Probing Question: Can school bullying have deadly consequences?

Once characterized as a normal, character-building rite of passage for school children, school bullying is under renewed scrutiny by today's researchers and educators. In the seven years since the tragedy at Columbine High School, there have been more than twenty school shootings in the United States that resulted in death or serious injury. Does school bullying play a role in these tragedies?

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Without a doubt, says JoLynn Carney, associate professor of counselor education at Penn State. Bullying is rampant, with "schools now reporting over a quarter of a million students per month being physically attacked during the school day," says Carney. More insidious and less visible than a fistfight, emotional abuse can easily go undetected by school personnel, she adds. "It's often what we don't see that creates the biggest problem."

Studies back up Carney's assertion. A Secret Service report published in 2000 on fatal school shootings since 1974 found that more than 75% of all school shooters had experienced ongoing peer bullying. According to the report, the attacker often had felt "persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured before the incident. Many had experienced longstanding and severe bullying and harassment, which some attackers describe as torment."

Many experts agree that educators bear some responsibility for the school conditions that set the stage for deadly violence. In her 2001 study, "Adult Recognition of School Bullying Situations," Carney and colleague Richard Hazler tested whether teachers and other school personnel could distinguish between bullying and "other forms of youthful play or fighting."

They found that—while signs of physical violence were easier to spot—"evaluators under-identified the signs of social and emotional abuse, and they completely missed the repeat factor." A post-massacre investigation of Columbine High School concluded that bullying there was "rampant and unchecked," due to the "cult of the athlete" that dominated the school climate. According to the report, school authorities permitted the athletes to get away with physical, verbal and sexual harassment incidents without significant punishment."

Suicide is another deadly consequence of school bullying. In her article, "Bullied to Death," Carney argues that victims of chronic peer abuse run an increased risk of suicidal behavior. "For some young people, external threats at school create a hopelessness and depression that can lead to suicidal thoughts and actions." Many of the school shooters in recent high school attacks killed themselves as well as classmates, reminds Carney.

In response to the epidemic of bullying in American schools, educators are becoming increasingly committed to breaking the pattern of peer violence among students. Bullying prevention programs, such as the popular Zero Tolerance program and the Olweus program (created by Norwegian psychologist Dan Olweus) are being used in schools hoping to put firm limits on unacceptable behavior while creating a non-hostile school culture.

But breaking the pattern of exclusion for "social outcast" students "doesn't take a brilliant or expensive new school program," say Carney and Hazler. "What it does require," they maintain, "is for adults and peers to become actively inclusive towards others in general and particularly to those who have been marginalized."

If bullying is the tinder that ignites into violent revenge among outcast students, "inclusion is the antidote to that isolation," concludes Carney.

JoLynn Carney, Ph.D. is associate professor of counselor education in the College of Education. She can be reached at jvc15@psu.edu. Richard Hazler, Ph.D. is associate professor of counselor education and coordinator of the elementary school counseling program. He can be contacted at hazler@psu.edu.

Last Updated October 23, 2006