When she was in high school, Lady Gaga says, she was thrown into a trash can.
The culprits were boys down the block, she told me in an interview on Wednesday
in which she spoke — a bit reluctantly — about the repeated cruelty of peers
during her teenage years.
“I was called really horrible, profane names very loudly in front of huge crowds
of people, and my schoolwork suffered at one point,” she said. “I didn’t want to
go to class. And I was a straight-A student, so there was a certain point in my
high school years where I just couldn’t even focus on class because I was so
embarrassed all the time. I was so ashamed of who I was.”
Searching for ways to ease the trauma of adolescence for other kids, Lady Gaga
came to Harvard University on Wednesday for the formal unveiling of her Born
This Way Foundation, meant to empower kids and nurture a more congenial
environment in and out of schools.
Lady Gaga is on to something important here. Experts from scholars to Education
Secretary Arne Duncan are calling for more focus on bullying not only because it
is linked to high rates of teen suicide, but also because it is an impediment to
A recent study from the University of Virginia suggests that when a school has a
climate of bullying, it’s not just the targeted kids who suffer — the entire
school lags academically. A British scholar found that children who simply
witness bullying are more likely to skip school or abuse alcohol. American
studies have found that children who are bullied are much more likely to
contemplate suicide and to skip school.
The scars don’t go away, Lady Gaga says. “To this day,” she told me, “some of my
closest friends say, ‘Gaga, you know, everything’s great. You’re a singer; your
dreams have come true.’ But, still, when certain things are said to you over and
over again as you’re growing up, it stays with you and you wonder if they’re
Any self-doubt Lady Gaga harbors should have been erased by the huge throngs
that greeted her at Harvard. “This might be one of the best days of my life,”
she told the cheering crowd.
The event was an unusual partnership between Lady Gaga and Harvard University in
trying to address teen cruelty. Oprah Winfrey showed up as well, along with
Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services.
Kathleen McCartney, dean of the Graduate School of Education here at Harvard,
said that she and her colleagues invited Lady Gaga because they had been
searching for ways to address bullying as a neglected area of education — and as
a human rights issue. As many as one-fifth of children feel bullied, she said,
adding: “If you don’t feel safe as a child, you can’t learn.”
Lady Gaga describes her foundation as her “new love affair,” and said that,
initially, she thought about focusing on a top-down crackdown on bullying. But,
over time, she said, she decided instead to use her followers to start a
bottom-up movement to try to make it cooler for young people to be nice.
I asked Lady Gaga if people won’t be cynical about an agenda so simple and
straightforward as kindling kindness. Exceptionally articulate, she seemed for
the first time at a loss for words. “That cynicism is exactly what we’re trying
to change,” she finally said.
Bullying isn’t, of course, just physical violence. Lady Gaga’s mother, Cynthia
Germanotta, who will serve as president of the Born This Way Foundation, says
that one of the most hurtful episodes in her daughter’s childhood came when
schoolmates organized a party and deliberately excluded Lady Gaga.
Lady Gaga was reluctant to talk too much about her own experiences as a teenager
for fear that her foundation would seem to be solely about bullying. Her aim is
a far broader movement to change the culture and create a more supportive and
tolerant environment. “It’s more of a hippie approach,” she explained.
“The Born This Way Foundation is not restitution or revenge for my experiences,”
Lady Gaga told me. “I want to make that clear. This is: I am now a woman, I have
a voice in the universe, and I want to do everything I can to become an expert
in social justice and hope I can make a difference and mobilize young people to
change the world.”
Yes, that sounds grandiose and utopian, but I’m reluctant to bet against one of
the world’s top pop stars and the person with the most Twitter followers in the
world. In any case, she’s indisputably right about one point: Bullying and
teenage cruelty are human rights abuses that need to be higher on our agenda.
THE suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer, the 14-year-old boy from
western New York who killed himself last Sunday after being tormented by his
classmates for being gay, is appalling. His story is a classic case of bullying:
he was aggressively and repeatedly victimized. Horrific episodes like this have
sparked conversations about cyberbullying and created immense pressure on
regulators and educators to do something, anything, to make it stop. Yet in the
rush to find a solution, adults are failing to recognize how their conversations
about bullying are often misaligned with youth narratives. Adults need to start
paying attention to the language of youth if they want antibullying
interventions to succeed.
Jamey recognized that he was being bullied and asked explicitly for help, but
this is not always the case. Many teenagers who are bullied can’t emotionally
afford to identify as victims, and young people who bully others rarely see
themselves as perpetrators. For a teenager to recognize herself or himself in
the adult language of bullying carries social and psychological costs. It
requires acknowledging oneself as either powerless or abusive.
In our research over a number of years, we have interviewed and observed
teenagers across the United States. Given the public interest in cyberbullying,
we asked young people about it, only to be continually rebuffed. Teenagers
repeatedly told us that bullying was something that happened only in elementary
or middle school. “There’s no bullying at this school” was a regular refrain.
This didn’t mesh with our observations, so we struggled to understand the
disconnect. While teenagers denounced bullying, they — especially girls — would
describe a host of interpersonal conflicts playing out in their lives as
At first, we thought drama was simply an umbrella term, referring to varying
forms of bullying, joking around, minor skirmishes between friends, breakups and
makeups, and gossip. We thought teenagers viewed bullying as a form of drama.
But we realized the two are quite distinct. Drama was not a show for us, but
rather a protective mechanism for them.
Teenagers say drama when they want to diminish the importance of something.
Repeatedly, teenagers would refer to something as “just stupid drama,”
“something girls do,” or “so high school.” We learned that drama can be fun and
entertaining; it can be serious or totally ridiculous; it can be a way to get
attention or feel validated. But mostly we learned that young people use the
term drama because it is empowering.
Dismissing a conflict that’s really hurting their feelings as drama lets
teenagers demonstrate that they don’t care about such petty concerns. They can
save face while feeling superior to those tormenting them by dismissing them as
desperate for attention. Or, if they’re the instigators, the word drama lets
teenagers feel that they’re participating in something innocuous or even funny,
rather than having to admit that they’ve hurt someone’s feelings. Drama allows
them to distance themselves from painful situations.
Adults want to help teenagers recognize the hurt that is taking place, which
often means owning up to victimhood. But this can have serious consequences. To
recognize oneself as a victim — or perpetrator — requires serious emotional,
psychological and social support, an infrastructure unavailable to many
teenagers. And when teenagers like Jamey do ask for help, they’re often let
down. Not only are many adults ill-equipped to help teenagers do the
psychological work necessary, but teenagers’ social position often requires them
to continue facing the same social scene day after day.
Like Jamey, there are young people who identify as victims of bullying. But many
youths engaged in practices that adults label bullying do not name them as such.
Teenagers want to see themselves as in control of their own lives; their
reputations are important. Admitting that they’re being bullied, or worse, that
they are bullies, slots them into a narrative that’s disempowering and makes
them feel weak and childish.
Antibullying efforts cannot be successful if they make teenagers feel victimized
without providing them the support to go from a position of victimization to one
of empowerment. When teenagers acknowledge that they’re being bullied, adults
need to provide programs similar to those that help victims of abuse. And they
must recognize that emotional recovery is a long and difficult process.
But if the goal is to intervene at the moment of victimization, the focus should
be to work within teenagers’ cultural frame, encourage empathy and help young
people understand when and where drama has serious consequences. Interventions
must focus on positive concepts like healthy relationships and digital
citizenship rather than starting with the negative framing of bullying. The key
is to help young people feel independently strong, confident and capable without
first requiring them to see themselves as either an oppressed person or an
The New York Times
By DAVID J. SKORTON
IN February, a 19-year-old Cornell sophomore died in a fraternity house while
participating in a hazing episode that included mock kidnapping, ritualized
humiliation and coerced drinking. While the case is still in the courts, the
fraternity chapter has been disbanded and those indicted in connection with the
death are no longer enrolled here.
This tragedy convinced me that it was time — long past time — to remedy
practices of the fraternity system that continue to foster hazing, which has
persisted at Cornell, as on college campuses across the country, in violation of
state law and university policy.
Yesterday, I directed student leaders of Cornell’s Greek chapters to develop a
system of member recruitment and initiation that does not involve “pledging” —
the performance of demeaning or dangerous acts as a condition of membership.
While fraternity and sorority chapters will be invited to suggest alternatives
for inducting new members, I will not approve proposals that directly or
indirectly encourage hazing and other risky behavior. National fraternities and
sororities should end pledging across all campuses; Cornell students can help
lead the way.
Why not ban fraternities and sororities altogether, as some universities have
done? Over a quarter of Cornell undergraduates (3,822 of 13,935 students) are
involved in fraternities or sororities. The Greek system is part of our
university’s history and culture, and we should maintain it because at its best,
it can foster friendship, community service and leadership.
Hazing has been formally prohibited at Cornell since 1980 and a crime under New
York State law since 1983. But it continues under the guise of pledging, often
perpetuated through traditions handed down over generations. Although pledging
is explained away as a period of time during which pre-initiates (“pledges”)
devote themselves to learning the information necessary to become full members,
in reality, it is often the vehicle for demeaning activities that cause
psychological harm and physical danger.
About 2,000 alcohol-related deaths occur each year among American college
students. Alcohol or drug abuse is a factor in more than a half-million injuries
each year — and also in sexual and other assaults, unsafe sex, poor academic
performance and many other problems.
At Cornell, high-risk drinking and drug use are two to three times more
prevalent among fraternity and sorority members than elsewhere in the student
population. During the last 10 years, nearly 60 percent of fraternity and
sorority chapters on our campus have been found responsible for activities that
are considered hazing under the Cornell code of conduct.
Why would bright young people subject themselves to dangerous humiliation?
Multiple factors are at play: the need of emerging adults to separate from
family, forge their own identities and be accepted in a group; obedience to
authority (in this case, older students); the ineffectiveness of laws and other
constraints on group behavior; and organizational traditions that perpetuate
Alcohol makes it easier for members to subject recruits to physical and mental
abuse without feeling remorse and to excuse bad behavior on the grounds of
intoxication. It provides a social lubricant, but it impairs the judgment of
those being hazed and lowers their ability to resist.
Even more distressing, although 55 percent of college students involved in
clubs, teams and organizations experience hazing, the vast majority of them do
not identify the events as hazing. Of those who do, 95 percent do not report the
events to campus officials.
Doctors, nurses and other student-health professionals have tried to address
high-risk drinking and hazing through individual counseling, a medical amnesty
process that reduces barriers to calling for help in alcohol emergencies, and
educational programs. But the problem has persisted.
There are signs of progress. Jim Yong Kim, president of Dartmouth, has helped
organize a multi-campus approach to identifying the most effective strategies
against high-risk drinking. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and
Alcoholism has established a college presidents’ advisory group to develop and
share approaches to this problem.
There is a pressing need for better ways to bring students together in socially
productive, enjoyable and memorable ways. At Cornell, acceptable alternatives to
the pledge process must be completely free of personal degradation, disrespect
or harassment in any form. One example is Sigma Phi Epsilon’s “Balanced Man
Program,” which replaces the traditional pledging period with a continuing
emphasis on community service and personal development.
We need to face the facts about the role of fraternities and sororities in
hazing and high-risk drinking. Pledging — and the humiliation and bullying that
go with it — can no longer be the price of entry.
Bullying is all about power: one person has it, one person does not. Technology
accelerates bullying. Social media make it easy for bullies to enlist large,
often anonymous groups to carry out relentless attacks with messages and
compromising photos of the victim. Adults have been removed from the equation.
We are not there to intervene.
Reluctant to seek help, victims feel ashamed and powerless, and fear retaliation
should they “rat out” the bully. It is unrealistic to expect kids to make
rational, self-protective decisions while under emotional stress.
Strong antibullying programs are needed to provide a means to report bullying
anonymously, to train all school personnel to take reports of bullying seriously
and to offer workshops for children on how to respond to being bullied.
Karen Schulte O’Neill
West Long Branch, N.J., March 30, 2010
The writer is on the executive board of the New Jersey School Counselor
To the Editor:
I applaud the decision to charge nine teenagers in the bullying case that led to
the suicide of Phoebe Prince, 15.
Now let’s look at the adults who must claim responsibility. Educators are
mandated reporters of suspected child abuse. If it is true that some staff
members were told and/or witnessed bullying and did nothing, they, too, must be
held accountable in a court of law.
By natural extension, the parents or guardians of the nine accused students must
be held morally and legally accountable for a lack of values that could lead to
this kind of destructive disrespect.
The broader solution to bullying is to address and attack bullying in pre-school
or earlier. It should be a part of the curriculum, as should self-esteem
Laws should reflect not only the horrific physical and emotional bullying but
also the latest technology that allows for insidious cyberbullying.
Joan P. Kaufman
Hurley, N.Y., March 30, 2010
The writer is a retired instructional superintendent for the New York City
Department of Education.
To the Editor:
Re “Playtime Is Over” (Op-Ed, March 27): David Elkind raises an interesting
point regarding the possible relationship between the loss of playtime and the
rise of bullying. The relationship seems intuitively obvious. What is not so
apparent is how to replace the important normative life experiences that result
from unstructured playtime.
In the “old days,” pick-up sports (stickball, stoopball, touch football)
involved any child who was outside and willing to play. That meant children of
all ability levels were included. As a result, good players learned tolerance,
patience and acceptance from playing with weaker and perhaps younger players,
and these weaker players learned skills from the better players. In different
ways, each benefited from the experience.
In the absence of these spontaneously occurring opportunities for socialization,
we need to develop programs that move beyond the Band-Aid approach, like the use
of recess coaches.
Over the last decade, a number of “whole school” programs have been designed in
which administrators, staff and teachers work together to reduce bullying among
students. But perhaps it is time to expand the whole-school concept to include
school-community partnerships involving community agencies and organizations
like the YMCA and the Unified Sports program of Special Olympics.
Programs in which schools and community groups work together to create new
recreational sports opportunities for children and youth at all levels — not
just the athletically talented — are an important next step in addressing the
Gary N. Siperstein
Boston, March 28, 2010
The writer is director of the Center for Social Development and Education,
University of Massachusetts Boston.
To the Editor:
I agree with David Elkind. Children learn kindness and how to get along with one
another through play. I believe that the increase in bullying over the last 10
years is due, in part, to what children see and hear from the adults around
them. After all, children are exposed to bullying words and tactics by elected
officials, radio and television personalities, and, sadly, in some cases, their
Children take this in. They watch. They learn.
Red Bank, N.J., March 29, 2010
The writer is an early childhood specialist.
To the Editor:
I am a public defender in Massachusetts who has represented juveniles, many of
them teenage girls. “The Myth of Mean Girls,” by Mike Males and Meda-Chesney
Lind (Op-Ed, April 2), misses the point. Physical violence is only one
manifestation of mean-girl bullying. Mean girls use verbal abuse, intimidation
and exclusion, and it’s most viciously directed at girls who are liked by
popular boys, as we’ve seen in the recent tragedy in South Hadley, Mass.
While it’s wonderful news that girls’ arrest rates for violent offenses are
down, that statistic doesn’t begin to measure the terrible damage being done to
girls by, yes, “mean girls.”
Concord, Mass., April 2, 2010
To the Editor:
While the writers of this article may have a point, the only mean girls who
mattered to Phoebe Prince were the ones who made her life a living nightmare. I
know all about “mean girls,” having been victimized as a freshman at a Catholic
girls’ high school in the early 1960s by five of them.
When they tried to resume their harassment at the beginning of my sophomore
year, a senior (whom I did not know) stepped in on my behalf and shamed them
into considering how their behavior was hurting me. They backed off and never
bothered me again.
It took only one concerned person to help me; how sad and troubling that I have
not heard about one student, teacher or administrator in that entire high school
who had the courage to defend Phoebe Prince.
It is not
clear what some students at South Hadley High School expected to achieve by
subjecting a freshman to the relentless taunting described by a prosecutor and
Certainly not her suicide. And certainly not the multiple felony indictments
announced on Monday against several students at the Massachusetts school.
The prosecutor brought charges Monday against six teenagers, saying their
taunting and physical threats were beyond the pale and led the freshman, Phoebe
Prince, to hang herself from a stairwell in January.
The charges were an unusually sharp legal response to the problem of adolescent
bullying, which is increasingly conducted in cyberspace as well as in the
schoolyard and has drawn growing concern from parents, educators and lawmakers.
In the uproar around the suicides of Ms. Prince, 15, and an 11-year-old boy
subjected to harassment in nearby Springfield last year, the Massachusetts
legislature stepped up work on an anti-bullying law that is now near passage.
The law would require school staff members to report suspected incidents and
principals to investigate them. It would also demand that schools teach about
the dangers of bullying. Forty-one other states have anti-bullying laws of
In the Prince case, two boys and four girls, ages 16 to 18, face a different mix
of felony charges that include statutory rape, violation of civil rights with
bodily injury, harassment, stalking and disturbing a school assembly.
Appearing with state and local police officials on Monday, Ms. Scheibel said
that Ms. Prince’s suicide came after nearly three months of severe taunting and
physical threats by a cluster of fellow students.
“The investigation revealed relentless activities directed toward Phoebe to make
it impossible for her to stay at school,” Ms. Scheibel said. The conduct of
those charged, she said, “far exceeded the limits of normal teenage
It was particularly alarming, the district attorney said, that some teachers,
administrators and other staff members at the school were aware of the
harassment but did not stop it. “The actions or inactions of some adults at the
school were troublesome,” Ms. Scheibel said, but did not violate any laws.
Christine Swelko, assistant superintendent for South Hadley Public Schools, said
school officials planned to meet with the district attorney this week or next.
“We will then review this evidence and particularly the new information which
the district attorney’s office has but did not come to light within the
investigation conducted by the school,” Ms. Swelko said in a statement.
Ms. Prince’s family had recently moved to the United States from a small town in
Ireland, and she entered South Hadley last fall. The taunting started when she
had a brief relationship with a popular senior boy; some students reportedly
called her an “Irish slut,” knocked books out of her hands and sent her
threatening text messages, day after day.
At South Hadley High School, which has about 700 students, most students and
teachers refused on Monday to talk about the case. Students waited for parents
in the pouring rain and a sports team ran by, with one student telling
reporters, “Go away.”
Ashlee Dunn, a 16-year-old sophomore, said she had not known Ms. Prince
personally but had heard stories spread about her in the hallways.
“She was new and she was from a different country, and she didn’t really know
the school very well,” Ms. Dunn said. “I think that’s probably one reason why
they chose Phoebe.”
On Jan. 14, the investigation found, students abused her in the school library,
the lunchroom and the hallways and threw a canned drink at her as she walked
home. Her sister found her hanging from a stairwell at home, still in her school
clothes, at 4:30 p.m.
Some of the students plotted against Ms. Prince on the Internet, using social
networking sites, but the main abuse was at school, the prosecutor said.
“The actions of these students were primarily conducted on school grounds during
school hours and while school was in session,” Ms. Scheibel said.
Ms. Scheibel declined to provide details about the charges of statutory rape
against two boys, but experts said those charges could mean that the boys had
sex with Ms. Prince when she was under age.
Legal experts said they were not aware of other cases in which students faced
serious criminal charges for harassing a fellow student, but added that the
circumstances in this case appeared to be extreme and that juvenile charges were
usually kept private.
The Massachusetts House and Senate have passed versions of an anti-bullying law,
but disagreement remains on whether all schools will be required to conduct
staff training about bullying — a provision in about half the states with such
laws and one that is vital, said Robert O. Trestan, Eastern States Civil Rights
Counsel of the Anti-Defamation League, which has led the effort for legislation
The prospective law, Mr. Trestan said, is aimed at changing school cultures and
preventing bullying, but would not label bullying a crime because it is a vague
concept. “These indictments tell us that middle school and high school kids are
not immune from criminal laws,” he said. “If they violate them in the course of
bullying someone, they’ll be held accountable. We don’t need to create a new
A South Hadley parent, Mitch Brouillard, who said his daughter Rebecca had been
bullied by one of the girls charged in Ms. Prince’s death, said he was pleased
that charges were brought. One of the students was charged separately in a case
involving his daughter.
“My daughter was bullied for three years, and we continually went to the
administration and we really got no satisfaction,” Mr. Brouillard said, adding,
“I was offered an apology a few weeks ago that they should have handled it
The school has convened an anti-bullying task force, which met Monday, to help
determine how to deal with bullying. “That’s the really clear message we’re
trying to send — if you see anything at all, online, through friends, you have
to tell us,” said Bill Evans, an administrator leading a group subcommittee.
The task force must also consider whether state law affects existing procedures.
“The big question out there is what the legislature will impose on school
districts,” Mr. Evans said.
Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer in Cambridge, Mass., who has argued that proposed
cyberbullying laws are too vague and a threat to free speech, said that he
thought the charges announced Monday would pass legal muster. The sorts of acts
of harassment and stalking claimed in the charges were wrong under state law,
Mr. Silverglate said, but a question would be whether they were serious enough
to constitute criminal violations, as opposed to civil ones.
“There is a higher threshold of proof of outrageous conduct needed to reach the
level of a criminal cause of action, in comparison to the lower level of
outrageousness needed to prove a civil violation,” he said.
A lawsuit involving another case of high school bullying, in upstate New York,
was settled on Monday. A gay teenager had sued the Mohawk Central School
District, saying school officials had not protected him.
In the settlement, the district said it would increase staff training to prevent
harassment, pay $50,000 to the boy’s family and reimburse the family for
counseling, The Associated Press reported. The boy has moved to a different
Eckholm reported from New York,
and Katie Zezima from South Hadley, Mass.
article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: April 8, 2010
A headline and an article on March 30 and another article on April 2 about the
bullying and suicide of Phoebe Prince, a freshman at South Hadley High School in
Massachusetts, reported that nine students had been charged with crimes
including harassment, violating civil rights and statutory rape. The number of
students was taken from a March 29 statement by Elizabeth D. Scheibel, the
district attorney, in which she named six students who were charged with
felonies, including an 18-year-old, two 17-year-olds and three 16-year-olds. Ms.
Scheibel said that “in addition,” delinquency complaints for similar crimes had
been filed in juvenile court against three unnamed females. Her office refused
to comment further, citing strict rules on the confidentiality of juvenile
The Times has since learned from a court official that the juveniles referred to
by the district attorney were the same three 16-year-old girls who are facing
public criminal charges. Therefore six students — not nine — have been charged,
although officials have said that the investigation is continuing.
Back in the 1990s, I did a physical on a boy in fifth or sixth grade at a
Boston public school. I asked him his favorite subject: definitely science; he
had won a prize in a science fair, and was to go on and compete in a multischool
The problem was, there were some kids at school who were picking on him every
day about winning the science fair; he was getting teased and jostled and even,
occasionally, beaten up. His mother shook her head and wondered aloud whether
life would be easier if he just let the science fair thing drop.
Bullying elicits strong and highly personal reactions; I remember my own sense
of outrage and identification. Here was a highly intelligent child, a lover of
science, possibly a future (fill in your favorite genius), tormented by brutes.
Here’s what I did for my patient: I advised his mother to call the teacher and
complain, and I encouraged him to pursue his love of science.
And here are three things I now know I should have done: I didn’t tell the
mother that bullying can be prevented, and that it’s up to the school. I didn’t
call the principal or suggest that the mother do so. And I didn’t give even a
moment’s thought to the bullies, and what their lifetime prognosis might be.
In recent years, pediatricians and researchers in this country have been giving
bullies and their victims the attention they have long deserved — and have long
received in Europe. We’ve gotten past the “kids will be kids” notion that
bullying is a normal part of childhood or the prelude to a successful life
strategy. Research has described long-term risks — not just to victims, who may
be more likely than their peers to experience depression and suicidal thoughts,
but to the bullies themselves, who are less likely to finish school or hold down
Next month, the American Academy of Pediatrics will publish the new version of
an official policy statement on the pediatrician’s role in preventing youth
violence. For the first time, it will have a section on bullying — including a
recommendation that schools adopt a prevention model developed by Dan Olweus, a
research professor of psychology at the University of Bergen, Norway, who first
began studying the phenomenon of school bullying in Scandinavia in the 1970s.
The programs, he said, “work at the school level and the classroom level and at
the individual level; they combine preventive programs and directly addressing
children who are involved or identified as bullies or victims or both.”
Dr. Robert Sege, chief of ambulatory pediatrics at Boston Medical Center and a
lead author of the new policy statement, says the Olweus approach focuses
attention on the largest group of children, the bystanders. “Olweus’s genius,”
he said, “is that he manages to turn the school situation around so the other
kids realize that the bully is someone who has a problem managing his or her
behavior, and the victim is someone they can protect.”
The other lead author, Dr. Joseph Wright, senior vice president at Children’s
National Medical Center in Washington and the chairman of the pediatrics
academy’s committee on violence prevention, notes that a quarter of all children
report that they have been involved in bullying, either as bullies or as
victims. Protecting children from intentional injury is a central task of
pediatricians, he said, and “bullying prevention is a subset of that activity.”
By definition, bullying involves repetition; a child is repeatedly the target of
taunts or physical attacks — or, in the case of so-called indirect bullying
(more common among girls), rumors and social exclusion. For a successful
anti-bullying program, the school needs to survey the children and find out the
details — where it happens, when it happens.
Structural changes can address those vulnerable places — the out-of-sight corner
of the playground, the entrance hallway at dismissal time.
Then, Dr. Sege said, “activating the bystanders” means changing the culture of
the school; through class discussions, parent meetings and consistent responses
to every incident, the school must put out the message that bullying will not be
So what should I ask at a checkup? How’s school, who are your friends, what do
you usually do at recess? It’s important to open the door, especially with
children in the most likely age groups, so that victims and bystanders won’t be
afraid to speak up. Parents of these children need to be encouraged to demand
that schools take action, and pediatricians probably need to be ready to talk to
the principal. And we need to follow up with the children to make sure the
situation gets better, and to check in on their emotional health and get them
help if they need it.
How about helping the bullies, who are, after all, also pediatric patients? Some
experts worry that schools simply suspend or expel the offenders without paying
attention to helping them and their families learn to function in a different
“Zero-tolerance policies that school districts have are basically pushing the
debt forward,” Dr. Sege said. “We need to be more sophisticated.”
The way we understand bullying has changed, and it’s probably going to change
even more. (I haven’t even talked about cyberbullying, for example.) But anyone
working with children needs to start from the idea that bullying has long-term
consequences and that it is preventable.
I would still feel that same anger on my science-fair-winning patient’s behalf,
but I would now see his problem as a pediatric issue — and I hope I would be
able to offer a little more help, and a little more follow-up, appropriately
based in scientific research.
and bone, the boy stands at the corner with his younger sister, waiting for the
yellow bus that takes them to their respective schools. He is Billy Wolfe, high
school sophomore, struggling.
Moments earlier he left the sanctuary that is his home, passing those framed
photographs of himself as a carefree child, back when he was 5. And now he is at
the bus stop, wearing a baseball cap, vulnerable at 15.
A car the color of a school bus pulls up with a boy who tells his brother beside
him that he’s going to beat up Billy Wolfe. While one records the assault with a
cellphone camera, the other walks up to the oblivious Billy and punches him hard
enough to leave a fist-size welt on his forehead.
The video shows Billy staggering, then dropping his book bag to fight back,
lanky arms flailing. But the screams of his sister stop things cold.
The aggressor heads to school, to show friends the video of his Billy moment,
while Billy heads home, again. It’s not yet 8 in the morning.
Bullying is everywhere, including here in Fayetteville, a city of 60,000 with
one of the country’s better school systems. A decade ago a Fayetteville student
was mercilessly harassed and beaten for being gay. After a complaint was filed
with the Office of Civil Rights, the district adopted procedures to promote
tolerance and respect — none of which seems to have been of much comfort to
It remains unclear why Billy became a target at age 12; schoolyard anthropology
can be so nuanced. Maybe because he was so tall, or wore glasses then, or has a
learning disability that affects his reading comprehension. Or maybe some kids
were just bored. Or angry.
Whatever the reason, addressing the bullying of Billy has become a second job
for his parents: Curt, a senior data analyst, and Penney, the owner of an
office-supply company. They have binders of school records and police reports,
along with photos documenting the bruises and black eyes. They are well known to
school officials, perhaps even too well known, but they make no apologies for
being vigilant. They also reject any suggestion that they should move out of the
district because of this.
The many incidents seem to blur together into one protracted assault. When Billy
attaches a bully’s name to one beating, his mother corrects him. “That was
Benny, sweetie,” she says. “That was in the eighth grade.”
It began years ago when a boy called the house and asked Billy if he wanted to
buy a certain sex toy, heh-heh. Billy told his mother, who informed the boy’s
mother. The next day the boy showed Billy a list with the names of 20 boys who
wanted to beat Billy up.
Ms. Wolfe says she and her husband knew it was coming. She says they tried to
warn school officials — and then bam: the prank caller beat up Billy in the
bathroom of McNair Middle School.
Not long after, a boy on the school bus pummeled Billy, but somehow Billy was
the one suspended, despite his pleas that the bus’s security camera would prove
his innocence. Days later, Ms. Wolfe recalls, the principal summoned her,
presented a box of tissues, and played the bus video that clearly showed Billy
was telling the truth.
Things got worse. At Woodland Junior High School, some boys in a wood shop class
goaded a bigger boy into believing that Billy had been talking trash about his
mother. Billy, busy building a miniature house, didn’t see it coming: the boy
hit him so hard in the left cheek that he briefly lost consciousness.
Ms. Wolfe remembers the family dentist sewing up the inside of Billy’s cheek,
and a school official refusing to call the police, saying it looked like Billy
got what he deserved. Most of all, she remembers the sight of her son.
“He kept spitting blood out,” she says, the memory strong enough still to break
By now Billy feared school. Sometimes he was doubled over with stress, asking
his parents why. But it kept on coming.
In ninth grade, a couple of the same boys started a Facebook page called “Every
One That Hates Billy Wolfe.” It featured a photograph of Billy’s face
superimposed over a likeness of Peter Pan, and provided this description of its
purpose: “There is no reason anyone should like billy he’s a little bitch. And a
homosexual that NO ONE LIKES.”
According to Alan Wilbourn, a spokesman for the school district, the principal
notified the parents of the students involved after Ms. Wolfe complained, and
the parents — whom he described as “horrified” — took steps to have the page
Not long afterward, a student in Spanish class punched Billy so hard that when
he came to, his braces were caught on the inside of his cheek.
So who is Billy Wolfe? Now 16, he likes the outdoors, racquetball and girls. For
whatever reason — bullying, learning disabilities or lack of interest — his
grades are poor. Some teachers think he’s a sweet kid; others think he is easily
distracted, occasionally disruptive, even disrespectful. He has received a few
suspensions for misbehavior, though none for bullying.
Judging by school records, at least one official seems to think Billy
contributes to the trouble that swirls around him. For example, Billy and the
boy who punched him at the bus stop had exchanged words and shoves a few days
But Ms. Wolfe scoffs at the notion that her son causes or deserves the beatings
he receives. She wonders why Billy is the only one getting beaten up, and why
school officials are so reluctant to punish bullies and report assaults to the
Mr. Wilbourn said federal law protected the privacy of students, so parents of a
bullied child should not assume that disciplinary action had not been taken. He
also said it was left to the discretion of staff members to determine if an
incident required police notification.
The Wolfes are not satisfied. This month they sued one of the bullies “and other
John Does,” and are considering another lawsuit against the Fayetteville School
District. Their lawyer, D. Westbrook Doss Jr., said there was neither glee nor
much monetary reward in suing teenagers, but a point had to be made:
schoolchildren deserve to feel safe.
Billy Wolfe, for example, deserves to open his American history textbook and not
find anti-Billy sentiments scrawled across the pages. But there they were, words
so hurtful and foul.
The boy did what he could. “I’d put white-out on them,” he says. “And if the
page didn’t have stuff to learn, I’d rip it out.”