Wes: Ten years ago, the Columbine shootings brought the issue of bullying to the forefront of public awareness. As we reflect again on that tragedy, the issue has reappeared in the news, this time with some surprising findings that beg us to revisit yet another idea that we think we know a lot about — and then find out we don’t.
Common folklore holds that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were social outcasts, bullied teens who snapped and went on a shooting rampage as members of a “trench coat mafia.” None of this has turned out to be true, as David Cullen’s new book explains. In fact, the bullies in this case appear to have been the shooters themselves. Cullen closely examines both and finds one a budding psychopath and the other a profoundly depressed teen. Together they methodically planned and carried out the infamous suicide attack.
Before anyone complains that I’m exonerating these two based on mental illness, I’m not, and I would question anyone who would try. Instead, I’m proposing that we focus less on how bullies drive children to acts of madness and more on how mental illness impacts the young and drives some toward sociopathic behavior. To be clear, it’s the rarest of mentally ill teens who acts out like Harris and Klebold. To suggest otherwise is simply to move the hysteria from one target to another. But if one looks at bullying in all its forms, one generally finds very disturbed thinking and emotion, which in turn leads to a callous disregard for others or even an strong urge to do them harm.
Schools now tout anti-bullying programs, and we are all certainly grateful for those efforts. However, the extent to which these interventions impact later behavior, especially in junior high and high school, is unproven. For the kids who can be reached, these programs may well build empathy and coping skills. For the more disturbed, especially those who come out of violent or severely dysfunctional homes, those messages stick about as well as “Just Say No to Drugs.”
The path to addressing teen violence and bullying has no single solution. It’s part psychology, part criminology and part sociology, and if you miss one of these, you miss the target. The intervention is, as we say in the biz, systemic. Instead, we tend to run from one idea to another hoping that “Zero Tolerance” or “Empathy Building” or psychotherapy will bring a solution to bullying when in fact none of these done in isolation can answer the multitude of questions raised by the problem.
For me, the most vexing aspect of the bullying problem is the way in which we seem to always pick the wrong people to punish. Since Columbine, I’ve seen schools suspend children for drawing pictures of guns in violation of school rules; bringing a few BBs to school (just the tiny balls, not the gun); or attacking other students with a plastic pop bottle on the grounds that it was a dangerous weapon. I’ve seen grade-schoolers suspended for accidentally bringing a pen-knife in their backpacks after a visit to a grandfather’s home where it was presented as a gift.
Today, young people must be coached never to say “I’m gonna kill ya!” because that is now considered a criminal threat rather than a playground taunt. At the same time, any teen can tell you that the kids who do bully tend to get away with it, and we’ve had several more school shootings since Columbine, as well as many barely averted. One was just down the road in Riverton, and it was discovered only because a MySpace posting was reported to law enforcement. We owe it to our kids to continue working on new solutions to insure that they are safe from harm, none of which are going to be easy.
Kelly: We never truly acknowledge any problems until disasters like Columbine happen. And that’s when reality hits. There is no going back; instead, we are left with unanswered questions and moments of regret and sorrow. For the bullying spectrum, I feel we are either taught about it the same way kindergarten children are, or we learn from the more extreme actions that ultimately lead to harsher punishment.
But why do we feel this zero-tolerance policy actually works, when in actuality it doesn’t? Our school systems use this policy to temporarily fix the situation. To the school, it may seem like the right choice, but to the bully, it may only seem like a slap on the wrist, when really there are deeper psychological issues boiling underneath.
There is a clear line between immature, minor playground bullying and the more sadistic type. Yet these two cases have a tendency to be categorized into one. Wes brought up a valid point when discussing how often the wrong person gets punished. For minor cases, the school system takes it to the extreme, outcasting the individual, leaving the student to live up to his/her label.
Instead of outcasting the individuals, I feel it is time for our public to seriously reanalyze how we are handling delicate situations like these. We shouldn’t continue to point fingers, give slaps on the wrist and call it a day. As an alternative, especially for the more extreme cases, we should assess the individual psychologically and socially. Kids have a tendency to live up to their labels. And we have a strong tendency to provide them.
We all come from different walks of lives, most of us don’t know others’ life stories, yet we draw conclusions and tend to lose our empathy for those we outcast. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to address this issue. But how long are we going to stand by while bullying and violence happen? How long are we going to turn our cheeks, acting as if nothing is wrong?
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Kelly Kelin is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.