When bullying happens before our eyes

Our Choice: Be Part of the Agony, or Part of the Answer
By Paul Coughlin,
Oregon author of No More Christian Nice Guy

“If you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t.  You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck.” ~Jesus (Mark 9:42 THE MESSAGE)

Now it’s time to turn our attention to the theater’s audience.  We tend to micro-focus on bullies and who they target without considering that most bullying wouldn’t take place if not for the captive audience that both feeds a bully’s ambitions and also sometimes becomes his accomplices.

They are the bystanders, the coat-holders who, by failing to act courageously, provide bullies their tacit approval.  Again, by and large, victims are most children’s second-least-favorite classmates (after bullies).  The bystanders don’t yet realize, though, that coming to the aid of classmates is also a tangible act of self-protection (from potential later violence).  Worse, many of them actually encourage tormentors to punch harder and longer, to write another humiliating line in an instant message, or to write one more rumor in a notebook.

This standby audience is also comprised of instructors, administrators, Sunday school teachers, coaches—anyone who deals with youth and who, like me, have struggled to figure out what to do when one kid tramples another.  As you’ll note, our track record is pretty ugly.

When bullying occurs, where are the many children of faith?  Statistically, they are absent.  Or more accurately, given the clear moral foundations of major religions, they are missing in action.  They are failing to defend the weak and confront injustice.

Where are the millions of adults who read The Purpose-Driven Life?  Why don’t they contribute their strength and protection to bully victims?  Did they skip over Day 20 of the book?  “Peacemaking is not avoiding conflict.  Running from a problem, pretending it doesn’t exist, or being afraid to talk about it is actually cowardice.  Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was never afraid of conflict.  On occasion he provoked it for the good of everyone….Peacemaking is not appeasement.  Always giving in, acting like a doormat, and allowing others to run over you is not what Jesus had in mind.”  (Day 20, The Purpose-Driven Life, 153.)  As we’ll see, they’re missing in action because so many people of faith think it’s wrong to do conflict.  Being bold and courageous on behalf of others is not part of their spiritual training.

Remember that about 85 percent of all school-based bullying takes place in front of other kids—that gives bullies the emotional high and ego stroke they’re seeking.  Most bullying would not take place if it weren’t for the display of power they want others to witness.

Bystanders vastly outnumber both predators and prey.  Yet once more, research shows that most do not intervene.  This is particularly unfortunate because, according to Focus on the Family, school “policies encouraging bystanders to get involved when a child is being bullied—either by standing up for the child or by telling an adult—have proved to be effective.”

The reason for their lack of intervention comes down to basic human nature.  The indifferent, confused, and/or fearful masses who witness bullying are urged from within not to be courageous and protective but to shrink instead.  In all my research regarding what bullying does to kids, not one group or facility has tried to quantify how cowardice impacts bystanders.  This remains one of the most under-examined and probably damaging aspects of bullying.

Not only do the masses fail to stand up for those who need help, they too often give into a depraved temptation to join the bully in the quest for humiliation.

In a binder called a “Slam Book” that circulated in a Toronto classroom (these make the rounds in U.S. schools also), each page bore a malicious heading: Who’s the Stupidest.  Who’s the Ugliest.  Who’s the Most Unpopular (and so on).  Almost all the girls in the class nominated another person, which had a heavy impact on the kids being named.  Most of these girls were really “nice” kids, which again highlights a major point: Nice does not equal good.

Eight of the ten students involved would never have taken part in publicly humiliating their fellow students on their own.  Because of peer pressure, the temptation to make another look and feel smaller than them, and the lockstep importance of belonging to a group, they engaged in immense cruelty.  Like most children (including churchgoers) when it comes to bullying, they lacked the ability to do the right thing when others were doing wrong.  They lacked moral courage.

According to the Secret Service study of school shootings,

Those who knew in advance sometimes encouraged the attack and sometimes urged an escalation of the plan, but only rarely told anyone or shared their concern with others before the attack.  In about one-third of the cases, the attack was influenced or dared by others or a group.

These cannot be described as “innocent bystanders,” one of our language’s most ironic euphemisms.

Public schools frequently receive unfair criticism, some of which is outright wrong and some even on the level of a hoax.  For example, you may have heard about a survey that supposedly compared the major concerns of teachers in 1940 with those at the end of the century.  The 1940 list included, for example, talking, chewing gum, and running in the halls; contemporary concerns were drug abuse, pregnancy, suicide, assault, and so on.  This “survey” appeared in magazines like Time and Newsweek and newspapers such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

When Barry O’Neill, a professor at Yale University, investigated the origins, he collected more than 250 different versions of the claimed surveys and eventually traced them to T. Cullen Davis of Fort Worth, Texas.  Asked how he arrived at the lists, Davis told O’Neill, “They weren’t done from a scientific survey.  How did I know what the offenses in the schools were in 1940?  I was there.  How do I know what they are now?  I read the newspapers.”  Although the lists were exposed as a hoax in 1994, they continue to be cited as factual.

As already mentioned, public schools are unfairly expected to clean up after our culture’s abdication of parental responsibility, which is endemic.  Yet studies also show that when it comes to bullying, school officials are nowhere near as alert and proactive as they like to believe.

Dr. Debra Peplar documented more than four hundred episodes of bullying at public schools, lasting an average of thirty-seven seconds.  Teachers noticed and intervened in a paltry one out of twenty-five episodes.

In a similar study, 91 percent of teachers who admitted there was bullying in their classrooms dismissed it as minor.  One-fourth confided that it was helpful sometimes just to ignore bullying.  A study of victimized children in Norway confirmed that teachers seldom take action; up to 60 percent of victims reported that teachers rarely, or never, put a stop to bullying.  In Canada, Peplar found that only 35 percent of students reported teacher intervention, yet 85 percent of teachers insist that they intervene nearly always or often.

Do you see why students are afraid to speak up?  They perceive adults as uncaring or unable to provide protection.  They are witnesses to the well-documented tendency of teachers to underestimate the prevalence and severity of bullying and to ignore it when it occurs.  “Who, after all, is going to take the solitary word of a child demeaned by peers, disregarded by teachers, and possibly also by parents?”  Especially parents who overemphasize compliance in their kids?  As these children already have no real allies among their peers, it’s safe to conclude that many of them believe that God doesn’t care about them either.  Why would He, if no one else does?

In one amazing thirty-seven-minute episode where a child was repeatedly kicked and thrown around by two kids, the victim was willing.  “What’s so strange to me,” complains Peplar, “is that he stays in it.  There are lots of opportunities for him to get away.  At one point a teacher even approaches and tries to break it up, and all three of them say, ‘Oh no, we’re just having fun.’”  Experts say one possible explanation is that victimhood is better than anonymity; that is, for some, being picked on is preferable to not being noticed.

Just how much can we expect a teacher or school employee to protect a child who is unwilling to even try to protect himself?  We as a society cannot expect teachers to make up for such a severe lack of self-respect.  The responsibility for such faulty thinking rests with parents.

Regarding teachers’ failure to intervene, some complain to journalists that they worry about legal repercussions from out-of-control parents who create bullies.  As a coach, I’ve had to contend with this as well; one mother threatened to sue me when I dealt with her bully boy.  I felt sorry for the teachers unfortunate enough to have him in their class.

But I think the main reason teachers and administrators often don’t notice bullying is entirely straightforward: they witness so much of it that they become desensitized.  Authority often sees the shadow of bullying but not the act itself.  What I usually see or hear when bullying is going down is an out-of-place body movement, an oddly timed snicker, a strange facial expression.  I often don’t see or hear the actual thing—I see or hear its ill-defined consequences.  I see a kid in pain but don’t know for sure its source.  I possess no solid proof.  And he’s not likely to talk about it when I do follow my intuition and ask questions.  It can take well over half an hour to get to the bottom of the issue, to put enough pressure on a team to find out what really happened.  And, like a teacher, I don’t have thirty minutes to spend.

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