Time to get serious about bullies

March 13, 2001|By Michael Alvear

ATLANTA - Once more a high school kid opened fire on his fellow students. Once more the probable motivation for the attack won't get taken seriously by the people who could stop the violence.

There's a common denominator among the young killers in San Diego, Columbine, Littleton, Springfield and other cities: They were bullied at school.

Nothing excuses murder. Anyone who picks up a gun and kills must suffer the worst of consequences. But until we recognize the effects of bullying, we're doomed to witness more needless deaths.

It's hard for most people to see how being pushed around a little could be a factor in such a horrific retribution. After all, how bad could a couple of shoves against the locker be?

So long as adults insist on using the polite euphemism of "bullying" for the physical torment some kids experience in school, we'll never have a real chance at preventing school shootings.

When adults threaten each other, we call it assault. But when teen-agers threaten each other we call it a taunt.

When an adult hits another adult, we call it battery. But when a teen-ager hits another teen-ager, we call it bullying.

When a group of adults beat up another adult, we think it's a vicious attack. But when a group of teen-agers beats up another teen-ager, we think it's an argument that got a little rough.

I lived 25 years ago in a peaceful, white, middle-class suburb, much like the settings of so many of these tragic shootings. Yet my organizing principle in high school was avoiding harassment. I got beat up a lot, and usually for the same reason: I was different, I was physically weaker.

The abusiveness created a constant fear in me, but no one knew. The code of high school masculinity doesn't allow voices to rise when fists fly. To complain would have been mortifying, a total loss of fledgling manhood.

And who was I to complain to? The teachers who saw it but ignored it? The parents who bred a sense of entitlement into their jock sons? The coaches who prized them for their toughness?

We need to ask ourselves harder questions than how do we get better gun control laws or how do we stop Hollywood from producing so much gore. And it's men that should be doing the asking.

Why do we let our boys treat each other so cruelly? Why do we witness abuse without trying to stop it? Why don't we speak with our sons about the responsibility that comes with being bigger and stronger? Why don't we teach more respect for the smaller or the different? Why don't we let them see a kind of manhood that isn't built on violence?

By word and example, we've taught our sons that might makes right. It's time to teach something else. Burying our children cannot be an acceptable alternative.

Michael Alvear is a free-lance writer who lives in Atlanta.

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