School administrators will tell you their number one priority is to create a safe learning environment for their charges. Students cannot learn in an environment where they feel threatened. Student bullying greatly compromises a student's feeling of safety and so it compromises the learning process and has longterm detrimental effects on the bully and the victim.
Bullying has changed with new technologies and new cultural resources. All officers will immediately recognize traditional forms of bullying such as assault, tripping, intimidation, and taunting. But you may not immediately recognize rumor-spreading, isolation, name-calling, and the sending of insulting messages via e-mail (cyber-bullying). It is not necessarily bullying every time one of these acts occurs; a key component of bullying is that the victim is physically or psychologically less powerful than the actor.
A victim of bullying is selected for several different reasons. Commonly the actor is physically larger or psychologically more intimidating than the victim. The victim may also have a personality trait (shy, withdrawn, socially awkward) that makes him an attractive target. The victim may be from a different culture and may dress differently. A target may be selected because of taste in music, interest in academics, or sexual orientation.
In the past, bullying was not a problem that the police had to deal with; it was a matter for teachers, principals, and parents. You may not feel it is a law enforcement problem today, and may not feel equipped to understand the problem.
In order to put bullying in a light police are familiar with, you may want to view it through the prism of domestic violence.
Not too long ago, domestic violence was not considered a law enforcement matter; a fight between a married couple was a family problem. Domestic violence was thought to be a matter that the husband and wife would straighten out between themselves. Victims soon stopped calling the police because of the impotent response. Victims began to blame themselves for the violence they incurred. The victims would feel embarrassed and powerless to stop the abuse. This emboldened the actor and the attacks would become more frequent and more severe. It wasn't until later that we came to realize the longterm consequences of domestic violence. Today, there is no police department in the country that does not have a comprehensive policy designed to immediately handle any type of domestic violence call.
Parallels can be drawn between the early stages of domestic violence and bullying. The acts that constitute bullying have been seen by many as a harmless rite of passage. "Kids are kids and they will straighten it out amongst themselves in the schoolyard," is the attitude of many adults.
This may be true in some cases, but it is not true for the 8 to 38 percent of students who are regularly bullied. Most students do not report bullying; surveys indicate that the students do not believe telling an authority would do anything to help the problem. They suffer their abuse in silence because of the feckless response from adults. The repeated, unpunished acts embolden the 8 to 20 percent of students who chronically bully other students. The attacks become more vicious and more frequent. It is only now that researchers are starting to realize there are longterm detrimental effects for both the bullies and their victims.
Victims of bullying are obviously embarrassed and frustrated. Research indicates that they also have low self-esteem, which can lead to depression. This condition lasts for years after the attacks. The victims tend to be absent from school and be in poorer health. They experience higher incidence of social dysfunction (loneliness), anxiety, and insomnia. They also contemplate suicide more often.
The bullies themselves should also be of interest to the police. Bullies have higher incidence of status offenses like truancy, underage drinking and smoking, and dropping out of school.
Research also shows that bullying leads to other forms of criminal behavior such as assault, vandalism, and weapon possession. Without intervention, young bullies tend to remain bullies. They become adult bullies. And bullies have children who tend to become bullies. So the cycle continues.
Despite the damage, most victims are reluctant to report bullying. They believe the authorities will not do anything. They fear retaliation from the bully. And they fear they will be mocked for not standing up for themselves. They fear they will not be believed and nothing will change. When a local police department has a strong anti-bullying apparatus in place, many of these fears are allayed.
The absolute worst response is to tell the student to simply "stand up" to the bully. First off, the student probably thought of this tactic already and didn't need to be told. Secondly, this strategy can be physically and psychologically harmful to the child.
Parents and Principals
The first thing you have to do is recognize the resources that are available. There is strong evidence that the degree of the principal's involvement has an effect on the extent of the bullying. There is also evidence that student witnesses can be a positive force in stopping bullying.
Stopping bullying and creating a safe learning environment requires a multifaceted, comprehensive approach. Hopefully, bullying will not become another social problem that is thrust into the lap of law enforcement, with all other parties abdicating responsibility.
The school principal must be the main force in eliminating bullying and must create a schoolwide policy clearly showing that bullying will not be tolerated. Work with the principal to provide moral and technical support.
With your assistance, the principal will provide guidelines and training to all teachers and staff. The guidelines should spell out specific actions to be taken if an incident of bullying is observed. There should also be a structured response if a perceptive teacher gets wind of bullying but does not actually observe it.
Parents should become educated and involved. They must understand the extent and consequences of the problem and know how to intervene appropriately. Parents should be aware of sanctions the student will receive if the student acts as a bully.
Work with the principal to locate specific spots where bullying occurs. Most bullying occurs at the school rather than on the way to the school. Bullies thrive on privacy where they cannot be observed by teachers and staff. Anonymous surveys can be distributed to determine the location of acts. Principals should work to eliminate these bullying hot spots. This may involve trimming back some hedges, making certain rooms inaccessible at certain times, the re-deployment of staff, or the installation of surveillance cameras.
The principal must encourage student witnesses to come forward. A student population has very few bullies and a small pool of victims. But there are a large number of student-witnesses. These students do not bully, nor do they do anything to intercede on behalf of the victim. The student-witnesses facilitate the bullying in two ways. First, they provide an audience for the bully. They may laugh, cheer, or merely watch. But they empower the bully by providing a stage. Second, student-witnesses provide tacit support to the bully by not interceding or not reporting the incidents. It is estimated that over 85 percent of students have observed bullying; only between 10 and 20 percent of noninvolved students provide any help.
Again, you can work with the principal to get these student-witnesses involved in the reporting process. Studies show that the vast majority of students know that bullying is wrong. Getting them to report the acts can be done by setting up anonymous tip lines either by drop box, phone, or online.
Reduce the number of unsupervised areas around the school. Though it is obviously impossible to station police in every corner of the school, you can coordinate with trained volunteers (parents, retirees, upper classmen, student-athletes, honor roll students, etc.) to stand by in various hot spots. Research has shown that the mere presence of a disapproving party reduces bullying.
The school can buttress this enforcement by staggering class dismissals. Allowing underclassmen to depart 15 minutes early greatly reduces the interaction between bullies and potential victims. If this cannot be arranged, work with the school to identify chronic bullies. Once the bullies are identified, they can be assigned to a particular location or a particular chore during times when they would cross paths with the younger students.
Bullying is now recognized as a major problem in schools. The frequency and consequences are too immense for the police to overlook. You must address this problem head-on with a proactive response and work with school administrators to develop a comprehensive plan to deal with student bullying.
Det. Joseph Petrocelli is a 20-year veteran of New Jersey law enforcement and the author of the books "Anatomy of a Motor Vehicle Stop" and "No One Trips Over a Mountain." You can comment on this article, suggest other topics, or reach the author by sending a message to editor@PoliceMag.com.