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The Problem WIth Bullies

By Sean Stewart Price | February 9 , 2004
(Photo: Paul Seheult; Eye Ubiquitous/CORBIS)
(Photo: Paul Seheult; Eye Ubiquitous/CORBIS)

By sixth grade, Karen had experienced her share of hardships. She had just been adopted by a family in Chattanooga, Tennessee, after spending six years in foster care. Naturally shy and quiet, Karen also struggled with a slight speech impediment. She had only one good friend.

All this made Karen (not her real name) an easy target for a bully. Her tormentor, a popular girl at school, loved to taunt Karen about the way she spoke and about her home life.

"She made fun of the fact that I was a foster kid and that my mother didn't take care of me," says Karen.

Sometimes the abuse was physical. The bully might shove Karen, or throw one of her shoes in the toilet. Even after the other girl received several suspensions and detentions for her bullying, she refused to give Karen a break.

Millions of U.S teens understand what Karen went through. A 2001 study by the National Institute of Children's Health and Human Development found that more than 16 percent of students in grades 6-12 say that they have been bullied. Nineteen percent said that they had been bullies themselves.

It's not just the victims who are hurt by bullying. Another study found that 60 percent of bullies in grades 6-9 will be convicted of a criminal act by age 24!

At one time, bullying was considered just a natural part of growing up. Today, authorities see it as a serious health crisis. It is estimated that bullying keeps 160,000 kids out of school each day.

What Is Bullying?

Bullying takes many forms: gossip, snubbing, put-downs, threats, and violent attacks. Its roots lie in the difference of power between the bullies and their victims. Bullies tend to be confident, impulsive (acting on the spur of the moment), and popular. Victims tend to be withdrawn and have few friends. Many bullies come from homes where they are neglected or abused. Bullying allows them to exercise power that's denied to them at home.

Boys and girls bully differently. Boys tend to use threats and physical violence. Girl bullies rely more on backbiting (cruel comments), social exclusion, and spreading false rumors. Cyberbullying, a new form of harassment, allows bullies to humiliate their peers with e-mail and blog postings.

For victims, being bullied damages self-esteem. Bullying expert Marlene Snyder says that fear of bullies also makes class time much more trying for the victims. "They're sitting there trying to survive, not being able to really learn," she says.

Karen, now a 14-year-old eighth-grader, says that was her experience. "I hated going to school," she told Junior Scholastic.

Karen's frequent complaints about the bullying finally brought her some relief. She and her tormentor were given separate class schedules for eighth grade.

Karen believes the other girl may have been threatened with expulsion. Whatever happened, the bully now ignores Karen. Life is easier to handle. And yet the bullying has left its mark.

"School's still stressful," Karen says. "I'm always on the watch to see who's coming toward me."

Stopping Bullies

In recent years, many schools have implemented effective antibullying programs. Denny Middle School in Seattle, Washington, launched such a program last September. Already there have been signs of progress. Last December, Craig Little, 13, saw a new student being taunted by a group of fellow seventh-graders. The lead bully wouldn't let the boy pass.

Instead of standing by, Craig acted. He said, "You guys leave him alone, and let him go." Craig then escorted the boy away from the group. The lead bully and the new student have since made up. "I talked to both of them [later], and they're all right with each other," Craig told Junior Scholastic. "They're kind of becoming friends."

This article is reprinted from Junior Scholastic, February 9, 2004.

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