I am once again lucky to be able to present an article from another author of a book about the damage bullying can do. Susan Coryell is the author of Eaglebait and a retired teacher from my end of the country, Virginia. She contacted me after she found this site and was kind enough to take the time to share a story and some advice on bullying. Her new definition of BULLY is one that you can use to help others as well. ~Alan Eisenberg
“I’m 76 years old and I still remember it.” Sylvia Craig had seen an article on my young adult novel, Eaglebait, whose theme is school bullies. She called me to talk about her memories of being bullied as far back as first grade. “I’m short and skinny and I had to stand up on the school bus because nobody would sit with me. I was called ‘midget’ and ‘dwarf’ and ‘short stuff’ and a lot of worse names all through school.” At a wedding many years later, she found herself seated near one of her worst school bullies. “He wanted to make nice with me, but I just turned my back and refused to talk,” she said. “I’m still short and skinny and I still hold a lot of hatred in my heart for the bullies—a grudge. I just wanted you to know.”
As a 30-year educator, 15 of which were in middle school, I observed every sort of bullying incident imaginable, and found myself wondering, ‘Why do some kids survive, and others cave?’ So I wrote a novel dealing with a 14-year-old, habitually bullied kid who learns to build self-esteem with the help of family members, a mentor, and his pursuit of science, at which he excels.
Some people think bullying builds character in the victim. This is not found to be true in cases of chronic bullying over time according to Dr. Catherine Bradshaw, Associate Director of Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence. Studies show that people remember the details of bullying incidents long afterwards—what they wore that day, what was said, what happened in detail, long after other memories have faded.
The definition of bullying is: repeated intentional tormenting in physical, verbal or psychological ways. Dr. Pat Santoro, psychology professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland, points to evolution. “Bullying is a natural pattern in animals and we have some of that residual tendency that is restricted by our socialization. But for some people, the socializing gives way and the urge to bully wins out.”
So—evolution, human nature, hatred—there’s a lot to consider when trying to solve such a universal problem as school bullying. Most states have some type of anti-bullying program in effect, but what I’ve discovered during the course of my writing and teaching career, is that the best solution is a continuum of interventions, including therapeutic restorative justice (bullies must make amends to victims). The Bully Police, a national organization of parents working together against bullying in schools, analyzes and grades each state’s efforts. Virginia, where I’ve lived and taught most of my life, gets an A++ grade—most likely because some 90 state school systems utilize the Olweus program, which emphasizes prevention. Swaying students against bullying requires professional development for schools, including teacher training. Students are offered the opportunity to talk and community input is utilized.
In September I organized a panel discussion made up of educators from middle school, high school and college, which presented information for a local audience. Andy Bliss, assistant principal of Forest Middle School in Bedford County, Virginia, offers an acronym for tips for parents and students to avoid or “survive” bullying issues:
Be proactive – Don’t let a situation start affecting your child’s life (at school or home) before seeking help
Use the resources (teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, SROs) at school to help.
Look for witnesses who may be able to help (students) if a situation arises.
Learn to limit what you (as a student) say about others when they are not there in order to limit conflict.
You, as a parent, are your children’s best resource. Talk, educate, support them.
Though many states have voted in anti-bullying legislation, not everyone is on board. Some call the anti-bullying movement a violation of 1st Amendment Free Speech. (The Department of Education Office of Civil Rights says not so), while a former Georgia representative to Congress had this to say: “Anti-bullying legislation is the nanny state run amok again.” While society debates, the negative impact of bullying will continue to disrupt the school environment and wreak havoc on sensitive students and their families with both short and long-term effects.
So—where do we find middle ground on the issue of school bullies? A body of research is building for the development of interventions. States may use a reporting mechanism or require a paper trail where parents, students, administrators and teachers document incidents. Maryland does this. A New Jersey Anti-bullying Bill of Rights required deadlines for action under a coordinator of programs working with the state Department of Education. In Virginia, the Youth Violence Project worked with the legislature to produce House Bill 2266, in which the Virginia General Assembly called for schools to report bullying to parents and to integrate bully prevention into existing character education programs. It was signed into law by Governor Mark Warner.
On the other hand, so-called “Zero Tolerance” installed in some schools may boomerang when victims and witnesses, even teachers are afraid to report because of retaliation. Schools may use suspension as a penalty for bullying, but sometimes the victims are suspended too.
What the best anti-bullying programs recommend is that kids not fight back. At a young age, students need to be taught the difference between aggressiveness and assertiveness. Victims frequently do not know how to be assertive and must be taught how to stand up to bullies without fighting. The lasting consequences of not being assertive can be severe. There are even documented cases of post-traumatic stress disorder requiring medication in adults as a result of chronic school bullying.
So, my 76-year-old caller finally found a way to be assertive. She turned her back and refused to “make nice” with someone who had taken a big bite out of her self-esteem so many years ago. But she still holds a grudge. She hasn’t forgotten. And she never will. My hope is that we continue to give serious attention to the issue of school bullies because it’s obvious our task has only just begun.
Susan Coryell is the author of Eaglebait, originally published in hardcover by Harcourt and the winner of two major literary awards, the NY Public Library’s “Book for the Teenage,” and the International Reading Association’s “Young Adult Choice.” Eaglebait, which is available at all online bookstores, is cited on numerous anti-bullying websites including Social Issues Booklist, Bullying.org and A Resource Guide to Bullying. Eaglebait is recommended by national reviewers such as Horn Book Guide, Booklist and School Library Journal. Susan is a career educator who finds that when adults and teens read and study Eaglebait, both groups benefit. The same goes for counseling and parent advisory organizations dealing with bullying issues. Both boys and girls identify with the 14-year-old male protagonist, Wardy Spinks. The theme, bullies in the schools, is relevant and important and of utmost interest to young adult readers but has found a growing audience with parents and grandparents concerned about bullying. For more information about Eaglebait, visit her Web site www.susancoryellauthor.com or check out her blog at susancoryellauthor.blogspot.com.