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Bullies Beware!, Part II

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Although they rarely take a stand, teachers hate the teasing and tormenting, too. But they sometimes feel powerless to stop it.

In fact, a study by North Dakota's Mr. Hoover suggests that, if not told otherwise, students often believe that might makes right.

He and his colleagues, Ronald Oliver and Richard Hazler, surveyed 207 middle and high school students in Minnesota, Ohio, and South Dakota in the early 1990s. They found that students agreed that victims brought bullying on themselves and that bullying "helps people by making them tougher."

Curbing Bullies

Although they rarely take a stand, teachers hate the teasing and tormenting, too, research shows. But they sometimes feel powerless to stop it.

"When we talked to teachers, they said they didn't think it was acceptable, and they didn't like the adolescent climate at all," Ms. Shakeshaft said. "But they didn't know how to stop it, and they felt that they wouldn't be supported by their principals."

In turn, she added, principals feared a lack of support from their superintendents and from parents.

Yet when the researchers interviewed parents and the superintendents, they, too, agreed that peer harassment is "awful behavior" and that it should be stopped.

"Probably there's more support among adults than we believe," Ms. Shakeshaft concluded.

James Nolan, the principal of McCormick Middle School in McCormick County, S.C., believes that when adults make a concerted effort, it is possible to stop young tyrants in their tracks.

Mr. Nolan said surveys taken at his school two years ago showed that nearly half the students had suffered at the hands of bullies at least once in their school careers.

"And they said they were picked on most often in classrooms," he added. "That was the place that really shocked us."

The principal and his staff launched an anti-bullying campaign with the help of researchers from the University of South Carolina's Institute on Family and Society. Using a successful prevention program pioneered by Mr. Olweus in Norway, the staff and the researchers engineered regular schoolwide discussions on bullying. The school also adopted and posted three rules: "We will not bully others. We will help children who are being bullied. We will try to include shy children who tend to be left out."

Clear sanctions were set against bullying, and the staff began identifying both bullies and their victims for intensive counseling, among other measures.

"Part of our success came because nobody had used the word 'bully' before," Mr. Nolan said. "Now everyone knows we're not going to tolerate bullying behavior from anybody and we'll call parents in and say, 'Hey, your son is a bully.'"

At the end of the 1995-96 school year, when researchers again surveyed students at the school, they found that the campaign had paid off. The number of students who reported that they were bullied had dropped from nearly half to 22 percent.

McCormick is one of about 20 schools in three rural South Carolina districts that are working with the institute. The researchers, working under a two-year federal grant, also distributed their materials on bullying to local church leaders to use in discussion groups and spoke to parent-teacher groups.

"Really the only thing that's going to stop any kind of violence is a comprehensive, multipronged approach," said Vicky C. Flerx, the researcher working with those schools.

Tested Strategies

The program McCormick Middle School used is one of several field-tested anti-bullying tactics available to schools.

The bottom line, researchers say, is that adults should not tolerate bullying or even teasing. In surveys and interviews, students say all of it hurts.

One popular approach is a "Bullyproof" curricula developed by Ms. Stein of Wellesley College, who is best known for her study documenting instances of gender-related harassment and discrimination in schools.

She contends that early bullying behavior, like that exhibited by the boys who stole the girls' jump ropes at recess, can lead to outright sexual harassment in middle school and high school.

In fact, studies show that much of the teasing that goes on during those years is based on gender. Ms. Shakeshaft's study, for example, showed that adolescent girls who show early physical development are a particular target of harassment in middle and high school.

These are the girls who get "mooed" by classmates or labeled "sluts" or "whores"--abuse that comes from both boys and girls.

Ms. Stein's curriculum, aimed at 4th and 5th graders, does not dwell on adult terms like "sexual harassment." Instead, the curricula walks children through a variety of activities designed to heighten their awareness of the problem. They learn the difference between teasing and bullying, act as junior researchers by recording instances of bullying they see, and act out in role-playing situations ways of dealing with name-calling.

What's more, "you can outnumber the bullies if you teach the silent majority to stand up," said Ms. Garrity, the Denver psychologist, whose anti-bullying program is aimed at students who stand mutely by while a bully taunts a classmate.

"If children aren't taught otherwise," she said, "they'll side with the bully--even nice kids who certainly know better but are frightened that the bully will turn on them."

And schools can survey students to find out where the hot spots are for bullying activities.

"Then you can subtly change the adult-student ratio in those areas," said Mr. Hoover of the University of North Dakota.

"But the number-one thing is to support the victims in the grieving process," he added. "Let's at least have one adult this kid can absolutely depend on to support him."

The bottom line, researchers say, is that adults should not tolerate bullying or even teasing. In surveys and interviews, students say all of it hurts.

And the consequences of ignoring bullying behavior can be great. Mr. Olweus' studies show that bullies, many of whom were bullied themselves at home, are four times more likely to grow up to be criminals than are nonbullies.

And the trauma they inflict on other students stays with the victims long afterward, often leading to a lifetime of unhappy school memories and, in some cases, depression.

What is more, said Mr. Hoover, not much learning takes place when students are in constant fear. "We have to ask ourselves what the quality of life should be for these young people."

For more information:

Bully-Proofing Your School, by Carla Garrity, Kathryn Jens, William Porter, Nancy Sager, and Cam Short-Camilli, 1996, Sopris West, Longmont, Colo.

Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do, by Dan Olweus, 1993, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, Britain, and Cambridge, Mass.

Bullyproof: A Teacher's Guide on Teasing and Bullying for Use With Fourth and Fifth Grade Students, by Nan Stein, Lisa Sjostrom, and Emily Gaberman, 1996, Wellesley College Center for Research on Women and the NEA Professional Library.

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