By Joseph Johnson
The day was October 6, 2009 and the sun had been up for just a short while. All over the city of Joplin, Missouri, children prepared for school, while parents prepared for work. On that morning, at Memorial Middle School on 8th Street, a 13 year old student walked into the building wearing camouflage pants, a dark green trench coat and a “mask” made from an old T-shirt.
He was also armed with an assault rifle.
After firing one round into the ceiling, he then leveled the rifle on Memorial Middle School principal Stephen Gilbreth, and squeezed the trigger. The weapon mis-fired, allowing the brave principal enough time to take control of the situation and usher Thomas White out of the building.
Three years later, White received three concurrent 10-year terms on convictions for two counts of first-degree assault and one count of armed criminal action. In November of 2013 White was ordered by Judge David Mouton to be released. According to White’s attorney, the young man has since taken responsibility for actions that in his own words he describes as “stupid.”
At the time though, his actions were said to be in response to being bullied in school.
Months before Judge Mouton ordered the release of White, a 14 year old Carl Junction, Missouri boy ended his own life. By all accounts, Luke Nugent was an amazing young man with a promising future. Prior to his death, there had been reports that Luke was being bullied on his school bus, and at the school. After his mother Jessica expressed her concerns to her son’s principal, Scott Sawyer, he decided to ride the bus to see for himself what was happening. In a sheriff’s report that came out later, Sawyer stated that, “It was more like it was more of the upper class men giving under classmen a hard time, rather than singling out anyone and bullying them.”
Just how much bullying did Mr. Sawyer believe would occur with the principal on the bus? The answer to that question is moot now.
In recent weeks, two other alleged instances of bullying have occurred in local school districts. Wendy Estes reported that her 7 year old son Austin was choked while riding a Carthage R9 school bus. In Carterville, MO, 14 year old Brett Demery was beaten so badly at a school bus stop that he suffered broken bones that required surgery.
As concerned citizens, parents, teachers and school administrators, there seems to be a serious mix of playing the blame game, while avoiding accountability. I want to make it clear that it is never my intention to imply that the schools had dropped the ball in the recent events. If indeed what Austin’s mother Wendy stated is true, that the school district labeled her son’s attack as “horse play”, then there is a serious lack of accountability on Carthage R9’s part.
In a couple of previous stories I wrote in regards to the two incidents above, I received the following comments:
Karen: “My son attended Carthage schools for 8 years and was horribly bullied. We ended up moving to Joplin in hopes of a fresh start and new beginnings only to have the bullying start back up just as bad if not worse. I GIVE UP ON PUBLIC SCHOOLS and starting homeschooling my son 3 weeks ago. It is absolutely pathetic that there aren’t harsher punishments for these bullies. The physical and mental damage these poor kids go through will last a lifetime. No excuse. Wake up schools”
Sharon: “I too had a son that was in the Carthage schools and was being bullied at school!! He was also bullied on the bus, I now live in Sarcoxie and home-school all of my boys. The bullying has to stop!!!!”
They make valid points, but way too much of the blame is being directed at the schools. Here is what a teacher wrote in response to the stories:
“As a teacher, our jobs are already overwhelming with over 100 5th graders that I teach 3 subjects to. Plus all the mandated testing by the state, extra hours to meet title 1 requirements, and my own family to take care of its impossible to prevent all bullying that occurs. I wish I could.”
“When will the parents step in and discipline their own children and teach their own children NOT to be bullies? Why is it the schools responsibility to not only educate children on academics but also personal behavior? As a mom I feel like it is my job to teach my kid right from wrong and the teacher’s job to teach students math, reading, science, and social studies.”
In 2008, during one of their meetings, the Joplin R-8 Board of Education gave preliminary approval to a list of four board goals. Mixed within this list of goals were intentions to increase anti-bullying programs. Although I have never viewed it, I have had several high-school students tell me that the “Ant-Bullying Campaign” put forth by the school district is “a joke.”
I question whether or not it may be a total joke, but bullying has simply been added to the list of “don’ts” that students have shoved down their throats.
“Don’t text and drive”
“Don’t take drugs”
“Don’t drink alcohol”
“Don’t beat the crap out of someone on or off of the school bus.”
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but simply putting the word “don’t” in front of a negative behavior does little to stop it.
According to statistics one in four children in the U.S. are bullied on a regular basis, whether at school or on-line. In addition, students in sixth through tenth grade are the most likely to be involved with bullying, either as the bully, victim or both. In other words, kids who are bullied tend to become bullies. One study further revealed that out of 77% of children who are bullied, 14 % have different levels of serious reactions, including: experiencing poor self-esteem, anxiety, reduced school performance, depression and suicidal thoughts that have, too often, led to a student taking their own life.
20% of the students who participated in the study admitted that they had bullied their peers at one time or another. In addition, almost half of all students fear harassment or bullying in the bathroom at school, and as a result, will find excuses for not attending school.
Finally, the numbers indicate that children ages 12-17 believe that hey have seen violence increase at their schools.
For the past week or so, I have asked a couple dozen different children if they were aware of bullies in their schools or neighborhoods. Every single one of them said “yes.” I asked them to share examples, and the list ranged from “having their school books knocked out of their hands” to what I would consider outright assault. Most of them also stated that they believed there “would always be bullies” around.
Every one of them felt powerless to prevent it.
In Part Two of “Thugs Among Us”, we will take a look at some of the potential causes contributing to the “making” of a bully. However, before we can get into that, we should define “bullying.” By definition, bullying can take many forms. For the purpose of this story, we will focus on physical bullying.
Bullying can take on the form of hitting, pushing, tripping, slapping, spitting, stealing and/or destroying possessions, including books, clothing or lunch money. I am certain I must have left something out.
The examples I gave above, although they do fall under the bullying definition, are in all actuality crimes. However, since they involve children, they are soft sold as bullying.
A list of “why” a person decides to bully someone is vicarious a best, I mean unless we could actually spend time inside the bully’s head prior to the incident, there is no way of knowing for certain.
In February 2000, Barry K. Weinhold wrote an article entitled, “Uncovering the hidden causes of bullying and school violence” which was published in Counseling and Human Development. In the article, he states that “bullying is the most common type of violence in contemporary US society.” If you factor in the high rate of domestic violence existing in our cities today, this could mean that many young people grow up expecting that violence is an acceptable way to get what one wants.
What does a bully look like? He looks like one of our kids, because in reality, they “look” the same. However, there are characteristics that are common among children who bully others. Typically, the bully has difficulty getting along with other kids in general, and as a result, will not engage in play with them. If you observe them on the playground, they tend to isolate themselves from others, although they will often skirt the perimeter of the activities.
When the bully feels insecure for whatever reason; such as being confronted with a problem, they will often times take it out on another child. They will use either physical or verbal assaults to do this. They also break or throw things in order to have a sense of power. Feeling insecure, afraid or powerless is often a catalyst for aggression. Once they identify their negative actions with power, is is difficult for them to let go of that.
In regards to specific causes, many factors are at play. If the places that the bully frequents do not have standards in place to prevent their actions, then they will feel free to exhibit their negative behaviors. Schools, the home, parks, malls, etc must have high standards in regards to social-interaction in order to lessen the likelihood of bullying. Sadly, as I stated earlier on, the typical standard is the “Just Say No” approach.
Another factor to consider in regards to the causes of bullying is directly related to the society we live in. Negative behaviors tend to receive more recognition than positive ones. Consider the majority of the stories that appear on the evening news. Acting out causes people to receive more attention than making the right choices do, because correct responses are considered to be the “norm.” Sadly, this is increasingly becoming quite the opposite of the norm. Lack of proper skills in regards to appropriate social interaction, promotes in the child the likelihood of being a bully.
The bully’s own history can also play an important role in why they behave aggressively towards others. One factor that may be missed with a lot of frequency is the possibility that the child may have an undiagnosed learning disability. When a child experiences academic failure, especially if they are giving it their all, they become more likely to bully. Again, they are in search of some sort of “power.”
BULLYING BEGINS AT HOME
The home is either an incubator for the potential bully, or the place where it is prevented from ever staring to begin with. In regards to the home, there are several factors that may increase or decrease the likelihood of a child becoming a bully. Economics can play an important role. The reality is that some families cannot afford to provide their children with the latest gadgets or popular clothes that other children may have. This can often lead to ridicule by other kids, which may lead to the “unpopular” child becoming aggressive.This is certainly not an excuse, but it is a real factor.
Another factor to consider is the sad reality that many children today are growing up in homes that are not warm and loving. Feelings are either not expressed, or are considered to be a sign of weakness. Inconsistent discipline, or a home environment that focuses on punitive measures as opposed to positive re-enforcement, may also be a breeding ground for the potential bully.
Neglect or being bullied by adults or older siblings, may also “teach” a child that this is the acceptable way to resolve issues and conflicts. Again, it is often about power and the “give me my way or what I want or face my wrath” approach to interacting with others.
The causes addressed above are no way complete or all inclusive, the reason a child bully’s another child is as unique as the child and their situation. However, by being aware of possible causes, it is a potential tool for stopping bullying before it starts.
He was walking to his next class and was just outside the boy’s restroom, when two pairs of hands reached out and grabbed him. The two thugs dragged the 13 year old into the “john” and shoved him up against the wall.
While one pinned his shoulders against the wall, the other proceeded to punch the teen repeatedly in the abdomen. Their assault was interrupted when a 14 year old walked into the room and demanded they stop. The two bullies left the winded 13 year old, and ran out the door.
The year was 1974, and I was the 13 year old boy.
I was relentlessly bullied throughout most of my childhood and early teens. Although it did not happen very many times, there were occasions when the attacks were ended because a peer intervened.
In any given situation of bullying, there are three sets of “participants”:
1) The victim
2) The spectators/bystanders
3) The bully(s)
It would be fair to say that each one of the participants has probably been “educated” against bullying. I am certain that all of them are aware that it is “against the rules.” Much time, thought and effort has been put into creating these rules.
On December 1, 2013, Missouri Senator Scott Sifton introduced Senate Bill (SB) 560. the purpose of the bill was to modify school anti-bullying policies that were already required to be in place. Amongst other provisions, the bill would require “a process for discussing the policy with students and training employees and volunteers.” In other words, simply having an anti-bullying policy in place is not enough; taking action to assure that the folks the policy effects are aware of it, is also required.
I am pretty certain most people know that bullying is wrong. Do we really need a “policy” in place to protect our children?
On the Joplin R-8 schools website, under “safety and security” bullying is addressed. It gives some statistics in regards to bullying and shares some “signs” that may indicate a child is being bullied. It also suggests that if your child is being bullied, you should “take action.” There is really not much information though in regards to exactly what “take action” is suppose to mean. Taking action typically means little more than telling someone so they can in turn, “take action.”
Most of this “action taking” sadly occurs after the fact; perhaps while the victim is nursing their broken body.
Any action taken prior to the incident is focused on prevention, which like most “prevention” campaigns, is failing. It seems to me, that the best time for taking action is when the bullying is happening. Sadly though, the only action that usually happens then is the assault upon the child.
In order to prepare this story, I did a tremendous amount of research in regards to the causes and prevention of bullying. Most of the information was pretty redundant, especially when it comes to prevention. And based on the continued rise and intensity of bullying instances, the programs, policies and campaigns appear to be failing in their efforts.
I also spent some time talking to students ranging from elementary age to high-school. Their responses were telling. The “rules, videos and handouts are a joke” is what one enlightened high-schooler informed me, while a 3rd grader shared that “bullies don’t follow rules. That’s why they’re bullies.”
The five most common preventative/action steps I came across during my research were: 1) Teach your children not to bully, 2) Teach your child to avoid bullies, 3) Encourage your child to report bullying, 4) Encourage your child to move in groups and 5) Talk to school authorities. Again, according to the statistics, these measures seem to have little effect.
Sadly, prevention campaigns tend to be like that. We can teach fire safety, but if we see a house on fire, shouldn’t we take some immediate action?
EMPOWERMENT v. PREVENTION
I am becoming increasingly convinced that empowerment is much more beneficial than prevention, when it comes to the act of bullying. As I stated earlier, in any given situation of bullying, there are three sets of “participants”: the victim, the spectators or bystanders and the bully(s). These are the ones who will determine how the situation will ultimately play out. If we can begin to focus more on empowering the “participants”, then we may be able to stop bullying in its tracks.
Empowering the victim: This might very well be better called, “empowering the potential victim” which is basically any child. There are many ways to accomplish this, and it begins at birth. Promoting a positive self-awareness in our children will help them to develop a sense of value early in life. They will be aware that they do not deserve to be bullied. Teaching appropriate ways to assert themselves will also teach them not to become victims. Standing up to the bully has proven to be effective in many instances. This is a time when the proper choice of words are important. Saying, “YOU need to stop now!” has much more power than simply saying, “Stop” or “leave me alone.”
I also firmly believe that we should teach our children how to defend themselves if their words do not stop an attack. This is an area that tends to be skirted, especially in school or public policy. But the hard cold facts are; if we teach our child appropriate ways to physically defend themselves, then we are also potentially saving them from what are becoming increasingly brutal bullying attacks.
Empowering the spectators/bystanders: An unfortunate reality is that when bystanders see bullying taking place, they take no action whatsoever. The reasons behind their passivity may vary, including a belief that their peers may disapprove of their action, they may not really be able to do anything to help or they may become the next victim. The truth is, by doing nothing, they are in all actuality doing “something”: Making the problem worse. By watching and doing nothing to intervene, they may be inadvertently endorsing the bully’s behavior. Some will actually encourage the bully, which is also damaging.
In any given bullying situation, there are more bystanders than bullies, and there is power in numbers. And the truth is, other children are able to influence the actions of a bully to a greater degree than teachers, parents or other adults. If just one child will make a stand, others are likely to step in as well. The majority of young people disapprove of bullying and are waiting for someone to take that first step to stop it.
Empowering our children to speak up when they witness a bullying situation may very well be the difference between another child being injured or rescued. Examples of phrases we can empower our children with are:
“Stop it! That is mean!” – If your child verbalizes disapproval of the bully’s behavior, then other children are likely to agree with them and join in the intervention.
“Stop! A teacher is coming!” – Now we all know that we should not teach or encourage our children to be dishonest. But weigh the differences in potential outcomes by them making a statement that could create enough of a distraction that may break up the bullying situation. It could potentially save another child from a beating.
“Stop! You are going to get in trouble!” – This step my be just enough of a statement to remind the bully that what they are doing is against the school’s rules and may cause them to stop in order from getting in trouble. This works especially well with younger children.
“Why is everyone standing around watching this?” – Is a way to empower others to step up and take action to stop the bully’s behavior. Adding, “Let’s leave!” to the statement may also help since many bullies are encouraged when they have an audience.
Another action that the bystander can take is to provide a means of escape for the victim. Saying something like, “Let’s get out of here,” while inviting the victim to leave with the group is a very powerful way to shut the bully down, while showing support for the victim.
Children need to remember that there is safety in numbers and that most children want to stop the bully, but feel powerless to do so. One child speaking up can make all the difference.
Empowering the bully: Many children who bully others do so because they have not been taught appropriate coping skills, or social behaviors. In part two of this special report, I addressed some of the factors that “create” a bully. Recognizing the potential bully early, may be the time to intervene before their negative behaviors ever start. By reaching these children at this early stage, we empower them to make correct choices.
Empowering parents: When it is all said and done, the child’s first line of defense is their parents. Parents need to be empowered to approach school officials if their child is being bullied. And if their concerns are not being taken seriously, or appropriate action is not taken on behalf of the school, then they need to go up the ladder to the school board if necessary.
No parent should have to worry whether or not their child is safe when attending school. The method in which the parent takes action and clearly communicates to the school that they will not accept anything less than a proactive approach by the school may make all the difference. I had to deal with this a couple of years ago when my son was faced with a bully at school. I had a meeting with the school and expressed in no uncertain terms that they needed to stop the behavior or I would. It ceased immediately.
Bullying, in some shape or form, has been around since the beginning of time. Cain and Abel, although extreme, may be the first such recorded incident. On that note, the extremes to which bullying is taken vary from name calling to outright assault and battery. Sometimes, death.
A bully can rise up out of almost any family type. There tend to be different contributing factors, but catching it early does tend to slow the process down. Also, reaching out to the parents may help with healing the family.
Finally, even though there are various plans on dealing with the issue of bullying, few suggest empowerment. I believe that empowerment is the key to meeting the bullying issue head on, whenever and wherever it occurs.
I would love to hear your feed back. You can send me a message by clicking here.
This originally appeared as a series of stories entitled “The Bully Dilemma” which appeared in The BEAT.