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We Need to Take Bullies Seriously

I'm relieved that a poster at the Catholic elementary school where my oldest grandchild is a first-grader declares that the school does not tolerate bullying. But I'm also distressed by how much has changed since I attended the same school in the 1950s.

Bullying is nothing new. What is new is our realization that not only do sticks and stones break kids' bones, but that names also do hurt. Bullying does not respect the fact that we are all created in the image of God.

The 1999 killing spree at Columbine High School in Colorado and too many other incidents before and since have shown us that victims of bullying sometimes retaliate in a deadly manner.

The problem is so serious that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Web site ( lists bullying as a risk factor for youth violence. One third of high school students who responded to a 2002 CDC survey were in a physical fight in the previous 12 months, and six percent carried a weapon during the previous 30 days. In 2000, the second leading cause of death for children 10 to 14 was suicide and the third was homicide. Those are reversed with 15- to 24-year-olds.

"Research has shown that bullies whose behavior is not corrected during childhood often become criminals as adults, and that victims who fail to find relief frequently experience depression and severe drops in self-esteem that can negatively impact their later years," writes Peter Sheras, Ph.D., in Your Child: Bully or Victim? Understanding and Ending Schoolyard Tyranny.

Sheras, a clinical psychologist who develops and evaluates intervention programs, was victimized in elementary school. He and numerous experts stress zero tolerance and explain why we can't ignore bullying behavior. "Study after study has demonstrated that ignoring a bully is likely to lead to an increase in the level of violence," says Sheras.

Walk, Talk and Squawk

Not every conflict between students is a case of bullying, and teasing is more playful in nature than bullying.

The American Academy of Pediatrics Web site ( defines bullying as "a form of aggression in which one or more children repeatedly and intentionally intimidate, harass or physically harm a victim who is perceived as unable to defend himself or herself."

It's not just boys who bully, explains AAP. Boys are more often the targets and perpetrators of aggressive, physical bullying whereas girls are more often the targets and perpetrators of passive bullying, such as gossip and social isolation. Today's perpetrators often use Web sites to spread malicious rumors and damage the names of their targets.

Bullies "have a strong sense of power and domination," says AAP. "They are rewarded by prestige and material goods coerced from victims." Victims, on the other hand, "are more insecure than most children. They tend to be physically smaller and weaker, and are often cautious, sensitive and quiet."

To help children respond to bullies, AAP encourages parents to teach their kids the phrase, "walk, talk, squawk."

Walk away from the scene. Don't hang around for more abuse. Don't run away terrified, even if you feel that way.

Before walking away, talk briefly and calmly to bullies, projecting an air of being strong.

Squawk to a teacher or parent. Don't keep it bottled up inside.

Recognizing the Damages

The National Education Association's Web site ( reminds parents that "behavior patterns begin at home." At an early age, parents need to teach their children good communication and social skills. "From the time children learn to talk, parents can have a running conversation with them about how their day went."

Then when the children go to school, says NEA, ask about and get to know their friends. Volunteer at functions that involve your children.

NEA advises parents to know the bullying policies at the schools their children attend, and to report and keep records of any incidents.

Targeted students experience much fear, especially when going to school, using the school bathroom or riding the school bus. In addition, they often show physical symptoms of illness and their ability to learn is diminished.

Bystanders are affected, too. They feel angry, helpless, fearful and guilty. Bystanders often experience nightmares about being the next target.

One study shows that bullies are at a greater risk of committing suicide than are their targets, notes NEA. In addition, bullying behavior often escalates into sexual harassment or criminal activity if it isn't stopped.

"Bullies often grow up to perpetuate family violence," says NEA. "Self-examination would be a wise course for a parent whose child has been accused of bullying behavior," because some parents are themselves guilty of bullying behavior toward school personnel and their own children.

Teaching Respect

Although much of the professional advice is aimed at parents and educators, we are all responsible for the example we set. Jesus said, "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea" (Matthew 18:6).

If most of what children see in the media teaches violence as a means to resolve conflict, we need to show them how to get along with others. We may not completely cure the "disease" of bullying, but we can greatly reduce incidents by not ignoring them.   —M.J.D.

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