Is it that hard to stop bullies before they control a school's culture?

SWINDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 23:  The National ...

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As the tragic story of Phoebe Prince ricochets around the national news media, much of the conjecture rests on what school officials knew or should have known of the bullying that led to her suicide and whether South Hadley, Mass., school administrators should lose their jobs.

What I’m dying to know more about is what, if any, anti-bullying policies the school system had in place and whether they were taken seriously. (From what I’ve read, I’d lay odds the answer to question 2, anyway, was “no.”) Such policies and their consistent enforcement are centrally important because I suspect bullying always gets ugliest in a place where students implicitly believe they can get away with it.

I’m no expert. But as a teacher and parent, some things seem to be common sense. All students must be treated with respect. And when they’re not, those doing the disrespecting must be forced to examine their actions, to at minimum formally apologize to the offended student for them, and, if those actions are repeated, to be disciplined, firmly and consistently. Bystanders, too, need to be brought into the conversation so they come to realize that their silence always makes them complicit by emboldening the bullies.  (It takes a disinterested village to enable bullying and an engaged one to end it.)

To me, it doesn’t take a psychology PhD. to work this out, yet, from what I’ve read and heard, it may take educators with more sensitivity than those running the South Hadley schools.

Let’s make you the new principal of a local high school.  How would you try to contain bullying before it starts?  And what steps would you take to stop it once it started?


About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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15 Responses to Is it that hard to stop bullies before they control a school's culture?

  1. libtree09 says:

    As someone who has been bullied and moved from school to school my experience with with the problem was simple: I fought and when that wasn’t possible the technique of run-fu came in handy since blessed with quick feet and lastly there were friends, make em quick and big.

    Today is different with the social network, an insidious form of impersonal propaganda and personal assassination. It makes things complicated in a first amendment sort of way and who has ruled on when a word becomes a punch in the nose? In all my days of being bullied never did everyone else look upon the act without compassion. Usually it drew allies and even times when a big guy would intercede, usually from the new neighborhood. But there doesn’t seem to be neighborhood alliances, kids are driven to school and isolated in their homes.

    Bullies are to be despised, vilified by teachers and students. They should be pointed out and revealed to their parents, it is the age of video after all. However all to often they are the athletes or the rich kids and the media has made the mean and snotty glamorous.

    There were those rare times when I made them hurt, where the kid with the glasses displayed a knack of a well placed kick learned from my aunt and some good wrestling combined with a nice left hook from my uncle in the army. And a real knack for the sarcastic from my Jewish god father and the secret knowledge that bullying two is harder than one. Very satisfactory moments in my childhood even with the bloody nose and black eye.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      Social media does make it worse, no question. But it seems in this case most of the bullying took place at school. And she was indeed a target of the athletic in-crowd from all reports. I was lucky at my Long Island high school. The tough kids would rag us mercilessly because the school tracked classes and we were the smart nerds. But among our group was the biggest and strongest kid on the football team. That provided considerable protection.

  2. Caitlin Kelly says:

    Jerry, I was bullied for three miserable years in high school — and all the teachers knew and saw it and heard it; my op-ed on this will run this week in the Chicago Tribune.

    libtree is clearly male. One of the biggest issues when disciplining bullies is that girls tend to be verbally vicious — much harder to see and hear — while boys are physical. And girls are socialized not to punch someone in the nose, no matter how much we want to, and how effective it might be.

    A principal needs to make extremely clear – to every single student (a printed mission statement or statement of ethics handed to every student who enters the school for the first time) and to every single teacher there is ZERO tolerance for bullying. It ruined three years of my life and still affects some of my behaviors, many years later.

    It needs to be as repugnant — **and against the law** — as physical abuse. No principal would allow a kid to smash another kid in the face, let alone every day for months. But verbally? Go for it.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      I look forward to your piece and absolutely agree. I think in some cases there’s an underlying sexism, too, among some male teachers (at least in my day). Sort of a “girls will be girls” shrug.

    • facility says:

      Grownup women do it all the time and it is called feminism, so what is the big issue?

  3. justinfrederick says:

    Like all subjects that involve kids it all comes down to the parents. I also agree with your idea that the school needs to actually do something about bullying. When I was in school, about ten years ago, I can’t even remember a single instance that a school official did anything about bullying. They have these over the top policies about fighting. I am not supporting violence as any type of answer but usually bullying tends to end after you scrap it out. They need to make the policies for bullying much tougher.
    Back to the parents. It is the moral corruption of America in general. People base the worth of other people and themselves on what they have or don’t have. Not on the integrity and character of that person. When the parents do it then the kids do it. Then they let them get on facebook or other socailmedias and unsupervised. I don’t care what they say I will be checking my kids stuff through high school. It would not surprise me one bit to find out that many of the parents of the bullies new what was going on to one level or another. I have seen it several times were the moms will chat right along with their kids like they are one of them. This kind of stuff is only going to get worse.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      One thing I think schools should do is force students to apologize and copy parents on the apology. Let students know that if they bully, their parents will be brought into the discussion immediately. Good luck, by the way, checking your kids social media posts through high school. You’re going to be a really busy guy.

  4. Mr. Lanson,

    It is not possible to completely eliminate bullying but it can easily be reduced to a minimum. At the local middle school I saw this first hand. We had an excellent principle who made it known that bullying would not be tolerated and put actions behind her words. She was out on the playground during all breaks and the students knew that she was not to be crossed. Later, when she was promoted to district superintendent, a new principle arrived who was the exact opposite. You could not get him out of his office with crow bar and if parents complained about bullying, he said it was their own fault. The change in student behavior was dramatic and immediate. The frequency and intensity of bullying increased. Fortunately the tenure of this new principle was short and things are better again.

    However, having said all of that, dealing with bullies is not simple. Bullies do not fall from the sky, they are raised. Bullying is a learned behavior, bullies learn it at home, either by example or at the short end of the stick. Simply punishing them is not a long term solution. The fearsome principle at our middle school in most cases did not punish the vast majority of bullies. She simply brought them in, with the victim, and talked them through it. Their response was almost universally “We were just joking, whats the big deal”. She explained how what what the bullies thought was funny and cool was painful and cruel and was hurting other peoples feelings. She also explained if this behavior continued, there would be more severe consequences. That was all that was required in >90% of the cases. The real work was in the 10% where additional effort was required.

    It can be done, but it takes a determined and sustained effort.

  5. kingsleyzissou says:


    Keep your fucking hands off. If someone does not abide then the other party can and must strike without repercussion. Bullying will happen despite the policies. Bullies only understand force, it is an absolute, whether applied by the offended or someone with authority over them. There is no alternative but to speak the bully’s language and hope they get the message before it’s too late. Because if you don’t speak their language they just don’t get it.

    This is coming from someone with 7 years of experience trying other methods until I found the only one that worked…

  6. Caitlin Kelly says:

    If bullies are “simply” thugs who lack empathy and being raised by thugs who encourage them, it is still the school’s responsibilty to ALL students (hey, do you think those being bullied are lousy students or, maybe, hard-working, less socially popular “nerds”?) to make sure the environment is safe for every single one of them.

    Teachers and principals who dismiss or shrug off bullying are totally complicit and should be ashamed of themselves.

    I was told today that “all you have to do is stand up for yourself” as if that were the simplest action possible — which still obfuscates the primary issue. Why should anyone have to?!

  7. sharonsj says:

    I tell my friends that I got through high school by being oblivious to it. If people talked about me, I didn’t hear it, wouldn’t have cared anyway, and went my own way. Fortunately I went to high school when physical attacks were rare, and no one had a computer. Nowadays, if school officials are of no help, I’d send my kids to karate class.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      But does karate help when the bullying is verbal humiliation? I believe the first principle of education should be to build a respectful environment. If schools can’t do that, their teachers and administrators shouldn’t call themselves educators, should they?

      • sharonsj says:

        When I was older, I took several different kinds of martial arts classes for basic self-defense. Although I didn’t need it in high school, I still think people should know enough to protect themselves should verbal abuse lead to physical abuse. Martial arts teaches defense–that’s the key word.

      • Jerry Lanson says:

        You’re right if for no other reason than the skill breeds confidence, probably the most important quality in dfeating bullies.

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