The hard lesson about bullying
By James Alan Fox
September 1, 2010

With the start of the school year upon us, bullying will undoubtedly resurface as a troubling issue for students as well as parents, teachers and administrators. The concern is no longer just whether Johnny can read, but whether Johnny can do so without ridicule.

Of course, the state has taken legislative action, requiring that all schools become pro-active in teaching students to be civil to one another and to respect diversity and difference. But there is no MCAS on that.

Aspects of the new state regulations do make sense. School personnel, from principals to food preparers, need to be trained in how better to recognize and respond to troublesome behavior. And schools should be required to develop and implement clear protocols for reporting possible abuses.

However, civility and respectfulness cannot just be imposed by administrative decree. Nor can they be achieved merely through classroom instruction. The school climate must be amenable to changing norms surrounding intimidation. Respect for others must be practiced by school personnel, not preached as part of the curriculum. As always, actions speak loudest.

Regardless of the approach, it remains extremely challenging to convince bullies that their actions may be disadvantageous for them. Too often bullies benefit from their use of power over weaker classmates. Not only do they acquire some tangible outcome, such as their victim’s lunch money or personal property, but they are typically admired for their strength and supremacy.

Contrary to the common stereotype that bullies are unhappy, unsuccessful misfits attempting to compensate with their fists, those who rule the hallways are typically seen as cool and accomplished. Based on responses from nearly 400 middle school students, researchers at the University of Virginia observed that bullies were overwhelmingly considered to be the more popular students in class.

The popularity of bullies was particularly pronounced among female students - the “Mean Girl” phenomenon. No matter what we say, the benefits that some youngsters derive from harassing weaker and more vulnerable classmates can sometimes be too gratifying to be so easily discouraged.

Moreover, the personal gratification experienced by bullies may not just be social, but appears to have a biological basis as well. A University of Chicago study compared brain scans from teenage boys with aggressive conduct disorders along with a group of non-aggressive adolescents as they watched a video of someone inflicting pain upon another person. The aggressive subjects responded with increased activity in the pleasure-sensing portion of the brain; the comparison group showed no such reaction.

The problem of bullying and its solution goes well beyond the walls of little red schoolhouses. In our competitive culture, bullies frequently win. We worship athletes (from pee wee to pro) who taunt their opponents. In the workplace, managers are often rewarded for manipulating subordinates. And many of our politicians capture votes by bullying (“challenging”) their rivals with tough-sounding, “bring it on” rhetoric.

Efforts to combat school bullying will be feeble so long as we admire aggressors and pity pushovers. Sure, schools need to change, but so does society.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University.