A friend's daughter struggles to navigate a school landscape filled with "mean girls." The social scene seems nearly impossible to traverse safely; a devastating look or a barely audible comment is awfully hard for a teacher to notice -- let alone regulate. I know because for several years, I was one of the mean girls.
I didn't start as a bully. I was well-liked in 5th grade, and -- despite being chubby -- easily made friends. But then we moved. I was tossed into a group of kids who referred to me as "heavy hitter." A talented softball player, I was too chunky to simply be admired for my skill. Compliments were delivered nestled in put-downs. I felt ambushed; I'd never before been teased at school because of my weight.
And then, in 6th grade, someone scrawled "lezzie" on my locker, and I could feel myself being swept out to sea.
To fight the tide of cruelty, I sought a lifebuoy. This is not hyperbole; everything feels desperate at 12. I stayed afloat by falling in with a group of "cool" (read: mean) girls. They appreciated my wicked humor, and I used my wisecracks as a "tribute" payment. As long as I made them laugh, I was not their target. I was not mature or self-confident enough to use victimless humor, so I sometimes said devastatingly mean things; I wasn't going to be banished permanently to the bottom rung of the social ladder.
A girl in our class told a teacher that I -- and my "clique" -- had teased her on the bus. It was true,undeniably. But I felt betrayed by this teacher. Where was she when I'd been the butt of the jokes? She jumped into the discussion midstream and now expected me to trust her. I didn't feel safe sharing with her that I'd also been tormented. As we are all prone to do, she drew a fairly tidy map of the bullied and the bullies. But I knew even then that tweens often change positions, frantically scrambling for a foothold.
Although our attention usually focuses on high school students who are bullied, a UCLA study revealed that almost half of middle school students surveyed reported being bullied in a week. Jaana Juvonen -- UCLA professor of psychology and co-author of the study -- notes, "Bullying is a problem that large numbers of kids confront ... (I)t's not just an issue for a few unfortunate ones." She was surprised that so many students experienced bullying over a five-day period. A study from the Oregon Research Institute published in The Journal of Early Adolescence found similar results: Roughly four out of five middle school students reported being verbally harassed at school.
In the UCLA study, bullying included name calling, spreading rumors, or kicking and shoving in hallways. Verbal harassment occurred twice as often as physical aggression, and it cut across all income brackets and ethnic backgrounds. Interestingly, the old adage "Sticks and stones may break my bones ..." does not hold true. Students who were physically bullied and those who were verbally bullied felt the same levels of anxiety and fear: All kids who had been bullied in some way "reported feeling humiliated, anxious, or disliking school," said Juvonen.
A study conducted by the Institute of Education in London revealed that less than 1 percent of elementary students could be characterized as "true bullies" -- those who bully and are not bullied themselves. More frequently, the very same students are sometimes the victims and sometimes the perpetrators. Dr. Leslie Gutman, lead researcher, explained, "We are not suggesting that schools adopt a soft approach to bullying but simply stating that, on the basis of evidence, bullying is more complex an issue than some people believe it to be." We must focus on bullying behavior in all its forms. This is much more honest and useful than labeling students as either "victims" or "bullies" -- especially bullying behavior extends to adults as well.
There have been several high profile national cases of principals who bullied parents and teachers, as well as infamous examples of teachers bullying other teachers or students. Studies from the Workplace Bullying Institute indicate that the professionals most likely to be bullying targets are school teachers and nurses. Dr. Gary Namie, writing in the WBI 2013 Industry Survey, reflected on our national effort to curb student bullying: "How in the world can youngsters ever be persuaded to stop when they witness adult bullying in the schools?"
I am always incredulous and disheartened when a friend or colleague says, "Well, she's never bullied me." Or: "But he's so good at _________ (fill in any particular skill here)" -- implying that because this supervisor has other valuable skills that he couldn't possibly bully others. Just like those surreptitious mean "tween" whisperings -- bullying is not always obvious.
We must ask ourselves: Do the stated values of a school match the landscape on the ground? Kids notice everything. Is the entire school staff striving for undisputed, unwavering kindness and respect? And are our educators truly tuned in to the students' ever-changing delicate social dance? The position of victims and bullies is rarely static, but the behavior is always abhorrent.
Some of the girls I bullied in middle school are now among my very best friends. And one of my proudest moments in 12th grade was being voted "most humorous" by my classmates. For, although I'd earned the same honor in 8th grade, by my high school graduation I had figured out how to be funny without being mean. I wish there had been a vibrant social curriculum in place to help me learn that sooner.