Sue Shellenbarger’s article in the Wall Street Journal, “Are you a hero or a bystander?” will help you analyze your potential to be a hero. It’ll give you clues as to whether you’re likely to step up in a crisis.
The article is typical of a way of thinking that’s irrelevant, misleading and destructive.
Some of the hidden assumptions behind the article are:
You are who you are; which is a product of the way you’ve been raised.
If you have certain beliefs – the reasons people gave for why they stepped up in a crisis – then that will determine how you’ll act. If you don’t have those beliefs, you’re stuck as a bystander.
If we examine the factors that people give for why they act brave, then we understand heroism and we can replicate it.
That approach is a dead end and a waste of time; it’s all mental and irrelevant in human affairs.
Instead, try a much simpler approach:
Confront your fears.
Decide how you want to act in any 10 recent examples that have made the headlines – the shooting in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, witnessing a car crash, hearing someone scream for help, etc.
Train yourself to act the courageous way you want to without thinking in the moment.
I know that sounds too simple but give it a try.
Remember, that’s the way we train cops, firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, etc. That’s the way we train football, basketball and soccer players. They do the drills over and over and over until they react the way they want without thinking.
For example, only a small percent of us will go to war, but a large percent of us will witness harassment, bullying and abuse. How do you want to respond in the moment? Do you want to be a bystander or spectator? Do you want to be a witness or a defender?
Train yourself – discipline and preparation.
Remember Captain Chesley Sullenberger. He’s the pilot who put that commercial, jumbo jet full of passengers down in the Hudson River with no loss of life. He didn’t crash into Manhattan, which would probably have killed thousands. How did he know what to do? He’ll tell you that he heard of something horrific when he was about 11 years old, when people simply looked away instead of being courageous. He vowed he’d always act bravely and he trained himself to be prepared so he could act effectively. Discipline and practice.
Stopping bullies, whether overt, covert or cyberbullying, and especially stopping self-bullying, requires time, effort, courage, determination and perseverance – grit.
It’s easy to lose heart along the way, but we must not give into fear, discouragement, despair, defeat, loss of hope or depression. We must not listen to negative self-talk, or give in to the self-flagellation of shame or guilt, or pay attention to the voices who are convinced we’ll lose.
Instead, we need two crucial things to become effective in stopping bullying.
They may be the examples of family members, teachers, priests, ministers, friends. I always think of my mother’s mother, who walked across Europe when she was 16 in order to come to America – barefoot. I’m inspired by her example. If she could do it – with no cell phone, wireless tablet, social security, health or unemployment insurance – and not a word of English, how can I be less determined? How can I succumb to fear or despair?
They may be people in history or the news. Think of Joan of Arc or the women who walked across America along side covered wagons or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who escaped from Somalia. Think of the men at Valley Forge or the Battle of Britain who kept going even though everyone “knew” they didn’t have a chance. Think of George Washington and Winston Churchill refusing to admit defeat.
Many movies and books come to a dramatic moment when the heroes can chose to give up or to continue on, whether they win or lose. For example, in the last “Matrix” movie, Mr. Smith is defeating Neo. He keeps calling him Mr. Anderson and trying to sap his will and strength by taunting him with, “Why do you keep fighting. You know you can’t win.” Finally, in agony and desperation, Neo says, “Because I choose to!”
We need helpers to lift us out of the pit of despair; who will march on together with us.
We usually need help to remind us to keep on when we might otherwise give up.
Family, friends and even strangers can sometimes say the right words or make helpful gestures. When abusive, bullies seem unstoppable or our self-bullying seems overwhelming, our guardian angels can encourage us to keep our spirits strong and stand with us to keep us fighting. They can keep us from defeat, depression and suicide.
Sometimes they’re the gestures of famous people who inspire us. Because I grew up in Brooklyn at just the right time, I remember Peewee Reese, from Louisville, Kentucky, putting his arm around Jackie Robinson’s shoulder to let Jackie and the world know that Peewee was not a bystander. He was a witness for what was right, standing with him.
Sometimes fictional characters remind us of people being lifted and supported. In “The Lord of the Rings,” all the characters except Gandalf and Aragon have moments when they despair and are ready to give up to seemingly inevitable defeat by the forces of evil. And someone encourages them to keep fighting, because we must be an example for future generations and, also, we never know what will happen if we keep fighting. There are thousands of other examples.
We need to build:
An inner world of those models who will inspire us by saying the right words when we need them.
A community of deep and sturdy friends who will inspire us to remain strong and dedicated.
They don’t have to make anything okay. But what they do in the darkest times is to show that there is light and they throw a life line.
Everyone has moments that matter: moments when our life can go in either direction; moments when we can choose the strength to soar to heaven or the weakness to fall into hell. You know, those moments in which everything gets absolutely quiet and the air seems to pulse and throb with the power and weight of a choice that will change our life. What will we do? Which path will we choose? What will our life become?
All bullies, all targets and all witnesses have those moments when the rest of their lives hang in the balance. Will they stop bullying? Will they stop being victims of bullies or of their own self-bullying? Will they give up in defeat and despair or will they forge ahead, no matter the consequences?
These are the moments when, if we have the “Will,” we can will ourselves into wonderful futures.
Charles M. Blow reminded me of the moments of truth that I’ve seen in the lives of all the bullies and also all the targets I’ve known. He wrote a wonderful, deep, heart-felt column in the New York Times, “The Bleakness of the Bullied.”
He describes his own experience when he was eight, the subject of “relentless teasing and bullying from all directions – classmates as well as extended family.” In a pit of despair, he contemplated suicide, only to be heartened when a song, often sung by his mother, leapt to his mind, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
He knew he had “to be brave and patient, that this was not to be my last night.”
Every target of bullying I’ve ever coached had a similar moment in their childhood or in our work together: A moment when they faced the bleakness of a future of continuing to be a victim or, alternatively, the brightness of standing up and fighting back in some way. In that moment, they each responded to that choice with a great surge of Will, power and energy. They fanned the spark in their heart into a fierce flame that warmed, strengthened and sustained them.
Once their Will took over their actions, despite a little anxiety, the rest was straightforward.
They would keep that flame alive by daring to protect and defend themselves; by taking the risk of creating a brilliant and wonderful future for themselves, no matter the opinions of their oppressors or the cost to the old, destructive patterns they had been mired in or the people they were related to.
Their action plans were different depending on their circumstances but they had the same Will and they learned the same skills.
I’ve seen the same moment of truth with bullies.
One former bully told me of a moment when he was about nine and was the biggest, toughest angriest kid in his class. He had thought he was simply doing what he had to do to make his place in the world. Then, a principal hauled him into his office, sat him down and told him, in so many words, that he was a bully and he had to stop or he’d be thrown out of school. He was too vicious, nasty and brutal to be allowed to continue harassing and tormenting the kids he was victimizing.
The boy was stunned. He’d never thought of himself as a bully, as vicious and nasty. And he certainly didn’t want to be thrown out of school. In that moment his heart broke open and he vowed never to be a bully again, even if he was the biggest kid in the room.
Why was that bully seeing me? He wanted to learn skills to negotiate his adult life without reverting to bullying in order to get his way. He didn’t want to be a bullying spouse, co-worker or boss. He didn’t want to be a bullying parent.
I was at a wedding and a funeral last week. Really; not a movie. And the people were fine.
But I was reminded of all the times I’ve been at big family events when some selfish, narcissistic, abusive, controlling, bullying family member demanded that they get their way or they’d make a scene, make everyone miserable and ruin either the celebration festivities or the solemnity. They knew what was best and we’d better do it.
Think of the relatives at all the special occasions – weddings, funerals, births, vacations and holidays. The relatives who get drunk and insist they be allowed to ruin the event; the arrogant jerks who think they own all the attention and air in the place; the nasty, greedy; jealous, vicious-tongued vindictive; the narcissistic, smug, righteous know-it-alls.
Think of the people who take over all the events because they want to. Whatever supposedly logical reasons, excuses and justifications they offer each time, I notice the pattern.
Even though they’re not the important person at the event, they always have to get their way or else. They’re not the bride or groom, they’re not giving birth, they’re not graduating, they’re not getting baptized, confirmed or bar mitzvah-ed; they’re not the host or planner; they’re not the person dying. They’re not even the turkey on the table, although I sometimes entertain fantasies of having a sharp carving knife in my hand.
Did I cover all the bases of your experience also or do you have a few other ones?
These bullies always think they’re right. And they’re willing to argue and fight longer, harder and louder to get their way, than anyone else, especially over what we think is trivial and a waste of time. And they let you know that they’ll retaliate and make us regret resisting them for the rest of our lives. They’ll bad-mouth, criticize and put us down in front of everyone forever. And the scene is our fault, not theirs. They want us the walk on egg shells around them.
So what can we do?
Typically, we find reasons to turn the other cheek. We try to rise above, ignore, look away, appease, understand, excuse because that’s just the way they are or tolerate them for the duration of the event. Typically we give them what they want because we don’t want to be judgmental or we’re too polite to make a scene or we think that if we follow the Golden Rule, they’ll be nice in return. I think that tactic is good to try but only once. Anyone can have one bad day and try to feel better by taking control. But real bullies and boundary pushers simply take our giving them their way as permission to act more demanding. As if they think they’re powerful and everyone is too weak to resist them. Like sharks to bloody prey, they go for more. And it’s always the people who can’t or won’t protect themselves – the weaker, younger, more polite, more bereft ones – who suffer the most when we leave them unprotected.
Instead, be a witness, not a bystander. Recognize that we’re being bullied and abused. Be willing to get out of our comfort zones to take care of the important people. The first time the person bullies, we can take them aside and tell them privately, in very polite and firm words, to “shut up.” But these control-freaks have demanded their ways for years so we know what’s going to happen. Ignore their specific reasons, excuses and justifications. Typically, we give them power because we fell sorry for them, we’re too polite to make a scene and, after all, they’re family. We give them power because they’re more willing to make a scene and act hurt and angry, and walk away. We give them power because they’re willing to destroy the family if they don’t get their way, but we’re not. Take back our power. Be willing to make a scene; to disagree, threaten or throw someone out. Find allies beforehand and stand shoulder to shoulder. We may not change their behavior, but that’s the only way we have a chance of enjoying the events.
If you worry that your child will be bullied in school next school year, but you don’t know what to do until bullying happens again in September, you’re missing a golden opportunity this summer. Summer is the best time to organize in order to protect your children on day-one.
Seven tips for what you can do this summer:
Don’t wait until there’s an incident or a history of incidents.
Make sure your district administrators and school principals have clear and strongly worded policies and programs to stop school bullies. Make sure they have emergencies procedures to institute swift and effective investigation and action. Does the program start on day one? What initial assemblies will be held with students? How will they be involved in on-going programs? What training will teachers and all staff get to help them recognize and stop sneaky bullies? How will hot-spots be monitored – buses, bathrooms, lockers, hallways, cafeterias, playgrounds? What support will teachers and staff get to protect them from angry, bullying parents? How will they deal with the first boundary pushers so that the message of zero-tolerance gets out?
Learn what constitutes evidence and how to document it. Learn how to support proactive principals. Learn what you will need to do to motivate lazy, uncaring, colluding or cowardly principals. Do you know what media and legal pressure will stimulate your principal to act? Talk to a lawyer now so you’re prepared.
Publicize the policy and program before school starts. Organize parent-principal-teacher assemblies to gain buy-in to the school’s program and processes. Encourage parents to educate their children about not bullying and about what to do when they witness bullying.
Rather than buy a packaged anti-bullying program that ends up buried in a storeroom, stimulate school and district officials to create their own, based on what will be effective for your specific school situation. Expert consulting and coaching are necessary to implement an effective program.
How come none of the witnesses were willing to come forward, knowing that the principal and teachers would protect them?
A possible answer to these questions might be that there was never any bad behavior on the school bus. But that would be surprising. What was your experience on the school bus? Ask your friends.
Jones, of Lake Mary, Florida, and his wife claim that their daughter, who has cerebral palsy, had been called names and pushed around. They also claim that they had complained to Seminole County school administrators in the past, but nothing had been done to help their daughter. Jones told deputies that boys placed an open condom on his daughter's head, smacked her on the back of her head, twisted her ear and shouted rude comments at her.
The response of the school administrators is the usual, “We didn’t know; they never contacted us.” They focused on Mr. Jones’s over-reaction instead of on the alleged bullying on the bus. “Changing the focus” is a typical tactic of bullies and people trying to gloss over their failure to respond effectively.
We don’t know the facts. School bus tapes haven’t been scanned. Complaints to the school officials by the Joneses haven’t been documented.
However, I’m suggesting that in too many cases, school administrators are not proactive in creating an environment in which:
Every kid knows that bullying is wrong and won’t be tolerated.
Adults are monitoring areas in which most bullying occurs.
I’d be more likely to believe the school principal if he or she stood next to Mr. Jones on nationwide television and said things like, “Yes, Mr. Jones over-reacted, but we won’t tolerate bullying anywhere at school, we’re reviewing tapes to see if there was bullying, we’re questioning the driver, we’re instituting a strong program to educate all teachers, staff and kids that we won’t tolerate bullying. We’ll get the facts in this specific case.”
I disagree with the supposed experts who say that parents shouldn’t intervene, even if the targeted children can’t protect themselves, for example, because the number of bullies is overwhelming or because the child has cerebral palsy and can’t protect herself, like Mr. Jones’ daughter.
I think we simply have to know how to intervene more skillfully so that, when necessary, we know how to force inactive, lazy or reluctant principals to act. For example, if the Joneses had been more skillful in documenting their complaints to the school, if they really did, there would be a clear paper trail of every interaction with the school administrators, including administrators’ signatures on minutes of every conversation and the Joneses would have copies. Individualized coaching is crucial to developing this skill.
More important than psychologists’ claims that “when [parents] jump in and [intervene], it helps the kids actually feel worse because they feel less control, they feel like they can't handle themselves and they feel defenseless without the bodyguard there,” is that when children actually are overwhelmed or helpless, they know that they’re protected by responsible adults. They can learn to protect themselves better as they grow more independent.
Mr. Jones’ daughter was helpless to defend herself. The stress, anxiety and fear are greater because she wasn’t protected.
Let’s focus on the real problem; bullying on the bus, near the lockers, on the playgrounds, in the bathrooms, in the hallways, in the cafeteria and everywhere else bullies feel safe to attack their targets.
There’s a world of difference between being an active witness to bullying and abuse, and being merely a bystander.
A bystander has already decided to be an uninvolved spectator, to look the other way, to pretend ignorance if called upon.
A witness can make a tactical decision based on the circumstances – intervene now in some tactical way or speak up later.
At work, co-workers or bosses are bullies; at home, abusive parents will harass and bully one young child while lavishing goodies on the other; in addition, toxic parents will favor one adult child over another with love and inheritance on the line.
I’ll focus here on kids, but the larger implications should be obvious when you think about slavery or the Nazis or a hundred other public examples.
Often, at school and at home, mean kids will try to turn siblings or friends against each other.
For example, Charles’ friend, Brad, was relentlessly nasty to Charles’ sister Sarah. He made fun of her, called her stupid, dumb and ugly, and, even though Sarah was tall and skilled enough to play with the older boys, he’d cut her out of their games or he’d intentionally knock her down.
Charles looked on in dismay but never interfered. That was puzzling to Charles’ parents because, in one-to-one situations, Charles played well with Sarah and liked her. Yet Charles had become a bystander; he wouldn’t step up to what he knew was right.
How come he didn’t protect Sarah from Brad? Was Charles afraid that if he interfered he’d lose a friend or that Brad would beat him up? Did Charles secretly want his sister out of the way?
Without knowing the real answers to the “why” questions, the pain, shame, anxiety and stress of watching his sister tormented and the guilty laceration of his conscience finally drove Charles to choose which side he was on. He stood up for his sister and for high standards of conduct, but then he had to solve another problem; Brad was a head taller and 30 pounds heavier than he was.
In front of Sarah, Charles got in Brad’s face and told him to cut it out. If Brad wanted to be his friend and play with him, he had to be nice to Sarah…or else
Most of the Brad’s in the world would back down but this one didn’t. Angry words led to shoving and Brad grabbed Charles and threw him down. At this point Charles and Sarah’s advanced planning gave them a tactical advantage. Sarah, as tall and heavy as Charles, jumped on Brad’s back and the brother and sister piled on Brad and punched and kicked him.
As with most kid fights it was over fast. Brad got the message; he was facing a team. If he wanted to play with them he’d have to play with both of them. If he wanted to fight he’d have to fight both of them. No parents were involved and Brad chose to play with them and be nice to Sarah.
As much as the incident helped Sarah, Charles was the major beneficiary of his choice. His self-esteem soared. He had been courageous and mentally strong. And he learned that he and his sister could plan and stand firm together.
In a different situation, Ellen was popular and Allison, who was outgoing but had no friends, wanted Ellen all to herself. At school, Allison put-down and cut out anyone Ellen wanted to play with. If Ellen refused to follow Allison, Allison would get hysterical, cry and wail that Ellen was hurting her feelings. Ellen didn’t want to hurt Allison but she wanted to play with whoever she wanted to play with.
The situation came to a head during the summer. Allison wanted to play with Ellen every day. And on every play date, Allison would be nasty to Ellen’ younger sister. She’d mock Jill, order her to leave them alone and demand that Ellen get rid of her younger sister. They were best friends and there was no room for a little kid.
Ellen faced the same choice that Charles had; hurt her sister in order to collude with her friend or lose a friend and classmate.
Ellen didn’t agonize like Charles had. Ellen was very clear; colluding is not how a good person would act. However, her requests that Allison stop only brought on more hysterical anger and tantrums.
Ellen didn’t want to play with Allison any more but didn’t know how to accomplish this. When she told Allison, Allison threw another fit – hurt feelings and crying.
This situation required different tactics from Charles’ because Ellen was younger and arrangements for them to play during the summer and after school had to be made by their parents.
Ellen’ parents could have gone to Allison’s parents and told them what Allison was doing. However, they’d observed that Allison’s parents had never tried to stop her hysterics, blaming and finger-pointing at school. They’d always believed Allison’s accusations about other kids and added their blame. They demanded that teachers do what Allison wanted.
Ellen’ parents thought that raising the issue with Allison’s parents would only lead to negativity, accusations and an ugly confrontation, which would carry over to school.
They decided to use an indirect approach; they were simply always too busy for Ellen to play with Allison. The rest of the summer they made excuses to ensure there would be no play dates. When school started, they made sure there were no play dates after school, even if Jill wasn’t there. They didn’t want their daughter to be friends with such a stealthy, manipulative, nasty, control-freak like Allison.
In addition, they told Ellen’s teacher what Allison was doing and asked them to watch if Allison tried to control Ellen and cut out other kids.
Most important, Charles stopped being spectator and became an effective witness-participant. Ellen also would not remain a bystander. She made her feelings clear and her parents helped intervene. Both children learned important lessons in developing outstanding character and values.
Tactics are always dependent on the specifics of the situation. As parents wanting to help and guide your children and grandchildren, remember that there’s no one-right-way to act. The people involved get to choose where they want to start the process of standing up as witnesses and participants. You can get ideas and guidelines from books and CDs but on-going coaching, to prepare you for your “moments of truth,” is essential. You will need to adjust your plan in response to what happens at each step along the way.
Inept, unskilled or over-protective mothers sabotage their daughters.
Almost all the women who’ve interviewed me on radio and TV or who’ve called in with comments have said that their mothers told them to rise above mean girls, to be nicer and kinder to bullies, to be nice because the mean girls were being bullied at home, to feel sorry for the bullies because they had low self-esteem or to simply forgive mean girls as a spiritual thing to do.
That’s bad advice; those methods don’t stop real-world bullies and mean girls. Those mothers trained their daughters to be easy targets and victims. Those grown daughters still bear the wounds and scars of being hurt and victimized while not being allowed or knowing how to defend themselves.
In addition, some over-protective mothers said that they’re home-schooling their daughters because they were bullied at school. There are many good reasons to home-school children, but I think that’s not one of them.
Of course we don’t throw our children into deep water and risk their drowning. First, we teach them how to swim. Everything I say also relates to fathers and sons.
So what can mothers do?
If you’re fearful and protect your daughters in a cocoon, you’ll create problems for them when they grow up. Don’t make being a victim into a multi-generational problem. The fear they sense will lead them to think they’re weak, fragile and incompetent. They’ll develop anxiety and low self-confidence and self-esteem. They’ll be naïve and unskillful and, therefore, easy prey for abusers and predators in their adult love life, with friendships and at work.
Teach your daughters that the real-world has predators and also teach them how to recognize bullies. Overt bullies are easy to recognize. Also, teach them the early warning signs of stealthy, covert bullies and mean girls.
Teach your daughters how to stop school bullies individually – verbally and physically. Predators will misinterpret their kindness and offers of friendship as weakness and an invitation to abuse them more. Teach your daughters techniques of increasing firmness to get bullies to stop or to get away from them. Teach them how to rally their friends to help them.
Laws: Over 40 states have passed laws to specify school bullying behaviors and to make them illegal. That’s a necessary step. Good laws give legal leverage to principals, school district administrators and teachers who try to stop school bullies. Good laws can also force reluctant school principals to implement and enforce effective programs to protect the targets of bullies.
Programs: Laws, by themselves, will not stop bullying. Also, expensive, off-the-shell anti-bullying programs won’t stop bullies as long as the programs remain in their binders and are used merely as window dressing to show the appearance of compliance. Furthermore, programs that are focused on rehabilitating or therapeutizing bullies are ineffective. Since the only consequence for bullies in these programs is lengthy lectures, they have no reason to change their behavior and they victimize their targets more brutally. Real bullies are adept at manipulating the system and do-gooders who run it. Effective programs are designed for specific schools and school districts by participation between a consultant, principal and teachers that broaden to include staff, parents and students.
Effective Programs: The motivating force behind these programs is proactive, responsible adults who don’t wait until a flagrant case is brought to them or they are surprised by a suicide. Effective programs educate teachers and all staff to observe, intervene and report bullying situations. These programs educate all staff, children and parents about behavior that’s acceptable, how that behavior will be rewarded and how to stop behavior that absolutely won’t be tolerated.
Effective programs have clear procedures and consequences at every step of the way. Ineffective programs move much too slowly; they protect the rights of bullies to have a lengthy process of rehabilitation while they give bullies continued access to their targets. Effective programs begin with protecting the victims; they move swiftly to remove bullies even if that interferes with the bully’s educational opportunities. These programs begin the first day of school and are reinforced weekly.
People: Everyone must be involved in backing an effective program. Irresponsible adults pretend that they don’t know who the bullies are or where it occurs or they think that the Golden Rule will change the hearts of real bullies. Responsible adults will have a strong commitment to making their environment safe. The children must be taught what is expected of them and how to respond if they’re bullied or if they witness bullying. Kids must also have a way of finding help with temporary urges to act like a bully.
A critical group is parents. Principals need core groups of parents to support efforts to stop bullies, despite threats from bullying parents. Also, parents can lead the efforts to communicate and to set the tone of acceptable behavior with other parents. Vigilance and involvement are necessary to maintain the standards.
How to recognize real bullies. If you think of all students as fitting on some version of a Bell curve, you’ll see that some kids won’t ever bully while most are in the middle group – they’ll accept the prevailing tone and behave in ways that are praised or tolerated. That’s where education and a tone of no-bullying can influence their behavior.
But no matter how much they are indoctrinated, they’ll try bullying when they’re having a bad day or a bad year in their personal lives. If they’re not stopped, they’ll be encouraged to continue and they’ll even act worse. If cliques get formed to pick on scapegoats, these middle-ground kids will be tempted to join or at least to look the other way. If the individuals in the cliques are stopped and punished, kids in that middle group will tend to remove themselves from the cliques and to fit into the prevailing tone of civilized behavior.
None of the kids in those two groups are what I call real bullies. Real bullies are at the end of the curve. They come into school with bullying as their main tactic to get what they want and to assert themselves. They are predators who won’t change because of lectures and indoctrination. They must be stopped or they’ll set the tone of acceptable behavior and draw other kids into bullying and abuse.
The missing and critical elements: Stop bullies; remove them; deal with their bullying parents. The “one way” Engel and Sandstrom focus on, like most experts in this field, is to educate bullies and encourage other students to befriend and involve the bullies in inclusive activities. They stress expressions like “be good to one another,” “be kind,” “cooperate,” “relationship,” “friendship” and “bullies require our help more than punishment. These are important for everyone to hear and they can set the tone for the kids in the first two groups but they’re not enough to stop real-world bullies.
The missing elements that are critical to stop predators are swift and firm responses of adults to remove and isolate bullies, and to let parents of bullies know what is going on and what behavior will not be tolerated. Principals, teachers and staff set the tone by their actions, not their words. They show what behavior will be accepted and what won’t. Too often, principals won’t be straight forward, clear and firm with the parents of bullies. Too often, principals take the path of least resistance because they’re afraid of bullying parents who threaten law suits.
Good programs also teach children how to “defend” and “stand up” for each other. Good programs make children feel safe in becoming active witnesses instead of remaining passive bystanders or reluctant collaborators.
Real bullies are very strategic in their behavior; they harass, bully and abuse kids who the other kids won’t protect. Or, like little scientists, they’ll bully a kid once and keep score of that kid’s response. If the targeted kid is ineffective in stopping a bully, bullies will take that as an invitation to do whatever they want with impunity. They’ll continue to increase the frequency and severity of the abuse until they’re stopped.
All kids know whether the adults will protect them or if they’re on their own in a jungle in which power, not right, rules. Just as all students know who the bullies are and what areas of school are unsafe, examples of the consequences meted out to bullies will spread instantly.
Bullying is often, but not always, by older kids against younger kids and by bigger kids against smaller kids. Bullying can be physical, relational and verbal, and it’s always emotional. Mean girls are adept at gossip, put-downs and exclusion. Boys use relational and verbal abuse just as much as girls do. Boy bullies are masters of put-downs, excluding and leading malevolent gangs.
Check out summer camps and organized activities where the same kids go for an extended period of time. Usually the staff at summer camps and recreation centers is too busy and too swamped to stop school bullies on vacation. Often, staff tolerates or condones bullying. You’ll hear them say, “That’s just kid stuff. It’s a rite of passage. Kids need to learn to deal with bullying by themselves.” Oh, some staff might lecture or yell if they observe bullying and they care, but their attention will be drawn away by other concerns and the target will be left unprotected. There won’t be enough consistent oversight and you won’t know what’s going on.
Find out ahead of time if staff is trained to detect and stop bullies. Do they have a policy and training program? What specific behaviors are staff trained to observe? Have they ever sent a bully home? Do they train the kids how to witness and standup for each other. What’s the refund policy if you pull your children out because they’re being bullied? Express your concerns in writing so there’s a record.
Prepare your children to tell you what’s going on. Being a target of bullying is not their fault. Not defending themselves or not getting help will create long-lasting problems for them. Telling is not tattling. Convince them that the bullying will get worse if they don’t tell you.
If they’re sleeping over, have them send letters home, not postcards. Is there an increase in anxiety, stress and nightmares? Are they suddenly uncommunicative?
If your children are in a day activity, stay and observe it.
If there’s an incident or you’re suspicious, talk to the counselor, teacher and head of the organization in person or by phone. Follow up in writing. Don’t be put off by promises and platitudes. What concrete actions have they taken? A chat or lecture is not an action that will stop a real-world bully. Don’t accept, “Ignore it and it’ll stop.” Do bullies still have unsupervised access to your children after a lecture? The Golden Rule doesn't stop real-world bullies.
If you hear the administrators say that they’re trying to build the bullies’ self-esteem or increase their empathy, or if they think that the bully will benefit from therapy or counseling while they’re still at the activity or camp, or if they appeal to your understanding and sympathy for how difficult the bully’s life is get your children out of that place immediately. They’re more concerned with the bully than the victim. They’ll sacrifice your children in order to help the bully.
Check out supervised areas like pools and water parks where your children go but where there can be different kids each day. You have much less control here. Usually staff is focused on physical safety. You may have to go a number of times despite your children’s protests. You’ll probably have to analyze the situation and train them how to escape bullies and get help. Help them identify lifeguards who will protect them. Teach them how to elicit those lifeguards’ help.
Check out unsupervised areas like parks and malls where your children hang out. Are you afraid of the other kids who hang out there? Do your children know how to get a police officer and what to say to get that officer on their side? Are you available in emergencies?
Make sure your children go with a larger group of friends. Let them go only if you trust the group to stay together and protect each other. Of course, your children think that the most important thing in their lives is being accepted by their friends or the crowd they want to be liked by. But that’s not your primary concern. First and foremost, you’re not your children’s friend; you’re their protector and your better judgment counts.
Let them earn the privilege of going places without you in a step-wise way. When they’ve proven to you that they know how to stop bullies or to escape in a fairly safe situation, then and only then, give them a little more freedom that’s age-appropriate. Encourage them to make those steps, but don’t give in to nagging. Whining and complaining aren’t evidence of good decision-making.
Bill Cosby is right.
On a special anti-bullying segment on Larry King Live, Cosby lashed out at the bullies who tormented Phoebe Prince for months before she committed suicide. He also took on the teachers, principal and school administrators who said that they didn’t know what was going on.
For months, Prince was assaulted, pushed and shoved, called a “slut” and a “whore” and even had soft drink cans thrown at her – all in school.
The eight students involved are all being prosecuted. Already two students have been expelled from the school and other students will face felony charges in connection with their actions against Prince.
Among the charges against the teens are statutory rape, violation of civil rights, criminal harassment and disturbance of a school assembly. Prosecutors accuse the students of tormenting Prince “relentlessly” online and in school, often in plain sight of school administrators, right up until the day Prince hanged herself.
On the day Phoebe Prince took her life, one of the bullies wrote the word “accomplished” on Phoebe’s Facebook page.
Of course, many failing principals, teachers and administrators hide behind the phrase, “We didn’t know.” That shows why the most important thing you can do as a parent is often to document your contact with those supposedly responsible adults who actually won’t help you or your child.
Then they’ll hide behind the same plea that was given by the mother of one of the accused bullies, another girl, “Prince was not fully innocent and they’re teenagers. They call names.”
Can you imagine if principal Smith, standing with the teachers, superintendent Sayer and school committee chairman Boisselle before the assembled parents of South Hadley High School in Massachusetts back in August had said:
We’ll ignore this whole problem of bullying despite many studies showing that:
When we allow harassment, bullying and abuse the victims who are left unprotected by the responsible adults suffer from increased anxiety, stress, shame and depression, and low self-confidence and self-esteem for life.
Bystanders and witnesses who don’t come forward or who aren’t supported by the authorities suffer from guilt and shame their whole lives.
Bullies who get away with bullying in youth tend to become relentless adult bullies as adults, in their personal lives and at work.
We won’t have school policies that prohibit bullying or a program that trains us to recognize bullying in the school. We won’t patrol the classrooms, hallways, bathrooms or cafeteria to see if bullying is occurring. We won’t work with the police to do anything to the bullies. When incidents occur we’ll say later that we weren’t responsible because we didn’t know.
We won’t involve students in recognizing and reporting bullying to us. If we accidently hear about any bullying, we’ll minimize it and pretend its just “kid stuff.” If you tell us about your child being bullied, we’ll tell you that we’re too busy to do anything about it and we don’t want to violate the rights of the bullies.
The bullies in our school are really good kids with anger and self-esteem issues of their own. They just haven’t had good enough parenting. That excuses their behavior. We have to be more sympathetic toward them than toward their targets.
And imagine him finishing with, “Now, parents, we’d like you to hire us, vote for us and pay increased taxes to support your local school and its staff. We’re going to be your top executives but we won’t know what’s going on.” Do you imagine the parents at South Hadley High School leaping to their feet with wild applause because they thought that their children would be protected in the next academic year?
Of course I start with the bullies themselves and their parents, who turned a blind eye and will now protect their little darlings. They’ll blame Phoebe Prince for being a weakling. As if they think that what the teenagers did was okay and Phoebe should have taken it like a good victim because it was her fault.
I also say the same about the supposedly responsible adults at school who failed in their primary responsibility; creating a safe environment in which character and values are modeled by adults and in which academic learning can be maximized.
State laws and school policies are necessary, but they’re not enough to stop school bullies. The third necessary ingredient is the responsible people who are paid to make schools safe. If teachers, psychologists and counselors, assistant principals, principals, district administrators and school board members don’t create effective school programs and don’t enforce the laws and policies, perpetrators will be freed and their targets will be victimized.
According to the ABC News and investigative reporter Theresa Marchetta, Caitlin Smith was sexually assaulted in the final days of a summer program for incoming freshman at Englewood High School in a Denver, Colorado suburb. The evidence seemed clear-cut and, indeed, a court recently found the boy guilty of unlawful sexual contact with no consent.
The school had suspended him for the last three days of the summer program but what happened when school started in the fall?
The story is titled, “District Policies Fail Teen Victim: Guilty Attacker Remains in School.”
In order for Caitlin to be allowed to enter school, the vice principal had the Smiths sign a “No-Contact Notice” which reads, "You have been involved in an incident that may be criminal in nature," and suspects can not "harass, threaten, annoy, disturb, follow or have verbal/physical contact with any victim or witness in this incident.”
The perpetrator was immediately allowed back in school with Caitlin in the fall. He did not sign a No-Contact Notice and was still allowed back in school. This is despite a statement by Englewood Superintendent Sean McDaniel that, "I think that [the No-Contact Notice] would be a piece on the perpetrators side not on the victim’s side."
On Caitlin’s first day back in school, she was taken right back to the scene of the attack. "They guaranteed they wouldn’t take me down that hallway. I was freaking out, crying, upset. I didn’t want to go through, was closing my eyes,” she said. School authorities asked Caitlin’s mother to keep her daughter out of school. She reports that, "They're asking me to hold my daughter out of school and giving an education to a child [the bully] who shouldn't even be there."
To deal with such incidents, the Englewood School District has policies “which clearly states, multiple times, what happened to Caitlin was a ‘level one’ offense, ‘those which will result automatically in a request for expulsion to the superintendent.’”
When Marchetta asked Superintendent McDaniel, “Should a student be expelled or consider being expelled for having unwanted sexual contact with a student?" he replied, "Absolutely, no question. Sexual contact? I would expect an administrator to suspend with a recommendation for expulsion. Then, that would land in my office.” But he then admitted that the perpetrator was allowed to remain in school without even signing the No-Contact Notice and that now, over six months after the incident, he didn’t know what the principal was doing about the situation.
When Superintendent McDaniel was asked, “theoretically speaking, if it would ever be acceptable for a student accused of committing such an offense to remain in the population during the proceedings, he answered, ‘That’s a great question. No,’ [he added], ‘In that scenario to just to turn the kid loose back in to the student population with no requirements, parameters? No, I can not foresee a situation like that.’" But he then admitted that the perpetrator was allowed to remain in school without even signing the No-Contact Notice.
Parents and students need to know what to do after such an incident:
Don’t hide; make a fuss. Immediately go to the appropriate school authorities and the police. That’s like we encourage victims to report rape immediately.
Find and rally other students and parentswho have been harassed, bullied or abused – emotionally, sexually or physically. If any other kids excuse the perpetrator’s behavior and tell you that you’re being too harsh or if any other kids hassle, threaten or bully you, report them. Record evidence; that’s what cell phones are for. Travel with your friends.
If the authorities won’t act, immediately get a lawyer skilled in both the pertinent laws and in how to bring media pressure to bear. Plan an overall strategy and tactics.
Get an expert coach or therapist to keep your spirits up and to rally your strength and determination.
Don’t accept bullying; don’t take the blame. In most cases the girl is not a “slut” or “whore” that others will call you. It’s usually not your fault. You should know that if the school authorities won’t act, they’re the problem, not you. You don’t have to be perfect according to their standards in order for them to actively help you. Don’t indulge in self-bullying. Negative self-talk, blame, shame and guilt never help. They only increase anxiety, stress and depression, and destroy confidence and self-esteem. Don’t believe negative predictions; your life isn’t ruined and in 10 years you won’t want to be friends with your high school classmates – certainly not the hyenas who pile on.
As you can see, state laws and school policies are necessary to give principals and administrators the leverage to act safely without fear of law suits by bullying parents of school bullies. But the responsible authorities must be willing to act courageously, energetically, skillfully and effectively. When they don’t, laws and policies become scraps of paper, blowing in the wind of their excuses.
Since the principal and district administrator didn’t protect a target of such bullying and abuse, I predict that there have already been other incidents at Englewood High School and there will be in the future. Bullies are predators. They look for easy prey and they push the boundaries. Once one hyena gets away with boundary pushing – darting in, ripping off some flesh and darting back safely – the rest of the pack will pile on.
In addition to the perpetrator and his family, the principal and district administrator have a lot to answer for. I hope a public outcry focuses on them.
There are moments of choice in all our lives when we are called upon to stand up for our best dreams and aspirations. Sometimes we recognize and seize these opportunities, sometimes we ignore these moments and sometimes we don’t ever hear their call to our spirits. Each of these moments and our responses create long-lasting effects on our self-confidence and self-esteem; on our vision of the futures we want and on the dedication and determination with which we pursue our dreams.
Obviously, being subjected to harassment, bullying and abuse, or giving in to the temptation to bully helpless people creates these critical moments. And being a bystander or a witness to bullying and abuse is also one of these moments that calls out to our spirits. Will we step up and defend what we know to be right? Are we cowards or lazy? Do we know what to do? Are we skilled?
There are major long term effects on kids who are bystanders and look away or don’t know how to act effectively or who aren’t supported in their actions by responsible adults. New studies are beginning to provide public evidence, but from our own experiences we all know what the results of those studies will be.
When we see a wrong being done, often repeatedly, and when we don’t act or when no one else acts to right that wrong, we are deeply affected. When we don’t know what to do to stop the wrong our helplessness increases. When the adults and other students don’t act to protect targets of abuse, our own vulnerability and insecurity increases tremendously. Our guilt for our inaction tries to goad us to do better next time.
When we’re children, we try to make sense of the world. When we see actions that don’t make sense or that seem evil, we are thrown into confusion and fear. Naturally, we want our world to be reasonable and controllable. And we want to be protected by the responsible adults – principals, teachers, parents. When evil triumphs or wrong goes unpunished, the world becomes bleak and too many kids lose confidence in their own efforts and chances of success; we can get insecure, stressed, unassertive, discouraged and depressed, and we can give up. And we also carry a great burden of guilt, shame and negative self-talk.
Since 60-70% of school children witness bullying, the scars on a significant percent of the population can be staggering.
A key factor in every successful program is that bystanders-witnesses are rallied to support bullied targets, have been trained to be skillful in their actions and are backed by principals, teachers and staff.
Opportunities, moments of choice are precious and critical in every child’s development. Every call we spurn becomes a burden that weighs us down. The scars left by inaction when facing wrong or evil can last a lifetime and can diminish our lives. They always remain to call us to do better next time.
As Pat Tillman’s father said about his son answering such a call, “You only get a few chances in life to show your stuff. Often it’s a split second when you step up or you don’t. If you don’t step up and you should have, that eats away at a young man. And I don’t think it goes away when he gets older.” The same goes for a young woman.