The Bullying Epidemic
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The Bullying Epidemic

Bullying is becoming increasingly dangerous, as harassed kids take revenge with weapons. What every parent must know to keep her child safe.


Bullies have been tormenting 11-year-old Timothy Summers since kindergarten. He's been pelted with rocks, sprayed with pesticides and forced to eat sand, says his mother, Kelly Summers, a nursing assistant from Andover, Minnesota. She's talked to teachers, school officials, social workers, the bullies and their parents, even the police, and although a few of the bullies received an in-school suspension for a day, the problem has persisted. "At one point, he talked about wanting to die," recalls Kelly. "I was really scared." Then, in March, after learning that Charles Andrew Williams -- the 15-year-old Santee, California, student accused of killing two classmates and wounding 13 others -- had also been bullied, she called the local paper, The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, and told reporters about Timothy's plight. When the paper published his story, he received more than 400 letters and e-mails from parents, teachers and other kids. "Two children from a town near Littleton, Colorado [where the Columbine incident occurred], came to see him," says Kelly. "Timothy was so touched, he cried." Although he's still being bullied (Kelly suspects that Timothy's hyperactivity makes him an easy target), this outpouring of support has lifted his spirits, she says. And the publicity led to three of the bullies being suspended for two days each.

Harassment is more common -- and serious -- than most parents realize. Each day, about 160,000 American kids skip school because they're afraid of bullies, reports the National Association of School Psychologists, in Bethesda, Maryland. "Although bullying isn't new, it's becoming increasingly dangerous," says Gaye Barker, coordinator of the National Education Association's (NEA) bullying and sexual-harassment prevention/intervention program, in Washington, D.C. "What happens in some cases is that the targets of abuse are afraid to tell their parents or teachers, so they put up with it until they start to think about revenge."

Recent headlines have borne this out. Last October, 14-year-old Sean Botkin walked into the Glendale, Arizona, school where he'd been bullied and used a handgun to take 32 students and a teacher hostage. After an hour-long standoff, police persuaded him to surrender without harming anyone. In March, Elizabeth Catherine Bush, 14, shot 13-year-old Kimberly Marchese in the shoulder at Bishop Neumann High School, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Bush claims that Marchese had tormented her. She's been charged with attempted homicide. And, of course, there was the April 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, that left 15 dead (including the two teenage gunmen, who had been bullied).

An Epidemic of Intimidation

While violent incidents are still relatively uncommon, harassment is widespread. A new national survey of nearly 16,000 children shows that about one third have been involved in bullying, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), in Washington, D.C. Unlike teasing, bullying involves repeated harassment intended to cause physical or psychological harm. The NICHD study found that 13 percent of kids in grades six through 10 had taunted, threatened or been physically aggressive toward classmates, while 11 percent had been the targets of such behavior. Six percent said they'd bullied others and been bullied themselves.

The researchers found key differences between the sexes: Boys were more likely to be bullies or victims of bullying. Girls, on the other hand, were more frequently the targets of malicious rumors, sexual harassment and jeers.

While the stereotype is that bullies have low self-esteem, they're actually often self-confident, says Kate Cohen-Posey, author of How to Handle Bullies, Teasers, and Other Meanies (Rainbow Books, 1995). In fact, the NICHD study found that bullies are often popular and tend to make friends easily. But if a bully feels slighted, he may be tempted to take it out on someone who can't fight back. Why? That's the coping mechanism he's familiar with; some bullies come from homes where they're harassed themselves. Bullies tend to perform poorly at school and by age 24, 60 percent of former bullies have been convicted of a crime, according to a study conducted in Norway.

Victims, on the other hand, generally have poor social skills and few friends, says Carolyn Roecker Phelps, PhD, assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Dayton, in Ohio. "These children may be physically smaller than their peers, may look or act differently or have different abilities." The psychological trauma of recurring harassment puts victims at risk of suffering from depression or low self-esteem as an adult-and, in a small but significant number of cases, may cause them to become violent or suicidal.

The younger the child, the more likely he is to suffer from bullying. A soon-to-be published study Roecker Phelps conducted found that 26 percent of third-graders, and only 11 percent of sixth-graders, said they were frequently shoved at school.

On the other hand, older kids are less likely to tell an adult when they are bullied. In Roecker Phelps' study, 36 percent of third-graders said they always or usually told a teacher when they were confronted with physical aggression, but only 5 percent of sixth-graders were willing to do so. When the bullying takes the form of ridicule, even fewer students will admit to being subjected to it.

What makes the pervasiveness of bullying alarming is the link to school violence. Last fall, a study by the National Threat Assessment Center, run by the U.S. Secret Service, found that in more than two thirds of the 37 school shootings since 1974, the attackers felt "persecuted, bullied, threatened or attacked." In more than half of the rampages, revenge was the motivation. Before opening fire on his classmates, Charles Andrew Williams was tormented. Student witnesses said kids burned him with cigarette lighters and accused him of being a "faggot." Even when he announced that he planned to "pull a Columbine," two students called him a wimp and dared him to do it.

Why has bullying become more serious? Jerald Newberry, executive director of the NEA's health and safety division in Washington, D.C., blames violent entertainment. "We're seeing more aggression than we did fifteen years ago because kids see complicated problems being solved by weapons on TV and in the movies."

Banishing Bullying

Despite the trauma-and potential danger-of harassment, some schools don't do enough to protect kids, says the NEA's Gaye Barker.

Fortunately, several states are taking steps to combat the problem. In May, Colorado passed a law requiring all school districts to adopt bullying-prevention policies. In addition, Georgia and New Hampshire recently passed laws ordering schools to ban bullying. California, Michigan and Washington are weighing similar measures.

During the 2001-2002 school year, Massachusetts will spend $1 million on a bullying-prevention program to be used in elementary schools in 16 cities and towns. The program involves instituting classroom activities to discourage harassment and provide support for victims.

Five other schools have received a U.S. Department of Justice grant to implement a highly successful Norwegian anti-bullying curriculum called Blueprints. The two-year program calls for zero tolerance of harassment.

Kelly Summers wishes there were a similar program at her son's school. "No adult would put up with being stalked, beaten up and verbally harassed at work," she says. "Why should children have to endure a climate of fear at school?" --Lisa Collier Cool

Keeping Your Child Safe

Although as many as 75 percent of kids are victimized by bullies at least once during their school years, nearly 50 percent of parents mistakenly believe that harassment isn't a problem for their child, according to a 1999 survey by the National Crime Prevention Council, in Washington, D.C. Here's how to protect your child:

Discuss with your child his day at school

Bullies pick on kids when teachers aren't around to stop them, so encourage your child to talk about his trip to and from school and how he feels about the kids in his class. Try open-ended questions: "What was fun today? What was the worst problem you had?"

Talk about teasing

A new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 54 percent of 8- to 11-year-olds and 40 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds want more information on how to handle bullying or teasing. Find out what rules your child's school has about bullying, and share the information with him. Encourage him to tell you or a teacher about any harassment.

Look for signs that your child is being bullied

Many victims of bullying are often too scared or embarrassed to reveal their plight, so watch for the following: He's having trouble sleeping, cries for no apparent reason, has unexplained injuries, has torn clothing or missing possessions, has lost his appetite, has a sudden aversion to school or has become sullen, withdrawn or clingy.

Take action

If your child is being bullied, schedule a meeting with the principal and give her a written report on what happened. Ask what she's going to do about it and write down her answer. If she fails to follow through-or the problem persists-talk to the school superintendent or board of education.

Helping kids stop bullying

To combat harassment and increase safety in schools, Court TV recently developed a curriculum for high-school students based on video clips from the popular television series Homicide: Life on the Street. The program is part of Court TV's Choices and Consequences initiative, which is aimed at helping adolescents avoid risky behaviors. The anti-bullying lesson plans offer teachers written materials, student handouts and suggestions for how students can apply what they've learned outside the classroom. For more information, call 800-274-9343 or check out

Halting harrassment at school

To help schools better address bullying, the National Education Association (NEA) has developed Quit It! and Bullyproof programs currently used in more than 30 school districts around the country. The curricula consist of class discussions, role-playing and reading and writing activities that educate kids about what kinds of behaviors are hurtful and how to deal with harassment. The NEA is set to launch a bullying awareness campaign in October.