Bullies in School Kathleen Berger 1 Bullying was once commonly thought to be an unpleasant but normal part of child's play, not to be encouraged, of course, but of little consequence in the long run. However, developmental researchers who have looked closely at the society of children consider bullying to be a very serious problem, one that harms both the victim and the aggressor, sometimes continuing to cause suffering years after the child has grown up. 2 One leading researcher in this area is Dan Olweus, who has studied bullying in his native country of Norway and elsewhere for twenty-five years. The cruelty, pain, and suffering that he has documented in that time are typified by the examples of Linda and Henry: Linda was systematically isolated by a small group of girls, who pressured the rest of the class, including Linda's only friend, to shun her. Then the ringleader of the group persuaded Linda to give a party, inviting everyone. Everyone accepted; following the ringleader's directions, no one came. Linda was devastated, her self-confidence "completely destroyed." Henry's experience was worse. Daily, his classmates called him "Worm," broke his pencils, spilled his books on the floor, and mocked him whenever he answered a teacher's questions. Finally, a few boys took him to the bathroom and made him lie, face down, in the urinal drain. After school that day he tried to kill himself. His parents found him unconscious, and only then learned about his torment. 3 Following the suicides of three other victims of bullying, the Norwegian government asked Olweus in 1983 to determine the extent and severity of the problem. After concluding a confidential survey of nearly all of Norway's 90,000 school-age children, Olweus reported that the problem was widespread and serious; that teachers and parents were "relatively unaware" of specific incidents of bullying; and that even when adults noticed bullying, they rarely intervened. Of all the children Olweus surveyed, 9 percent were bullied "now and then"; 3 percent were victims once a week or more; and 7 percent admitted that they themselves sometimes deliberately hurt other children, verbally or physically. 4 As high as these numbers may seem, they are equaled and even exceeded in research done in other countries. For instance, a British study of 8- and 9-year-olds found that 17 percent were victims of regular bullying and that 13 percent were bullies. A study of middle-class children in a university school in Florida found that 10 percent were "extremely victimized." Recently, American researchers have looked particularly at sexual harassment, an aspect of childhood bullying ignored by most adults. Fully a third of 9- to 15-year-old girls say they have experienced sexual teasing and touching sufficiently troubling that they wanted to avoid school, and, as puberty approaches, almost every boy who is perceived as homosexual by his peers is bullied, sometimes mercilessly. 5 Researchers define bullying as repeated, systematic efforts to inflict harm on a particular child through physical attack (such as hitting, punching, pinching, or kicking), verbal attack (such as teasing, taunting, or name-calling), or social attack (such as deliberate social exclusion or public mocking). Implicit in this definition is the idea of an unbalance of power: victims of bullying are in some way weaker than their harassers and continue to be singled out for attack, in
part because they have difficulty defending themselves. In many cases, this difficulty is compounded by the fact that the bullying is being carried out by a group of children. In Olweus's research, at least 60 percent of bullying incidents involved group attacks. 6 As indicated by the emphasis given to it, the key word in the preceding definition of bullying is "repeated." Most children experience isolated attacks or social slights from other children and come through them unscathed. But when a child must endure such shameful...
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