Bullying is epidemic in American schools—but it can be prevented

boy pushed by kids onto ground at playground
James Collins

America is waking up to the sobering reality of our bullying epidemic.

In the summer of 1976, my days centered on avoiding Bernadette. We were
both eleven and lived in the same working-class Brooklyn neighborhood, but that's where the resemblance ended. With closely cropped red hair and a compact muscular body, Bernadette rolled her shirtsleeves up like James Dean and wore a permanent sneer on her round freckled face. I was her opposite number, a romantic bookworm with brown braids who wandered around in a near-constant daydream.

You could spot Bernadette's loping swagger and her black Keds from blocks away, which helped since I spent most of that summer on the lookout. She was determined to beat me up, and she did—an event I associate with bloody knees, ferociously pulled hair, and my copy of Marjorie Morningstar knocked into the dirt. Standing over me, she warned that next time it would go worse for me. I was determined to avoid a next time.

Slicing through the intervening decades, those three aggressive syllables—Ber-na-dette—can still quicken my pulse with fear. This kind of physical reaction makes perfect sense to bullying experts JoLynn Carney and Richard Hazler, who tell me that "A child's anticipatory stress—the intense anxiety of waiting for the next abusive event—is lasting. That's the stuff that creates the long-term trauma."

Trauma, apparently, is not too strong a word. America is waking up to the sobering reality of our bullying epidemic. Once characterized as a normal, character-building rite of passage for school children, researchers and educators today agree that bullying can create serious physical and mental health consequences for both the bully and his or her target.

One recent study found that 60 percent of boys classified as bullies in middle school were convicted of at least one crime by the age 24. Other research found that one-fourth of American students are bullied at school because of their race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation or disability. Unchecked, bullying can even escalate to the tragedies of school shootings and teen suicides, both of which have been linked to harassment from peers.

Though I'm quick to define Bernadette's actions as bullying, Carney and Hazler—associate professors of counselor education at Penn State and frequent research collaborators—are always cautious about applying that label. It turns out that bullying means something very specific to researchers in the field.

"Three signs indicate whether bullying is taking place," Carney tells me. "First, someone must get hurt. Second, the people involved must be unfairly matched, and third, the acts must happen repeatedly."

"Ten, fifteen years ago," adds Hazler, "a single event might have been considered bullying. Now we know that the repeat factor—when you're picked on day after day and nobody is stepping in to stop it—causes the biggest problems. Also, back then, bullying was thought of as big boys picking on little boys." Today's definition has "really broadened out," he explains, to include non-physical harassment, such as peer-on-peer verbal abuse (which includes teasing, threatening, and trash-talking) and exclusion from the social hierarchy of school cliques.

Sticks and stones may break my bones...

It turns out that names will hurt you, especially when they're used behind your back. "Often the kids with the highest anxiety and depression aren't the kids who are directly abused—punched or called names," clarifies Carney. "It's the indirect aggression, such as spreading rumors and marginalizing a child, that does the most damage." This more subtle form of aggression can involve the use of such weapons as rumors and gossip, sarcasm at the expense of others, silence and shunning.

If all this sounds like a more typically female style of bullying, there are some who would agree. The explosion of books and movies about "mean girls" who rule their cliques with cruelty and manipulation proves that this theme has struck a chord in American culture.

"Unlike males," write Cheryl Dellasega and Charisse Nixon—faculty members at Penn State's College of Medicine and Erie campus, respectively—"women typically forge their identities through relationships with other." Yet those relationships can be intensely adversarial. In their book Girl Wars, Dellasega and Nixon argue that "All too often girls are subtly encouraged to compete with and dislike one another through messages in magazine articles and television shows."

This form of competition and harassment, known as "relational aggression," involves the use of relationships, rather than fists, to hurt peers. Schools are starting to take this kind of emotional violence more seriously, since—as Dellasega and Nixon put it—being a perpetrator of relational aggression "may be as strong a risk factor for future delinquency, crime, and substance abuse as physical aggression." Research suggests that both victims and initiators "have a higher incidence of serious mental health problems such as depression, loneliness, alienation, emotional distress, and isolation."

Missing the signs

More insidious and less visible than a fistfight, emotional abuse can easily go undetected by school personnel. As JoLynn Carney says, "It's often what we don't see that creates the biggest problem."

In their 2001 study "Adult Recognition of School Bullying Situations," Hazler and Carney tested whether teachers and other school personnel could distinguish between bullying and "other forms of youthful play or fighting" when given fictional scenarios to read and evaluate.

The study's respondents often failed to recognize non-physical aggression as bullying. "Educators over-identified the physical signs—both whether it was bullying and how severe it was," Hazler notes. "However, they under-identified the signs of social and emotional abuse, and they completely missed the repeat factor."

The lessons of Columbine

Missing the signs of emotional bullying could have deadly consequences. Some 75 percent of the teenage perpetrators of school shootings report having felt persecuted and ostracized by other students.

The blame for school shootings has been pinned, in part, on teachers and administrators who failed to recognize and intervene in a chronic bullying situation. The infamous "basement tapes" made by Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold contain many references to their murderous rage against the school cliques—particularly the jocks—whose bullying contributed to Harris and Klebold feeling like social outcasts.

Taped shortly before the deadly attack, Harris tells the video camera that he was continually picked on about "my face, my hair, my shirts." Klebold talks about "the stuck-up kids" who "ripped" on him over the years and warns them that they're going to pay for the years of abuse he endured.

A post-massacre investigation by the Washington Post concluded that bullying at Columbine was "rampant and unchecked," due to the "cult of the athlete" that dominated the school climate. According to the report, school authorities permitted favored athletes—the nicknamed "steroid poster boys" who wore white caps to set themselves apart—to get away with physical, verbal and sexual harassment incidents without significant punishment.

Though the "bad apples" versus "victims who snapped" debate continues about the psychology of school shooters, the history of bullying in many of the cases is hard to ignore. "In most of their backgrounds," notes Richard Hazler, "is harassment for who they are and a severing of connections to other people."

boy with another boy in a choke hold
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How do school personnel distinguish between bullying and other forms of youthful play or fighting?

The rise of bullycide

Bullycide—defined as a suicide caused by bullying and depression—is a term that has entered the language to describe another worrisome trend.

In her article "Bullied to Death," JoLynn Carney argues that victims of chronic "peer abuse" run an increased risk of suicidal behavior. Carney points out that schools ("which were once believed to be secure environments") now report "over a quarter of a million students per month being physically attacked" during the school day.

"Many adolescents face being potential victims of violence in their communities, schools and homes on a daily basis," says Carney. "For some young people, those external threats create a hopelessness and depression that can lead to suicidal thoughts or actions."

The spike in teen suicides in the United States is staggering. In 1950 the rate of suicide for 15-19 year-olds was 2.7 per 100,000. "Two generations later, in 1990, "the rate had increased to 11:1; a jump of more than 300 percent." Current statistics suggest that a young person in America attempts to take his or her life every 42 seconds.

Though few would argue that bullying alone is to blame, the current literature includes many references to students being driven to suicide by peer abuse. In 2003, the journal Adolescence published a study on bullying and victimization which describes how "exposure to repeated insults and rejection by peers can generate deadly results such as suicide or homicide." Clearly, ongoing victimization can create or exacerbate adolescent depression and low self-esteem, perhaps raising the risk of a suicide attempt.

Cause or effect?

While the link between depression and suicide is well known, other connections—such as the possible relationship between antidepressants and violence—are more controversial.

A 2002 study shows a three-to-five-fold surge in children's use of all classes of psychotropic medications from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s, prescribed primarily for diagnoses of depression and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Based on numerous public reports of suicide and violent manic episodes associated with teens on SSRI drugs (a class of drugs that includes Zoloft, Prozac, Luvox, and Ritalin) the U.S. Food and Drug Administration now cautions that "a causal role for antidepressants in inducing suicidality has been established in pediatric trials." As of 2004, the agency has required manufacturers to add a "black box" warning (one step below an outright ban) on the health professional labeling for all antidepressant medications.

When 16-year-old Jeff Weise killed nine people and himself at Minnesota's Red Lake High School this spring, he joined the ranks of American teen school shooters on SSRI drugs. (Weise was taking Prozac; Eric Harris was on Luxor; other shooters were reportedly using Paxil and Ritalin.)

The link between teenage SSRI use and violent episodes is still considered very tenuous, however. Many psychiatrists and researchers are vocal about the overall positive impact of antidepressants in this age group, citing the probable number of teen suicides these antidepressants have prevented and pointing to studies asserting that the drugs are generally well-tolerated in this population.

While this debate is unlikely to be settled soon, one thing is clear, says Hazler. "Puberty alone is a significant biological risk factor. Rapid physical and psychological changes—including hormonal fluctuations that create moodiness—make the pre-teen and teen years a danger zone for volatile, unpredictable behavior."

Do anti-bullying programs work?

boys in white t-shirts in a huddle on the playing field
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The Zero Tolerance Policy has been implemented in many schools.

Since Columbine, many American school districts have declared war on bullying behavior. In response, anti-bullying programs have grown into a veritable industry, with a wide array of training materials to fit every philosophical bent regarding discipline, from the most gentle and nurturing style to the most grueling "tough love" approach.

The popular "one strike and you're out" Zero Tolerance policy has been implemented in many schools to mixed reviews. Critics point to the ever-broadening definition of "offensive and dangerous behavior" and the numerous incidents of students punished for minor or downright ridiculous charges, such as third-grader suspended because his mom packed a plastic butter knife in his lunch bag. (There's even a website—Zero Tolerance Nightmares—where families can post their accounts of the policy's misuse.)

What's more, Zero Tolerance gets a failing grade from many researchers who believe that suspending and expelling troublesome students is actually counterproductive, as it exacerbates their feelings of alienation and anger. Some also believe that there is a racial subtext to the policy, citing statistics that show disproportionate numbers of minority students—especially black males—being suspended, expelled and arrested.

Less controversial is the widely-used Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, designated a "model program" by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Developed in 1983 by Norwegian psychologist Dan Olweus, the program combines firm limits on unacceptable behavior with an emphasis on creating a non-hostile and non-physical school culture.

The comprehensive Olweus program gets results, judging by declines in student reports of bullying within schools using the system. Yet these kinds of research-based anti-bullying programs—with their kits, trainings, questionnaires and consultants—can be cost-prohibitive for the poorest districts.

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

"Inclusion is the antidote to isolation," Carney asserts, adding that "the more students school counselors can recruit to act in inclusive ways, the more the isolation will be reduced and the progression toward more extreme violence retarded."

To reduce bullying, she notes, schools must also address the problem of dehumanizing put-downs based on a student's race, gender, size, disability, or sexual orientation, among other characteristics. Empathy-building programs that give their students a "personalized understanding of the pain such abuse can cause" can reduce name-calling behavior and help students denounce slurs when they hear them.

Perhaps most critically, a successful program needs to combat the hopeless inevitability that bullying victims often feel. Victims who become aggressors "come to believe there is nothing they can do in socially acceptable ways to change the people or the system around them," Carney and Hazler note. "The turning point for their move to extreme violence may have been finalized by that feeling."

In contrast, "safe schools" are characterized by students feeling they are empowered to influence their environments. Likewise, while adults sometimes hesitate to intervene when they're unsure of the "right" action to take, Hazler says that "Creating any kind of change in the situation is better than letting it remain stagnant."

"A teacher who really 'gets it,'" adds JoLynn Carney, pointedly, "a teacher who can put him or herself into someone's shoes and truly empathize—that's the kind of teacher who can step in and make all the difference."

JoLynn Carney, Ph.D., is associate professor of counselor education and 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. Cheryl A. Dellasega, Ph.D., is professor of humanities at the Penn State College of Medicine. She can be reached at cdellasega@psu.edu. Charisse Nixon, Ph.D. is assistant professor of psychology at Penn State Erie. She can be contacted at cln5@psu.edu.

Last Updated October 03, 2005