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When Push Comes to Shove

American educators, acknowledging the reported success of an anti-bullying program in Norway, are pressing to implement similar efforts in schools here.

April 03, 2001|ROSIE MESTEL and MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Two decades ago, three children killed themselves. The youngest was only 10 years old. All three had apparently been driven to despair--at least in part--by the persecution they'd endured at their schools.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, a whole country dwelt on a nasty reality: that children, be it through cruel intent or mindless insensitivity, can make the lives of other children wretched.

The country also acted. It launched an anti-bullying campaign, providing funds to the world's foremost bullying expert to explore just how bad the problem was and how it might be improved. The government funded research to devise and test a bullying-prevention program. Today, the country is placing a proven anti-bullying program in all of its schools.

The country is Norway, but there's a growing sentiment that the U.S. should also get serious about school bullying, treating it as a harmful blight rather than shrugging it off as an inevitable rite of passage through childhood.

Researchers have determined that regular victims of bullying are more likely to develop anxiety and depression, to withdraw, even to become more aggressive. They're more likely to dislike, avoid and perform poorly in school. The National Education Assn. estimates that each day at least 160,000 students stay home from school out of fear of bullies.

Bullying also seems to cause harm in later life. A study tracking 900 Swedish boys found that by age 23, ex-victims had recovered in many ways: They no longer exhibited heightened stress and anxiety. But, compared with those who weren't bullied, they were more likely to have low self-esteem or suffer from depression.

And while kids who are picked on may be more anxious and self-doubting to begin with, researchers say it's pretty clear from the body of evidence--for both adults and kids--that bullying can cause or worsen such problems.

In their search for solutions, such researchers have amassed a surprising amount of knowledge about the nuts and bolts of bullying. They can tell you, as one Canadian study did, that a bully strikes every 7 1/2 minutes on the playground and that the average attack last 40 seconds; that teachers believe they intervene in 75% of bullying incidents--yet kids put that number at 20%; and that girl bullies and boy bullies tend to torment their victims in different yet equally painful ways.

The fact that bullying has been raised as a possible motivating factor in several school shootings, including the ones in Santee, Calif., and at Columbine High in Colorado, has heightened interest in the issue. But the Norwegian bullying expert who led that country's research says the effort is warranted on even more important grounds.

"It is really a fundamental democratic or human right to be spared this kind of humiliating, degrading treatment, which makes life miserable for thousands and thousands of young people for no good reason," says Dan Olweus, professor of psychology at Norway's University of Bergen.

Anti-bullying programs, say Olweus and other experts, could make a big difference for kids who suffer regular harassment from their peers: pushing, hitting and physical threats; taunts, rumor-mongering and social exclusion. And a lot of bullying can be stopped, they say, if schools take broad, long-term action that focuses not just on bullies but on victims--and on those who stand on the sidelines without intervening.

Olweus' anti-bullying program, for instance--designed as part of the effort in Norway--enlists children, teachers and parents in a multipronged effort to change attitudes and protect victims.

The results of the program can be impressive. In controlled studies in Norway, the program reduced bullying by 50% or more. It has since been shown to be effective in several other countries, including the United States.

In California, a recently proposed bill would require schools to have bullying-prevention measures in place. Another bill that would have provided some funding for such measures was vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis last year.

Former victims of bullying often live with scars. Dennis Deery, 33, a computer consultant in Wisconsin, recalls his school days as "a nightmare of harassment." Born with a cleft palate and slightly twisted lip, Deery was verbally and physically roughed up by his classmates--enduring, among other things, the school's tradition of "ripping," which "basically consisted of a wedgy to the point of ripping your underwear," he says.

To this day, he says, when the memories come back, "it takes tremendous effort to curtail the knee-jerk reaction of anger" at the powerlessness he felt.

A Question of Who Has Greater Power

Power lies at the very heart of why children bully. Bullying isn't your equally matched scuffle in the schoolyard: One way or other, the bully has an edge over the victim. It may be physical strength, emotional resilience or social status. Or, when it's two, three or more bullies against one, it's largely a matter of being outnumbered.

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