Life Lessons: Addressing School Bullying

Students at Irving Middle School in Lincoln, Neb.
Students at Irving Middle School in Lincoln, Neb. school class school bully bullying education
New Jersey enacted a law this past week that requires schools to appoint anti-bullying experts, and to make regular public reports on bullying incidents. A school halfway across the country is already working hard to counter the classroom bully . . . as Tracy Smith reports in our Cover Story:

"Sometimes friends can turn on you," says 12-year-old Jacob. "Middle school changes people a lot."

Jacob is trying to make sense of a situation millions of kids face every day: He's being bullied.

"She just seemed to get meaner, and she started making fun of people," he said, "and that's personally when I think the bullying started."

Jacob's 7th grade classmate Stephanie described her feelings: "All my anger builds up and I'll start calling people names," she told Smith.

"What's going through your head?" Smith asked.

"What's going through my head is that I don't like this person and I'm gonna get back at them,"

7th graders Stephanie and Jacob used to be friends, but that all changed one recent Friday afternoon during 6th period English, when Stephanie began taunting Jacob.

"She's like, 'Are you gay?'" Jacob recalled. "And I'm like, 'No.'"

"The second time I asked him he said, 'I'm not gay,'" Stephanie said. "And then I said, 'Are you sure you're not gay?'"

"And then she kept on responding, 'Well, you're gay, you're gay, you're gay!' said Jacob. "And I'm like, 'I'm not!'"

"And he yelled it really loud!" she said.

"And so she kept repeating that, repeating that, and then finally Ms. Baker looked over my way and I'm like, 'Well, she won't stop calling me gay.'"

Name calling may seem like child's play, but it isn't. This is the run-of-the-mill bullying that doesn't make headlines. It seethes and festers, and can make just going to school an agony.

Hugh McDermott, the principal at Stephanie and Jacob's school, Irving Middle School in Lincoln, Neb., feels it's important to talk about bullying and its consequences.

Compared to high-profile cases of bullying, much of the talk between students may seem like small potatoes. But McDermott says, "When it starts to affect how they feel, when it starts to affect how they are learning or not learning, then that's kind of important.

"After a time, that can really wear on a kid," he said.

It is so important that McDermott invited us to see what Irving is doing about it.

"The extreme cases that happen nationally, we don't want any kids to get even close to those points of terrible acts," he told Smith.

"Do you worry about that?" she asked.

"Absolutely. So we really were looking for, you know, what else could we do here at school to help kids?"

So McDermott allowed researchers from the University of Nebraska to study Irving Middle School students as part of their bully intervention program - an intensive, one-on-one, three-hour analysis using questionnaires, talk therapy and videos.

The idea is to catch kids early, before behaviors and reputations take hold.

"These kids are on a bad trajectory and we want to help them get off of it," said Susan Swearer, who heads the research team from the University of Nebraska and is a leading expert on bullying, designed and runs the bully intervention program.

"We hope that by working with them individually, we can give them some strategies and they can say, 'OK, there's other ways I can interact and behave toward others," Swearer said.

According to the data Swearer has gathered, which includes how many times students are sent to the principal's office, the intervention program has been modestly successful at Irving. Kids who went through the program get into trouble about half as often as they used to.

"We've kind of honed in on middle school," she said, "because the research shows that bullying peaks during the middle school years. Kids are going from their nice, you know, safe, smaller elementary schools into middle school, where they're changing classes. They have lockers, they're more independent; puberty issues are hitting. Middle school seems to be a particularly vulnerable time for kids."

Is there a bully profile? No, says Swearer. "We can't say, 'Well, they're impulsive and they're, you know, not that smart.' You know, there is no profile. So why some people bully and some people don't is very complicated."

In February, Madison and classmate Stephanie were each placed in the bully intervention program after they became known as a bullying team zeroing in on easy targets.

Madison described "a lot of drama" at Irving.

"There's this girl from last year, she would wear the same clothes day after day and have the same socks," Madison said, "and we would say … "

"… 'that's disgusting. Why are you wearing the same clothes? You're nasty,'" Stephanie said.

"And I would say, 'You're gross,'" Madison said.

After being in the intervention program, Stephanie and Madison went their separate ways.

Madison says she smiles at Stephanie once in a while - and smiles back. "She does, said Madison, "'cause, well, I told her I was sorry for what I did.'"

"You apologized to her," Smith said.

"Yeah," Madison said. "I made a new group of friends and I try, I try my hardest to stay away from bullying."

"Is there a little piece of you that misses being a bully?" Smith asked.

"It's feeling like you're powerful and you control your group or whatever." Madison said. "That's the only thing I miss."

"I'm really pleased with some of the progress that Madison has made," McDermott said. "When I say to her, 'Gosh, you know, I haven't seen you in my office in a long time,' she just beams up. And so I know that she's happy about that."

But McDermott says Stephanie is still "a work in progress."

McDermott says Stephanie's behavior has not improved, in part because she still doesn't seem to grasp what the problem is.

"I'm not sure yet that she wants to change who she is," he said.

Smith asked her, "How does it make you feel to know that parents are so worried about their kids, what you're doing to their kids, that they called the school to complain?"

"I don't find it right because I don't threaten kids that bad," Stephanie said.

"That bad? If kids are scared of you … come on, this is the first time you're hearing that kids are scared of you?"

"Uh huh," she said. "'Cause they're always like, 'I'm not scared of you.'"

"But what are you saying to kids that they would turn around and say 'I'm not scared of you'?" Smith asked.

"Like, 'I'm gonna beat you up.' Like when I say that to them, they'll be like, 'I'm not scared of you.'"

"Maybe they're not telling the truth," said Smith. "Here's the thing: If you call people names, if you threaten to beat them up, doesn't that make you a bully?"

"Yeah," she said.

But Stephanie's mom, Sue, isn't so sure.

"Stephanie, you know, really isn't that bully that people label her as," she told Smith.

"What do you think she is?" she asked.

"Oh my gosh, I don't know . . . A sassy, sassy smartass little girl, you know?" Sue laughed.

"I get the sense that there's a little piece of you that's kind of proud of her."

"Exactly," said Sue. "You have to stand up for themselves, you know? In society, really, I don't think anybody would really pick on her."

McDermott said, "I think mom is learning a lot of things along this journey, and I think she'll discover that there are other ways that Stephanie can be proud of herself and stick up for herself without hurting people physically or verbally."

While physical bullying can be scary and scarring, researchers say it's verbal bullying that can cause lasting wounds.

And one word in particular is especially hurtful.

"We found that the kids who were bullied because other kids called them gay had higher levels of anxiety and depression and a more negative view towards school and really felt ostracized," said Swearer.

"Jacob had to basically declare his sexual orientation to class the other day," said Smith. "He's just a kid. He's a middle schooler."

"Well, there are a lot of good supportive kids, friends of Jacob, that will come to his rescue and I think he'll do fine from the aspect," said McDermott.

"He says he's fine now," said Smith.

"Yeah. And I hope I can believe him."

"So, you're going to keep an eye on him?"

"I'm going to keep an eye on every single one of these kids," said McDermott.

Stephanie said that if the bully intervention program were to go away, she believes there would be "so much more bullying."

So it's making a difference - just maybe not for her? "Yeah," she agreed.

When asked if he thinks Stephanie can be helped, McDermott said, "Yes, I think she can. There are times when I've had discussions with Stephanie that I see glimmers of hope that I think, yes, she's starting to understand this. And then the next day, she does something and I'm back at square one."

Still, he says, until something better comes along he's sticking with the bully intervention program at Irving Middle School.

"If this works for one kid, I mean, that's a success," McDermott said.

Whether in the schoolyard or principal's office, taking on bullies one at a time may be the best approach.

But that means this fight is far from over.

When Smith asked Jacob if he thinks bullies will ever go away," he replied, "I think they're here to stay. But I just kind of wish that they didn't exist, because there's no really reason for them to exist. But they just do."

For more info:
Bullying Research Network, University of Nebraska