Researchers exploring the apparent link between bullying and school violence paint a complex portrait of students who victimize others.
Two years ago in March, 15-year-old Charles “Andy” Williams walked into his Santee, Calif., high school and sprayed his classmates with bullets from his father’s gun. Almost a year later, the troubled teenager wrote a poem offering some clues to why he did it.
“He thought nobody liked him,” it went. “He got messed with every day.”
Williams, it seems, had been a victim of bullies. They allegedly stole his skateboard, taunted him about his slight build, and pressed lighted cigarettes into his skin. Regardless of whether he ended up killing himself or killing others, Williams later told a judge, a gun seemed like the only way to escape the bullying he endured almost every day.
It may have seemed that way, too, to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two Jefferson County, Colo., teenagers who in 1999 killed 12 schoolmates and a teacher before turning their weapons on themselves; to Michael Carneal, the 14-year-old who opened fire one morning in 1997 on students praying outside his high school west of Paducah, Ky.; or to Elizabeth Catherine Bush, who was also 14 in 2001 when she shot and injured a popular cheerleader at the small, private Roman Catholic school she attended in Williamsport, Pa.
In fact, bullying turned out to be a factor in two-thirds of 37 school shooting incidents reviewed by the U.S. Secret Service for a study two years ago. According to the agency, the attackers in those cases all felt they had been persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others.
The apparent connection between bullying and school violence has spurred new interest in research on bullying, a field that has long gotten more attention in Europe than in the United States. Now, some of those studies are beginning to sketch a picture of bullying in U.S. schools that is more complex than popular stereotypes might suggest.
The studies show, for example, that bullies can be victims as well as aggressors, girls as well as boys, and popular and Machiavellian as well as anxious and inept. Researchers say that what they need to find out next is how to better prevent bullying.
“In some ways, we have a lot of work to do, but I think we have made significant progress in understanding how bullying unfolds in American schools,” says Dorothy L. Espelage, an assistant professor of counseling psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Unfortunately, it takes school shootings to get us to think more on these things.”
The pioneer in research on the subject is Dan Olweus, a professor of psychology at the University of Bergen in Norway. He undertook his studies in the 1980s, following a widely publicized case in that country in which three boys, ages 10 to 14, took their own lives. All three had been tormented by bullies.
Even though newspapers in this country have long chronicled similar kinds of incidents, researchers here say Americans have tended to view bullying as more of an inevitable rite of passage—something more akin to a first pimple or a fascination with bathroom humor than a serious social problem.
Such attitudes softened a bit, however, following the widely publicized string of multiple shootings by students that occurred in American schools beginning in the 1990s. John H. Hoover, a professor of special education at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minn., who has studied bullying for more than a decade, sees the differences when he gives inservice training on bully- prevention techniques to groups of K-12 educators.
‘Overall, I believe you can read the evidence, at least premlinarily, as saying that even low levels of student-on-student aggression put a school building at risk for violence.’
“Ten years ago, at certainly every session, a teacher or administrator would say, ‘Who cares? It’s good for them,’ or ‘Kids pick on kids. So what?’ Now, most people seem to be interested in the well-being of students.”
No study has shown that bullying actually causes young people to go on violent rampages. Nonetheless, researchers say, the correlations are building all the time.
Preliminary results released this past fall from a seven-year study of 440 Massachusetts children suggest, for example, that involvement in some type of peer victimization was the third most reliable predictor of whether a child would grow into a violent teenager. The top two predictors were whether a child’s parents used aversive disciplinary techniques—such as spanking, slapping, or verbal abuse—and whether the child had a tendency to be withdrawn or a loner, says Kurt W. Fischer, the study’s co-director. A professor of education and human development at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, he is working on the study with Malcolm W. Watson, a Brandeis University psychology professor.
Add that new data to a rich, long-established literature on violence and social aggression, which suggests that most violent criminals in a sense “learned” to be violent as part of their upbringing.
“Overall, I believe you can read the evidence, at least preliminarily, as saying that even low levels of student-on-student aggression put a school building at risk for violence,” says Hoover. “Of course, a lot of this is still more art than science.”
If Hoover and his colleagues are correct, it’s potentially bad news for schools. That’s because survey after survey, conducted in this country as well as in others, suggests that bullying is part of the social fabric of schools everywhere. Regardless of whether their school is in an affluent suburb, a poor city neighborhood, or an isolated stretch of countryside, students report in remarkably consistent percentages that school can be a cruel place.
The first nationally representative study on the subject, a 1998 survey of nearly 16,000 students, suggests that 30 percent of students in grades 6-10 admit to either bullying others, being a target of bullies, or both. In that study, which was conducted as part of the World Health Organization’s Health Behavior in School-Aged Children research, 10 percent of students said they sometimes bullied others, and 9 percent admitted to doing it at least once a week.
Meanwhile, 8.5 percent of the children surveyed said they were bullied sometimes. Nearly the same percentage said it happened to them on a weekly basis.
Many of the newer studies, though, also suggest that the practice is not a clear-cut case of bullies vs. victims. Victims can be bullies, too, though they are sometimes less skilled at it. Researchers even have names for that subgroup of students who take on dual roles of victim and tormentor. They call them “provocative victims” or “bully victims.”
In one of Espelage’s studies, a Midwestern middle school girl describes how the cycle plays out: “I started making fun of kids because somebody else was making fun of me. So I was mad and I just started making fun of somebody else and pushed them around.”
Researchers disagree over what percentage of students fall into that category. Proportions cited in U.S. studies range from 5 percent or less to as much as 30 percent. Some of the variation has to do with the age group being studied and the overall size of the study sample. Bullying peaks in middle school, for example, and is rarer in the earliest years of elementary school.
Researchers have identified a subgroup of students who take on dual roles of victim and tormentor. They call them ‘provocative victims’ or ‘bully victims.’
The amount of bullying that turns up in surveys also depends on the questions students are asked. While most experts now have a broad view of bullying that includes teasing and other nonphysical forms of aggression, some acts of bullying are more difficult to recognize and label. Girls, for example, often bully by spreading rumors or pointedly ignoring a classmate.
Regardless of the size of the group of victim-bullies, experts agree that they are the group that causes some of the most concern. Susan M. Swearer, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher who has studied victim-bullies, says they are considerably more depressed and anxious than either straight-up bullies or children who are not involved in bullying at all.
“It’s on the front page all the time,” says Anthony D. Pellegrini, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. “If you read the fine print in terms of cases where children have committed suicides or where these horrendous acts have occurred, these kids are the provocative victims.”
“Bully victims,” in fact, was the label given to Klebold and Harris by a panel appointed by Colorado’s governor to draw lessons from the massacre that took place at Columbine High School in 1999.
In contrast to “bully victims,” hard-core bullies often tend to be some of the most popular and more athletic students in school, according to several recent studies of middle school children.
“If you ask kids who they would most like to invite to a hypothetical party, these are the kids who get nominated,” Pellegrini says.
Trying to be “cool” or “fitting in with the group” is, in fact, one reason bullies give for why they pick on others, according to several of Espelage’s studies.
“One time at track practice,” a middle school girl told researchers in one such study, “me and some of my friends pulled a girl’s pants down in front of the entire boys’ track team to make other students laugh.”
And, while researchers disagree over whether these more confident students may be a little sad or depressed as well, there is widespread agreement that such straight-up bullies are calculated in choosing their victims.
“I mean, I think some kids are easier targets, and they just let teasing get to them, and that is like saying to bullies, ‘I am like the perfect target, I am really easy to bully,’” said an 8th grader in the same study.
All of that evidence suggests that, at least in middle school, bullying may be a group process in which many children—and educators—have a part, says Espelage. She points to studies showing that, in 85 percent of schoolyard bullying episodes, bystanders play a role by either reinforcing the bully’s actions or by not intervening at all.
“Also,” she adds, “if you hang out with bullies, you become more like them over time. There is a socialization process.”
A problem, though, is that most school-based bullying-prevention programs simplistically address bullies and their victims as separate groups, says Xin Ma, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.
“These two roles have no clear boundaries,” says Ma, who has studied the cycle of bullying in surveys involving Canadian children. “One student can be in the principal’s office and can be counseled as a victim of bullying. Once that student leaves the principal’s office, he might then start to bully others.”
Most school-based bullying-prevention programs err when they simplistically address bullies and their victims as separate groups.
To Ma, the narrow focus of those programs may explain why so few of them seem to be effective.
In fact, only one anti-bullying program made it onto a national registry of model violence-prevention programs that the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder maintains. The model the center singles out, the Bullying Prevention Program, was developed by Olweus in the 1980s.
In schools in Bergen, Norway, where the program was first tested, it reduced bullying problems by 50 percent or more over two years, Olweus’ research suggested. South Carolina schools that replicated the program saw a 25 percent reduction in bullying behavior seven months after they tried it.
Most researchers say the key to cutting down on bullying may be to address the overall climate in a school. And that means convincing teachers and administrators, as well as every student, that it’s not OK for students to bully others.
“When parents of children go to teachers and say, ‘My kid’s being picked on,’ a common response from teachers and school systems is that this is a part of growing up and you have to learn to deal with it,” says Pellegrini of the University of Minnesota. “We still hear that all the time.”
Besides, he says, bullying-prevention problems may have a bigger impact on learning than many educators realize.
“Kids who are victimized don’t want to go to school, and when they don’t want to go to school, they do badly in school,” he says. “And kids who are bullies or hang out with other bullies gradually become unaffiliated with school altogether.”
“Andy” Williams, who now sits in a Northern California juvenile detention center, might agree.
The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.