endure and how much of it their teachers perceive.

Educators often play down the amount that goes on in their schools partly because they don't see a lot of it. Most bullying takes place where there is little adult supervision or where the adults in charge don't have the same kind of authority that teachers do.

"I've had to take teachers and walk them around on the playground to show them," said Carla Garrity, a Denver psychologist who has developed an anti-bullying program for schools.

The studies also show that bullying starts in elementary school, peaks in middle school, and falls off in high school.

Not Just Boys

Girls can be bullies, too. They just go about it differently, relying more on verbal and psychological techniques than physical intimidation. A girl might, for example, pointedly exclude a classmate from a birthday party or start a hurtful rumor.

Whether they label it harassment or bullying, most researchers agree that the roots of the problem may be partly cultural.

And, whether male or female, bullies tend to have more family problems than other children, to be physically or emotionally abused, and to be disciplined inconsistently at home.

Experts say there is a fine line between a bully, someone who systematically and chronically torments a classmate, and the more pervasive, random harassment that students endure from their peers on a daily basis.

Such ''random acts of unkindness" are part of the daily fabric of school life, said Charol Shakeshaft, a professor and chairwoman of the department of administration, policy studies, and reading at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

She and her colleagues studied eight middle and high schools in New York state over a period of two years, beginning their interviews with students by asking, simply, "What's it like to be a teenager today?"

Out poured tales of harassment, most of it verbal and all of it hurtful. As one girl told the researchers: "People make fun of you. They make fun of your hair and the way you dress. They're just cruel."

Whether they label it harassment or bullying, however, most researchers agree that the roots of the problem may be partly cultural. Students learn to bully and tease from the actions--or inactions--of the adults they see around them and on television.

"If you look at television situation comedies, there's a lot of angry humor out there and kids bring it to school," Mr. Hoover said.

One of Mr. Olweus' recent studies even suggests that some teachers may be bullies themselves. He found that as much as 2 percent of the bullying that children endure comes from teachers who use sarcasm as a teaching tool.

'I Hate It'

Children also learn to bully others when adults do not tell them it's wrong.

"What we found was that kids believe that teachers thought it was OK to behave this way because teachers didn't intervene--especially kids coming into middle school," Ms. Shakeshaft said.

As a result, students were confused. "Kids would say, 'I know I'm not supposed to feel bad because it's only a joke. But I do. I hate it,'" Ms. Shakeshaft said.

Even worse, teachers sometimes inadvertently reinforce bullying behavior in their schools.

Ms. Stein told of a school studied by the Wellesley researchers where recess activities had become a kind of ritual. The boys played with balls and the girls played with jump ropes. The students brought their own play equipment from home because the school could not afford to furnish it.

One week, the boys decided it would be more fun to steal the girls' jump ropes. The girls complained, and were told to work out their dispute with the boys. After listening to the children fussing for a week, the teachers banned jump ropes altogether.

"Thereby taking away the girls' only playthings," Ms. Stein said. "The boys gloated about this for weeks." The lesson for this class was that the boys had won.

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