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Talk of School Bullies Dominates Psychologists' Gathering

Bullying behavior is a pervasive problem in schools and can lead to physical violence if not dealt with, according to several studies presented at the 107th annual conference of the American Psychological Association here.

Adolescent angst was a major theme of the convention, coming on the heels of last spring's deadly shootings by two student gunmen at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo.

In a survey of 558 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at a suburban Indianapolis middle school, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that 80 percent of the students reported they had bullied another classmate in the past 30 days.

Where other studies have defined students as either bullies or non-bullies, the University of Illinois researchers broke down the definitions into a broad range of anti-social behaviors.

Bullying actions included teasing, name-calling, threatening, physical aggression, and social ridicule. Students who appeared physically different--in race, body size, or clothing--were the most likely to be victimized, the study says.

The researchers also found that many bullies had been targets of harassment: Seventy-five percent of the students said they had been victims themselves.

Dorothy Espelage

"Many middle school students tease their peers to fit into the crowd, even though they feel uncomfortable doing it," Dorothy Espelage, the author of the study, said at the conference last month that drew 10,000 psychologists and social workers from around the country. If such behavior is not identified and defused, it can lead to more violent behavior, earlier studies have concluded.

Though bullying may be commonplace in classrooms and school playgrounds, the offenders often go unnoticed by teachers, a separate study released at the Aug. 20-24 gathering concludes.

In a survey of middle school students from an unidentified Midwestern school, researchers at the University of Nebraska asked 83 children to describe themselves as bullies, victims, or both. Teachers were also asked to categorize their students, and peers were told to identify classmates.

The researchers found that teachers in the study failed to recognize two-thirds of the self-acknowledged male bullies as bullies, and also neglected to identify two-thirds of the female victims as targets of harassment.

Students were also more likely to point out female bullies than male bullies, the study found.

Even though there was a larger percentage of male than female aggressors, the boys' misbehavior went unnoticed more often than girls' because overt expressions of aggression are more acceptable in boys, the researchers said.

Why do boys bully more? William Pollack, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, said in a presentation at the conference that boys' aggressiveness is not "hard wired" at birth--it's largely taught.

In his newly published book, Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myth of Boyhood, Mr. Pollack writes that boys have a biological proclivity for action, not aggression. Their aggressiveness stems from the fact that they are not furnished with an outlet for their anger or sadness, he argues.

Previous studies in England have shown that bullies tend to have a high incidence of depression. In the United States, 85 percent of the teenage-suicide victims are boys.

By the time they enter kindergarten, boys are taught in various ways that they must adopt a stoic, macho stance--a "boy code" that views showing sadness as a weakness and acting out as masculine, Mr. Pollack said. The psychologist, who is working with the Clinton administration to identify characteristics of students who are at risk for committing violent acts, said that schools need to help create an environment in which students feel safe about expressing their feelings.

An anti-bullying program presented at an APA session might help teachers do just that.

Dawn A. Newman, a University of Georgia graduate student, wrote a bully-buster's guide to train teachers in anti-bullying tactics in 15 schools in Clark County, Ga., last year.

In three two-hour training sessions over a three-week period, teachers were taught units on how to identify bullies and victims, how to intervene with a bully, assist victims, and prevent bullying in the classroom. One technique to defuse conflicts, for example, was to give bullies and victims projects to work on together at a table without talking.

Compared with a control group of teachers who did not participate in the classes, teachers who were trained in the "bully proofing" techniques reported that the number of discipline problems in their classrooms dropped substantially.

—Jessica Portner

Vol. 19, Issue 1, Page 6

Published in Print: September 8, 1999, as Reporter's Notebook
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