Recent research is teaching parents, professionals, and teens a lot more about bullying. The spate of recent suicides (bullycides) has caused more schools to take it seriously and help all of us recognize that bullying is not conflict between two individuals that can be resolved with improved communication, but is instead a deliberate campaign of intimidation and terror to injure an individual who is the target.
One unfortunate and little known outcome of bullying is that often the bullied rather than the bully ends up in trouble. Some of the bullies are very good at carrying out their harmful campaign in secret and looking like model students in public.
Barbara Coloroso, internationally known bullying expert, addresses this phenomena in her excellent book, The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander. I instantly recognized her description because I witnessed it in a juvenile offender mediation I led last year.
A young girl, a recent immigrant from Mexico, had punched another girl in the face, and was sent to juvenile court and referred for mediation. I led a mediation between the girl (labeled the offender), her mother, who spoke little English, and the mother of the other girl (labeled the victim).
As the girl offender and her mother spoke when it was their turn, they revealed the very pattern Coloroso discusses in her book.
A group of girls led by the “victim” had teased, tormented, and verbally taunted the other girl over and over. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore and hit the ringleader. She was instantly in serious trouble with school authorities, while the girls who verbally tormented her were not.
Now, violence is never a good solution, but the blow the girl struck was not seen in context as the culmination of a deliberate campaign of intimidation and provocation by the other girls.
As the girl’s mother expressed with great bitterness and anger, she tried repeatedly to meet with the principal and get him to address what was happening to her daughter. But, either because of her poor English or because the principal didn’t understand the seriousness of verbal/emotional bullying, he did nothing, and the situation continued to escalate.
The mother of the other girl didn’t see that her daughter had done anything wrong, and she could afford to ignore it, since her daughter wasn’t in trouble.
In the mediation, we listened to everyone respectfully, which was helpful to the girl who had been bullied and to her mother. Through community service and an apology she was able to clear her record. But, these new immigrants certainly didn’t see much fairness in our juvenile justice system.
And, the message to the other girl and her clique was that they “got away with” the bullying, and could do it again. This acceptance of bullying can be just as destructive to teens’ future well being and success as being a victim.
It is important for parents, family mediators & therapists, teachers and school officials to learn how to recognize, understand, and intervene in the whole bullying cycle, so we can make our schools a safe place for all teens and younger children.