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Bullies do long-term damage to themselves, as well as victims

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 4 2012 12:55 a.m. MST

MURRAY — In third grade, kids started taunting Tate Harris about his sexuality, "something I'm pretty sure I didn't even have at the time," says Harris, now 23. The bullying continued, sporadically, and usually limited to a fairly small group of thugs, through middle school.

In high school, when he joined a school choir, typed notes began to appear on his windshield and the outside of his locker. "You should drop out," said one. "You should kill yourself," said another.

He told the choir director he was quitting; he hoped that would end the torment. The choir director told him he couldn't give in. That teacher talked to each of his classes about bullying and bigotry and being mean. The letters stopped and Harris, today, is grateful he stuck it out. But it wasn't easy.

National data shows bullying, particularly in school settings, is common. "Every day, thousands of teens wake up afraid to go to school," notes TeensHealth.org, which compiles numbers and offers advice. It says millions of students are impacted, but "because parents, teachers and other adults don't always see it, they may not understand how extreme bullying can get."

Widespread destruction

The National School Safety Center reports that American schools house about 2.1 million bullies and 2.7 million of their victims. Nearly 3 in 5 students say they've witnessed bullying at school. Prime bullying time is fourth through eighth grade, The National Youth Violence Center says nearly 30 percent of students either do it or endure it. Children who are obese, gay or disabled are among the most likely to be targeted, as are students who are quiet and nonassertive. But anyone's a potential victim.

Bullying is fueled, says Alexandra Penn, by silence and denial.

The problem has been growing, despite receiving more attention from school systems and lawmakers, says Penn, founder of Champions Against Bullying, based in Los Angeles and in Toronto, Canada. She had seen the frequency and severity of bullying intensify as a crisis intervention specialist and special education counselor and she decided "a lot of things were slipping under the radar that needed attention." She formed the group, which offers interventions, education materials, teleconferencing and more. "Most children won't tell, afraid their parents will make it worse. Or they've been threatened by the bully. There's so much that comes into play with it, but there's also so much parents can do."

Topping that list, Rosalind Wiseman, author of "Queen Bees and Wannabes," told the Deseret News last year, are three simple sentence: "I am sorry this happened to you. Thanks for telling me. And we are going to work our way through this." Then do it. Don't give the child bad advice, like telling them to ignore it or to turn the other cheek or to not let the tormenter see that it bugs you. "Those things are all really ineffective," she said.

A child should be allowed to handle what's manageable himself or herself, but parents should be ready to help out if needed.

Long-term damage

What was once considered "a normative experience of childhood and adolescence that most children move past or outgrow," is being viewed differently by experts, according to the U.S. Department of Education's "Analysis of State Bullying Laws and Policies." Researchers now link bullying to a long-term harms for both students who bully and students who are bullied.

Being bullied can lead to poor psycho-social adjustment, which may show up as a difficulty in making friends and increased loneliness, elevated anxiety levels, aggressive-impulsive behavior problems and more. It notes victims have greater risk of poor self-esteem, depression, suicide ideations and attempts. Those who are chronically bullied have lower academic achievement, more truancy and more disciplinary problems.

The bullies themselves suffer adverse effects, too, including "long-term socio-emotional and physical health consequences." They are more likely to abuse substances, they don't develop strong social skills and they have a higher rate of mental health problems. They, like their victims, are more likely to have aggressive-impulsive behaviors as adults.

Boys and girls are different

There are gender differences in how it's done, say Peter K. Smith and Sonia Sharp, authors of "School Bullying: Insights and Perspectives." Old-school thought was boys were physical and girls verbal. It's more accurate to conclude, though, that boys are more direct in their bullying, while girls are indirect, they say. And that quite likely means the incidence of bullying by girls is less likely to be spotted by those who could intervene.

Experts also note that adults trying to intervene sometimes punish the victim, rather than the perpetrator of bullying. That's particularly true with girls, since the aggressors are often viewed as the "good girls" or "popular" ones.

Among boys, a well-documented link also exists between bullying and crime: 60 percent of boys who were bullies in middle school and high school have been convicted of at least one crime by age 25. They are also more likely to become violent over time and continue to bully, taking it into the workplace and family relationships.

The group that fares the worst are the children who have been bullied and then bully others, experts agree.

It's a social problem with a range of degrees, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which calls bullying a public health issue. That's clear when you ask people about experiences within their families. Consider these real Salt Lake-area cases, the names changed at the request of parents interviewed for this story.

"Spring," 9, was told by her supposed best friend that a boy she likes thinks she's "ugly." It makes her sad and she doesn't want to go back to her third-grade class.

Someone posted on Facebook a picture "Lonni" didn't know was taken with a camera phone on a school bus and scores of her schoolmates added comments that range from snarky to vicious. When someone pointed it out to her, she was devastated. The taunting followed her to school, as well.

"Greg and Ruth" finally gave up after two years of watching their teenage daughter be alternately taunted and ostracized by a group of girls in the neighborhood. Requests for school officials to help didn't resolve it; much of the bullying just moved online where school officials said they couldn't do anything. Eventually, the family moved to a new neighborhood, selling the home they'd loved just to escape. "You have no idea how nasty kids can be," Greg said.

"When a family moves because of a bully, the bitter irony is, as we've seen in the majority of cases, this child will be bullied again," notes Champions' Lee Rachel Faith, director of operations. The adults need to figure out what's happening and address the issue with the bully, the target and the bystanders who are watching the show — whether they're enjoying it or not — and failing to intervene, she adds.

Fighting back

Bullying has made headlines nationwide with high-profile cases that resulted in suicides. The link has become common enough for a new term to emerge: bullycide.

There are lots of resources to help parents, including Champions (www.championsagainstbullying.com/), the CDC and youth safety organizations. The CDC's recommendations for school-based prevention include better supervision of students, use of school rules to detect bullying and provide consequences, consistent enforcement of a whole-school anti-bullying policy and collaboration between experts, staff and parents.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com; Twitter: Loisco

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