Bullies' hidden danger

End the spiral of cruelty through intervention of bystanders

February 14, 2008|By Ira Chaleff

If you think bullying is just "kids being kids," think again. It may seem like harmless schoolyard antics (although almost any bullied child would disagree), but the road that we take when we tolerate childhood bullying is a dangerous path.

How often does bullying occur? The first report issued in March 2007 by the Maryland State Department of Education, in response to Maryland's Safe Schools Reporting Act of 2005, found 2,165 reported cases in the first seven months of data collection. Many more cases certainly go unreported.

The Safe Schools Reporting Act is a clear sign that officials in Maryland - like those in many other states, including neighboring Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia - are beginning to treat this problem with appropriate seriousness. The General Assembly is considering additional legislation to create penalties for schoolyard and online bullying. Unfortunately, such bills address only procedures for investigating reported acts of bullying and punishing bullies. They are silent about what experts on bullying find most important for prevention: the actions or inactions of bystanders.

It may seem a stretch to link schoolyard bullying to atrocities such as ethnic cleansing and genocide. Yet, in her book Extraordinary Evil, Barbara Coloroso offers a convincing analysis that the structure of bullying and genocide are frighteningly similar.

What alarms Ms. Coloroso most is that her research of anti-bullying programs throughout the world showed they "had as their foundation conflict-resolution solutions" when "the problem is that bullying is not about anger or conflict; it is about contempt." In bullying, she notes, there is always an imbalance of power and the use of that power to terrorize the target.

In The Art of Followership, a book released last month that I co-edited with two professors from Claremont University, Lorna Blumen, an education consultant, shines a clear spotlight on the most effective antidote to bullying: "Research has shown that when bystanders intervene, the bullying stops in half the time. For that to happen, there must be an underlying support structure that makes intervention the norm, not the courageous, risky exception."

Bystanders, especially children, often do not know what to do when witnessing an act of bullying. Ms. Blumen gives clear examples of the language that student bystanders can use to stop bullying in its tracks. Surprisingly simple statements can be highly effective: "Stop that. We don't treat people that way here," or, to the bully's target, "He's having a bad day. Come play with us. When he's feeling better, he can join us."

For the above examples to work, however, in most cases, two or more bystanders must be willing to speak up. This is why it is necessary for schools to create a culture that understands, in Ms. Blumen's words, that "failing to intervene to stop the bullying of others makes us silent colluders."

This line of thinking about effective strategies is well supported by the famous experiments conducted a half-century ago by Stanley Milgram at Yale.

In experiments conducted repeatedly in many cultures, Mr. Milgram and those who replicated his experiments found that about two-thirds of people will inflict harm on others in compliance with an authority figure issuing the order. However, if one other person refuses to do so, the percentage drops considerably, and when two others stand up to the authority figure, according to Thomas Blass, a contributor to The Art of Followership, "only 10 percent of the subjects ended up being completely obedient."

In the schoolyard, the bully becomes the illegitimate authority figure. Two or more vocal bystanders who are not the bully's immediate target can neutralize the bully's toxic sway. The dynamics are similar online, where bullying incidents among schoolchildren increasingly occur. Onlookers such as Facebook friends can stop bullying by speaking out against it.

Obviously, we cannot police every conversation in a schoolyard or online. Therefore, developing an ethic where peers do not tolerate bullying behavior toward others is the real solution.

School systems need the time and funding to teach children how to counter bullying, and administrators need to be willing to remove bullies until the school population, adults included, is trained to deal with bullies.

They will not just be making the schoolyard and cyberspace safer for the significant number of kids that are traumatized by bullying, and who sometimes murderously snap - most infamously, but certainly not only, at Columbine High School - or commit suicide out of desperation. They will be equipping a citizenry to recognize the toxic leadership that is bullying and refuse to be silent, collusive followers.

This is especially critical for those who go into professions that are trusted with the violent power of the state. Failure to train such a citizenry sooner or later results, to our national shame, in an Abu Ghraib or the sexual abuse of a Haitian immigrant by New York City police officers. On a global level, it is the road to a Rwanda or a Darfur.

While making our schools safer and more productive, we can develop the models that educate future generations to make silent bystanding unthinkable in the face of humiliation, hate crimes and worse.

Ira Chaleff, a management consultant, is the author of "The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders." He lives in Kensington. His e-mail is irachaleff@cs.com

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