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Archive for Tuesday, March 13, 2001

A crackdown on bullies?

March 13, 2001

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The always-shocking news of another school shooting is almost always followed by news that the shooter had been bullied and ridiculed by fellow students.

Once upon a time, kids responded to bullies by passively enduring the humiliation or by standing up to their tormentors in an old-fashioned schoolyard fistfight. The new reaction of choice seems to be mass murder.

That 15-year-old who is charged with killing two classmates and wounding 13 other people at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., was reportedly tired of being picked on. He now faces multiple charges of murder, attempted murder and assault with a firearm.

Prosecutors plan to try Charles Andrew Williams as an adult, as well they should. Murder is an extremely grown-up crime. A 15-year-old is not subject to the death penalty in California, but adult convictions on all the charges against him could earn Williams more than 500 years' worth of prison sentences, according to news reports.

Do you suppose he might be wishing that he'd opted for a fistfight?

Several things happen after a school shooting. One is a sudden rash of "copycat" crimes. For example: An eighth-grade girl shot a classmate Wednesday at a Catholic school in Williamsport, Pa.

Another is that gun-control advocates promptly flood the airwaves demanding tough new restrictions on firearms.

And another is that psychologists and assorted experts on bullying come out of the woodwork with advice on helping youngsters cope with the daily humiliation of being picked on.

What we rarely seem to hear is somebody demanding an end to bullying or at least calling for severe punishment of kids who victimize classmates.

Everyone is outraged that several classmates and at least one adult knew that Williams was contemplating violence against his tormentors and others but didn't bother to alert police or school officials. To be sure, such noninvolvement is unforgivable; a tragedy was apparently avoided elsewhere in California when a student blew the whistle on two 17-year-olds who were planning an armed attack at their school.

It stands to reason that lives could be saved if people who know or suspect that trouble is brewing would step up to the plate and try to stop it. But shouldn't prevention go far beyond that?

Why aren't we urging students to squeal on classmates who push other kids around? Why aren't we calling for stringent punishment of the bullies who torment their fellow students?

No amount of bullying justifies violent retribution, obviously, but the jerks who provoke a kid like Andy Williams to a state of murderous rage surely share some responsibility for the horror that ensues.

San Diego County's district attorney downplayed the bullying aspect of that case in a TV interview the other day "It's more complicated than that," he said but too many people who know Williams have mentioned it for anyone to dismiss it as an important factor.

So why does it seem that no one is interested in confronting this part of the problem? Dealing with bullies is just part of growing up, we say. Every school has bullies and victims, we say; the victims simply have to learn to cope.

After the murderous rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado where the perpetrators reportedly considered themselves social outcasts school officials urged students to be more tolerant of classmates who were "different." That was good, but it hardly constituted a crackdown on the schoolyard culture of bullyism.

It's true that there have always been bullies and that learning to deal with them to survive them, you might say is part of growing up. But the bullying didn't use to end in a hail of bullets.

We are ready, willing and able to blame the epidemic of school shootings on the right to bear arms, on the shooters' parents, on violent music, video games and TV shows.

Why don't we want to place some blame on the bullies who drive these kids to murder?

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