Stopping the cycle of bullying

The playground scene haunts me still. Kathleen stood in the middle of a circle of chanting children. Her eyes were wide, haunted. Her body was taut.

The chorus was loud. “I can see London. I can see France. I can see somebody’s underpants.”

We all knew the ditty and used it when a boy’s trousers slipped or a girl’s dress blew up while she was swinging. It was embarrassing but harmless.

On this day and this playground, the chant had an undertone of menace.

I recognized the target. Kathleen sat in front of me in second grade. Her clothes reeked of cooking smells. Her hair teemed with tiny insects.

Hearing the noise on the playground, I worked my way around to where I could see what was happening. Someone taunted, “Show us your underpants, Kathleen.” Around the circle, others took up the chant. “Show us. Show us.”

There was no escape. Kathleen was alone, and she was afraid. She reached down, grabbed the hem of her dress, and flipped it over her head.

It was at that moment a teacher appeared. Children ran in every direction, except Kathleen, who stood frozen with shame and fear.

I don’t know what happened to her then or in the years that followed. I’ve no idea if Kathleen grew up to be a doctor or a drug addict, a dancer or a derelict. I doubt she ever forgot the ugly scene. I know I didn’t.

Bully Free Zone

Bully Free Zone (Eddie-S Flickr Photostream)

The memory came back yesterday, when Carrie Broughton posted the first video below on her Facebook page. On January 27, 2011, a large group of young people, mostly teens, danced their protest against bullying in Vancouver’s Oakridge Mall. They wore pink shirts with emblazoned with “Acceptance”. Their energy and willingness to take a stand against bullying made me cheer.

The second video is from Long Branch Middle School in New Jersey. The story line shows students being bullied until someone stands up to them and stops the bullying. Enrique Iglesias gave the students permission to use his song, “I Like It”, but they crafted new lyrics, wrote the script, and filmed and edited the video.

The two videos are particularly interesting in light of a new study from two University of California Davis professors, Robert W. Faris and Diane Felmlee. After following students in North Carolina for several years, they dispute standard literature on aggression that attributes bullying to “psychological difficulties or problems in the home”. Instead, they link bullying to attempts to climb the social ladder.

They don’t claim their theory accounts for all bullying. Some young people at the top of the social heap seem to bully their peers because they enjoy it or to provide “entertainment at others’ expense”. But their research opens the possibility that our attempts to raise awareness of and curb bullying overlook its role in scrambling up the social ladder.

The study also has implications for anti-bullying programs. The researchers suggest “intervention strategies might succeed by focusing not on bullies or victims, but on the audience for aggression. Interventions may have a better chance of success if bystanders scorn aggression instead of being impressed or entertained by it.”

Public Safety Canada has an online review of promising practices and anti-bullying resources, Bullying prevention in schools. One program that has shown some success in the States is Steps to Respect.

The bad news is that bullying is still widespread. The good news is that a lot of people are working to change that.

So for all the Kathleens, whose lives have been shattered in any way by bullying, I’m thinking of you today. What happened that day long ago, on the playground of Lincoln School in Twin Falls, Idaho, might have gone very differently had there been no audience for it.

I can’t change that day, but I can be part of changing the future.

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