Since the 1999 Columbine school shootings, bullying has received much media attention, but it appears more political and rhetorical than practical. After every shooting we debate lofty, complicated, and costly strategies such as school bullying programs, early intervention, new gun control laws, early identification of disturbed kids, and on and on. I believe the simplest solution has been right under our noses for decades. I’m talking about enforcing already-existing laws.
A couple of legal definitions bear mentioning: Assault is a threat of bodily harm, which is a crime and may result in either criminal or civil liability. The threat does not have to be face-to-face. Battery is a physical act resulting in harmful or offensive bodily contact with another person, also a crime. Adults are charged with these crimes quite commonly, but minors often aren’t. By prosecuting those crimes in the adult world and ignoring them in the world of minors, that stark contrast gives minors (in their thinking) an overt endorsement of those very behaviors.
Many schools now have law enforcement officers right on campus, readily available to charge people with legal offenses if they occur. What’s lacking is the information flow process that brings the awareness of incidents to the officer. Why can’t we build a school-wide reporting system (anonymous and technology-based) that gets information to these officers for every bullying offense that takes place, whether assault or battery?
From my world of mental health counseling, it’s essentially impossible to solve a problem without first identifying it.
Here are some typical traits of bullies:
- Thrive on dominance and power.
- Actually enjoy causing pain.
- Appear quite calm and are able to talk themselves out of sticky situations, which hides their bullying behavior.
- Feel excited by their bullying behavior and by the reaction of their victims.
- Possess low levels of empathy and compassion.
- Blame the students they target.
- Typically do not display anxiety or insecurity.
- Have an inflated sense of self-worth.
- Have unrealistic beliefs, such as “I should always get my way” or “Anyone who disagrees with me is out to get me.”
- May themselves be bullied at home.
Here are some general traits of victims of bullying:
- Rarely report bullying incidents out of fear it will worsen the problem.
- Don’t believe adults can help with bullying.
- Exhibit a lot of emotion.
- Get chosen last by fellow students for activities.
- Appear isolated and friendless.
- May have a learning or other disability.
- Depend on adults for emotional support more than most students their age.
And here are characteristics of passive student victims:
- Don’t invite attack.
- Are sensitive and cry easily.
- Are considered to be “easy targets.”
- Lack social skills and are shy.
- Display high levels of insecurity, anxiety, and distress.
- May carry weapons for self-protection.
- May use bribes to stay safe.
- Often are physically small for their age.
Other student victims are more provocative:
- Show high levels of distress.
- Often appear hyperactive or have difficulty concentrating.
- Pester, irritate, and provoke others repeatedly.
- Display a quick temper and will fight back.
- May be clumsy, immature, or restless.
When bullying incidents go unnoticed or ignored they also go unrecorded, meaning that, in the eyes of the law, they never happened. This is how bullies continue to get away with bullying. But when incidents of bullying – including cyberbullying – are reported, they become a legal record of what is happening. With all the recent talk about prevention and early identification/intervention, this could be a great way to start that process right in your own community.
If a minor is being bullied, contact law enforcement (in the jurisdiction where it’s occurring) and insist on legal charges; if they balk, demand an explanation or climb their chain of command. A crime should know no age limits, especially when the victims are so vulnerable.
After working with kids for an entire career, I can guarantee you that the last thing any minor wants in his or her life is a probation officer. Even the threat of that possibility will often be enough to get a bully to think twice.