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VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES | Essay

Neither a Bully nor a Victim Be

March 24, 2001|RICHARD LIEBERMAN | Richard Lieberman is a school psychologist with the Los Angeles Unified School District. He is a member of the National Emergency Assistance Team of the National Assn. of School Psychologists and has responded to crises at numerous schools, including Santana High School

Bullying is a serious problem in our schools. The behavior encompasses physical aggression, threats, teasing and harassment. Although not new to childhood, it has grown in scope and severity in recent years. Today, bullying affects approximately 5 million elementary and junior high students a year. Nearly 300,000 high school students are physically attacked and 125,000 high school teachers are threatened each month.

As a school psychologist, I work with both bullies and victims. Some bullies have predatory instincts while other children bully in order to fit into the group. They pick on the most vulnerable kids whom they think either can't or won't retaliate. Children that are most resilient to bullying typically know how to walk away from a situation and when and where to get help. Both bullying and victim behaviors are learned through influences in the environment, e.g., home, school, peer groups, even the media. As such, they also can be unlearned or, better yet, prevented.

Schools have a primary responsibility in this regard. The U.S. surgeon general's recent report on youth violence cites school environment as a leading contributor to determining possible violent behavior. Yes, parents are their children's principal role model and teacher. Schools must also create a culture in which no form of bullying is acceptable and students are taught alternatives to aggressive, anti-social behavior and skills to cope with difficult situations. Equally important is to teach kids to seek help from a caring adult, no matter what the problem. Building this level of trust can be difficult. It is critical, though, not just to prevent a school shooting, but also youth suicide, delinquency, and the quiet misery of children who feel outcast or afraid.

Effective bullying prevention programs engage everyone: from parents to school bus drivers. These programs balance security measures and discipline with positive support, including resources for students who are at risk of becoming a bully, a victim or a victim-turned-aggressor.

Creating this kind of support system takes a vigilant staff, with school psychologists and counselors who are trained to assess a student having trouble and then provide the necessary counseling and interventions.

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