Preaching from the bully pulpit

The ninth anniversary of the Columbine Massacre passed quietly on April 20. No one has ever been able to understand or explain the madness of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. The usual cultural villains -- guns, the media and parents -- were unsatisfactory. New demons such as Prozac and violent video games also failed. Consequently, most Columbine reforms quickly fizzled. Guns, Prozac and Playstation weathered the initial hysterica. But one cultural bad guy was discovered: the bully.

In the past, bullies were unpleasant road bumps on the road to adulthood. Now, social scientists and fiction writers (remember Stephen King’s Carrie?) suggest that bullying leads to indiscriminate slaughtering of classmates. Sometimes, the bully (for example Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech) becomes a mass murderer. More frequently, the bullied become out-of-control, blood-thirsty vigilantes. Consequently, some social scientists even proposed a Persecuted Victim Turned Killer hypothesis.

Prior to Columbine this theory was withering on the vine. After Columbine, a Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center seemed to confirm it. Its October 2000 study found that in two-thirds of the cases, shooters felt either "persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others". It strongly recommended efforts to combat bullying.

Advocates of anti-bully laws have opted for a utopian goal of schools being a mentally healthy environment. "Bullying" has been expanded to include almost any offensive social interaction.

This study became a catalyst for bully prevention despite the fact that 99.99999 percent (I could probably add a few more nines) of those bullied do not shoot their classmates. It provided a new explanation for school violence. It wasn’t drugs, gangs and poor discipline which were making schools unsafe: it was bullies. While pushing for anti-bully legislation in Connecticut, for instance, advocates cited numerous statistics. Surveys claimed that 1 out of 5 teens knew someone who had brought a gun to school; that 1 out of 3 teens had heard another student threaten to kill someone; and half of teens reported knowing another student capable of murder. Potential Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds were everywhere.

The parade of horribles did not end with violence. Medical organizations like the American Medical Association warned of long-term health consequences for bullies and their victims. Others reported that bullying was linked to depression and suicide.

All the shootings studied by the Secret Service involved boys. However, mean girls joined the parade of schoolyard brutes. Several stories in major newspapers have focused on vicious schoolgirls writing nasty notes, sending harassing emails and snubbing fellow classmates. In January, the New York Times featured a young woman confessing to her emotional torture of a peer. Earlier this year, the Washington Post also highlighted a bizarre conflict involving teenage girls. It reported that "cyberbullying" drove 13-year-old Megan Meier to commit suicide. Soon after her boyfriend Josh announced that he was breaking up with her; Megan hanged herself in her bedroom closet. Unknown to Megan, Josh was actually the creation of a family down the street with a 13-year-old daughter who thought that Megan was spreading rumors about her.

Armed with statistics and sad anecdotes, anti-bully advocates have pounced on national and local governments. Bully prevention laws have passed in several countries. Thirty-eight states now have laws against "bullying". Politicians have embraced the bully patrol as the vaccine against future Columbines.

But hard cases make bad laws. Most statutes don’t criminalize "bullying" because threats and assaults are already illegal. Since physical safety on campus is a minimal expectation, advocates of anti-bully laws have opted for a more utopian goal of schools being a mentally healthy environment. "Bullying" has been expanded to include almost any offensive social interaction. Consider the definition of bullying in the Delaware School Bullying Prevention Act, which is regarded as one the best statutes:

[B]ullying means any intentional written, electronic, verbal or physical act or actions against another person that a reasonable person under the circumstances should know will have the effect of:

(1) Placing a person in reasonable fear of substantial harm to his or her emotional or physical well-being or substantial damage to his or her property.

(2) Creating a hostile, threatening, humiliating or abusive educational environment due to the pervasiveness or persistence of actions or due to a power differential between the bully and the target; or

(3) Interfering with a student having a safe school environment that is necessary to facilitate educational performance, opportunities or benefits; or

(4) Perpetuating bullying by inciting, soliciting or coercing an individual or group to demean, dehumanize, embarrass or cause emotional, psychological or physical harm to another person.

What would be considered dehumanizing? What is emotional well-being? How do teachers and students recognize psychological harm? Teachers and school administrators must be psychologists to understand this law.

Besides vague laws, many state legislatures in the United States have saddled schools with the impossible task of tracking bullying and publishing the results. But this is no easy task. School bureaucrats are reluctant to be Number One in thuggery. Students don’t report bullying. According to the Connecticut Public Interest Law Journal, in 2005-2006 14 Connecticut schools reported no bullying incidents. Yet in a survey students from the same schools reported missing school out of fear for their personal safety. The article concludes that while anti-bullying laws may be well intended, they are vague, ineffective and only provide false comfort.

Bad laws make even worse therapy. Many anti-bully acts called for schools to adopt bully prevention programs. The laws ordered schools to use "scientifically proven" programs. Unfortunately, there’s not much science out there. The studies mainly look at physical aggression. Many schools use programs based on the research of the Norwegian psychologist and bully guru, Dr Dan Olweus.

Last year, in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine Vreeman and Carroll analyzed 26 school-based bully prevention programs. Although the authors found that 15 programs with some positive results, only 5 programs documented an actual decrease in bullying. Two programs had implemented the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program and neither showed any improvement. In 2004 Canadian psychologist David Smith published an analysis of the research into the effectiveness of bully programs. Smith discovered that 86 percent of published studies revealed that the program either had no effect or made the problem worse. Dorothy Espelage, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, notes that Olweus’s programs have not been fully evaluated in the United States whose population is very different from Norway. She fears that schools are headed down the same road they took in the 1980s to prevent drug abuse with the discredited DARE program.

Many schools rely on pseudo-therapeutic, politically correct mush. Last January, the New York Times featured a popular bully-beating program known as ''Names Can Really Hurt Us" or "Names". "Names" is a popular Oprah-like assembly sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League. At the assembly the bullied share their troubles and bullies confess their sins. But no studies have demonstrated decreased bullying as a result of "Names".

"Names" and similar programs reduce morality to mere sentimentalism. It’s doubtful that these cathartic experiences have effects lasting much longer than bubble gum. Emotions only go so far. The sentimental approach has a more basic problem. Not all of the bullied are equally huggable. Some victims may not evoke sympathy for a variety of reasons. In Connecticut, advocates used the tragic suicide of Daniel Scruggs’ to promote anti-bullying laws. But newspaper stories about Daniel Scruggs revealed a picture of a profoundly disturbed teen who would have problems connecting with anyone. Peers recalled that Daniel had a strong body odor, extremely poor hygiene and a tendency to misbehave to draw attention.

Columbine and other hard cases have led to arbitrary, unenforceable rules and ineffective feel-good programs. Still worse, the equating of emotional and physical harm can shift the responsibility from the perpetrator of physical violence to the victim. School shootings are essentially a mystery, not a foundation for anti-bullying laws. The wise men of antiquity knew that laws alone do not make men good. And something more than a maze of rules and regulations is needed to put an end to bullying in the internet age.

Theron Bowers MD is a Texas psychiatrist.


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