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Forum on "Understanding Bullying"

Professor says youngsters are "meaner than ever before"

June 10, 2010
NORTH CONWAY — Today's children are meaner than any other time in American history, according to a University of New Hampshire professor who helped write the state's new anti-bullying law.

Dr. Malcolm Smith made the claim at a UNH Cooperative Extension forum called "Understanding Bullying" held at the Red Jacket Mountain Resort in Conway on June 2.

The audience of 89 people consisted of school personnel, family support, social service, and parent education professionals.

"I'm not just being cynical when I say that (children are meaner than ever before)," said Smith. "I'm looking at the research; we are losing civility among our young people."

This is even happening at UNH. Last year, about 40 students walked past a man who was being savagely beaten without doing a thing, said Smith. In 85 percent of bullying incidents, no one intervenes.

Smith, who has 30 years of experience dealing with child anger and violence, is considered to be a "national expert" on the issue of bullying. Smith has investigated many of the school shootings that have taken place around the country. In fact, his childhood best friend was gunned down in a school shooting in 1991 soon after she began a teaching career. The boy who shot her had been severely bullied at another school. Apparently the boy mistook her for a student. On several occasions, Smith said his friend's memory is what motivates him in this field. Smith said he was also bullied as a child —in high school other students called him "farm trash" because he grew up in rural Kansas. Difficulty with the bullying led him to under perform in school causing him to attend special education classes. Students in special education were often called "Speds," he said.

Today, bullying is a preventable epidemic, but the trend is currently going in the wrong direction, according to Smith. In the United States, a child is bullied every seven minutes. About 86 percent of 12 to 15 year olds have experienced some form of bullying. More than 55 percent of students age 8 to 15 say bullying is a bigger problem than drugs, racism, and HIV. Girls are becoming more violent more quickly. For girls, bullying peak used to happen in seventh grade, now the first spike is in the fourth or fifth grades. Girls are also getting into more fights.

"There is no bit of information in this material that has not been grounded in three reliable sources," he said.

Smith hopes the new state law, HB1523, will help stem the tide of physical and emotional violence in New Hampshire schools. HB1523 goes into effect on July 1. Previous to this new law, the state has never had a legal definition for bullying. However, the federal government required schools to have their own bullying policy in order to receive funding.

HB1523's definition of covers all the bases that one would expect. It says bullying can be a single incident or pattern of behavior that would cause physical harm or emotional distress to a pupil. It goes further to include actions "motivated by an imbalance of power based on a pupil's actual or perceived personal characteristics, behaviors, beliefs, or motivated by a pupil's association with another person and based on the other person's characteristics, behaviors, or beliefs."

In addition, the new law requires school officials to notify the parents of the bully and the victim about an incident within 48 hours — unless that wouldn't be in the best interest of the victim. Then the law outlines the procedure for an investigation. Substantiated bulling incidents are to be reported to the New Hampshire Department of Education on an annual basis, according to the law.

"Where bullying is concerned, you are better protected in your workplace than our children are until this is enacted," said Smith.

Bullying can be devastating, said Smith. The bullies themselves end up leading antisocial lives and are more likely to be involved in crime and substance abuse. Victims are at a higher risk of depression, post dramatic stress disorder, and suicide. The scars from being bullied can last over five years, said Smith. Worse, some bullying victims lash out.

For example in 1997, Luke Woodham then a high school student, killed two people and injured seven more in a rampage at Pearl High School in Mississippi. Woodham was also convicted of killing his mother.

When Smith came to the school to investigate the killings, he learned that Woodham had been severely mistreated by his peers prior to the shooting. As examples, Smith said Woodham was teased for having bad acne and at an assembly football team members pulled down his pants and underwear in front of the entire school. Shortly before the rampage, Woodham went on his first date — then learned that the girl went out with him on a dare.

His mother was also mentally unstable. Two nights before the shooting, Woodham's mother was running naked through the trailer park where they lived at 3 a.m. One teacher said she saw Woodham crying one day, but she was too busy preparing for a school assembly and other things to think about helping him.

"None of those things matter when they had children laying dead on the floor," said Smith, who added that retaliatory bullies are the most dangerous.

Community members must learn to work together if the cycle of bullying and retaliation is to be broken. The first step is combating myths. Among the most important myths is that bullies lack self-esteem. In fact, they tend to be popular, narcissistic children of privilege who use their social clout as a weapon. However, bullies are motivated by fear of not being attached to loved ones or peers, said Smith. For example, a bully may act out based on fear of losing a parent to divorce, alcohol, or a job. Or their family may offer material wealth but not much love.

The shooters in the Columbine massacre were ignored even as they created a Web site that listed 48 teachers they intended to kill. Prior to the killings, the murderers broke lots glass bottles in the middle of the night in order to make shrapnel — again no one bothered to ask what they were doing.

Victims may be singled out because of their appearance, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or other thing that makes them different.

Smith also blamed the media for helping to create a violent culture. In particular, he singled out the Grand Theft Auto video games and the Tomb Raider film series — Tomb Raider promotes violence to females.

The most effective way to deal with bullies is to teach them empathy — which requires three steps. The first step is to make the bully admit what they did was wrong. Second, the bully has to explain how they should have conducted themselves and how they will act in the future. Third, the bully must atone to the victim, which involves doing a good deed that will serve as restitution.

These steps may have to be repeated up to eight times, but eventually the message will get through to the bullies, according to Smith.

The parents of bullies were probably bullies themselves. But, like alcoholics, parents of bullies don't want their children to follow in their footsteps. Smith said educators should approach the bully's parents gently. The teacher should begin by saying something like: "I'm worried about your child's behavior."

Generally, parents want what's best for their children and they will respond. However, if they don't the juvenile justice system should come into play, said Smith.

Governor Wentworth Regional School District School Board member Diane Drelick, of Effingham, said she liked Smith's ideas about the balance of power and also said she liked the advice he gave parents. Drelick works in the juvenile probation system.

Parents of bullied children need to be supportive and listen to what the children have to say. They should also come up with a plan to deal with the bully together. In the meantime, the bullied child needs to be assertive with the bully, but physical retaliation should be avoided, said Smith.

Garnett Hill
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Martin Lord Osman
Garnett Hill
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