The arsenal included a 9 mm semiautomatic
pistol, air-powered guns made to look like assault rifles, knives and
homemade grenades. Their owner was a 14-year-old who police say was
plotting a "Columbine-style" attack at a high school near his
Pennsylvania home, allegedly to avenge the bullying he endured in
"He may have believed that the world would be a
better place without the bullies in it," said Montgomery County
District Attorney Bruce Castor Jr., in the Philadelphia Inquirer,
following the boy's arrest last October.
Lethal attacks in schools are rare among the
estimated 60 million children who attend more than 119,000 schools in
the United States, according to The Final Report and Findings of the
Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School
Attacks in the United States, a 2002 publication issued by the U.S.
Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education. From December
1974May 2000, 37 incidents of targeted school-based attacks occurred,
committed by 41 individuals.
When these attacks occur, the nation appears to
get yet another wake-up call, followed quickly by a feeling of dread
that it's happened again. And the urgency to search for answers is
One of those searches, the Safe School Initiative,
began after the April 1999 attack at Columbine High School in
Colorado, hoping to "identify information that could be obtainable, or
'knowable,' prior to an attack." One of the 10 key findings of the
study: almost three-quarters of the attackers felt persecuted,
bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others prior to the
The study also pointed to the overall
pervasiveness of bullying.
"The prevalence of bullying found in this and
other recent studies should strongly support ongoing efforts to reduce
bullying in American schools," the report said.
Bullying is a type of aggression that occurs
repeatedly with the intention to harm or disturb, according to
researchers from the National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development, who studied its prevalence. It is characterized by an
imbalance of power that may manifest in physical, verbal or
psychological aggression from hitting to name calling, threats,
rumors and shunning.
That prevalence study, published in 2001 in the
Journal of the American Medical Association, found that nearly 30
percent of the more than 15,500 students surveyed in grades 610
reported moderate or frequent involvement in bullying.
Faced with such statistics and a growing body of
research on the immediate and long-term negative effects of bullying,
the tide of public sentiment is turning. Schools are reexamining their
policies regarding such student behavior. States like Maine are
issuing bullying and harassment prevention guides for schools and
communities. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services'
National Bullying Prevention Campaign sponsors one of the many
educational Web sites.
Then there are grassroots efforts, like the one in
Nova Scotia last fall. Two high school seniors said enough was enough
when they saw a freshman bullied for wearing a pink shirt the first
day of school. The pair bought 50 pink shirts at a discount store and
gave them to classmates. They also emailed their peers, urging them to
join the "sea of pink" anti-bullying cause. The next day, hundreds of
teens came to school wearing pink.
Despite the heightened awareness and growing
dialogue, the prevailing notion among adults is still that "kids will
be kids." Bullying remains largely viewed as a rite of passage; part
of learning to socialize and prepare for relationships as adults; an
immaturity that passes with age.
But research by educators and psychologists at the
University of Maine and elsewhere is showing that what is largely
considered an age-old problem of childhood has taken on new dimensions
in our technologically driven, media-saturated society. And its
effects have long-range implications. The bottom line is that children
and teens increasingly don't know how to relate to each other. And the
adults in their lives need to help.
One is the loneliest number
Friendships and group acceptance are
important barometers of youngsters' psychological adjustment, says
UMaine psychologist Cynthia Erdley-Gardella, whose research focuses on
children's peer relationships. Children without friends are at
increased risk for loneliness, depression, anxiety and low
self-esteem, which can lead to victimization.
Even if a youngster is considered an outsider with peers, all it
takes is one best friend to protect that child from being at risk
for loneliness, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, which can
lead to victimization, according to research by Cynthia
Erdley-Gardella and other UMaine psychologists. Victimized
students actively disassociate.
Victimized students actively disassociate, not
talking or sitting with anyone. Such withdrawal or loner mentality
becomes more problematic with age, as appeared to be the case with
Seung-Hui Cho in the Virginia Tech shootings, and is less normative in
males, says Erdley-Gardella.
"In general in our culture, males are not expected
to be sad, but they can show anger," she says. "Boys are not given as
much emotional support because they're supposed to be tougher.
Withdrawn, shy boys are more apt to be victimized."
Nearly all school shooters are males and tend to
be "overlooked" as not susceptible to relational victimization
bullying focused on harming a person's sense of belonging or hurting
his or her reputation by highlighting weak points, says
Erdley-Gardella. But when they tend to be depressed, some of these
boys act out rather than internalize their frustration.
Even teens' peers assume that girls are more
relationally victimized than boys. But a recent study of students in
grades 9-12 by UMaine Ph.D. psychology student Jessica Matthews
demonstrated that boys are just as vulnerable.
The finding was the result of boys self-reporting,
rather than relying on peers' perceptions of who is relationally
Victims need to try to find ways to be more
assertive and stand up for themselves. They also could benefit from
the support of others, but that doesn't often happen. According to
Erdley-Gardella, an estimated 70 percent of school-age children and
teens stand by in the face of bullying because they don't want to draw
attention to themselves and because they believe the victim somehow
deserves the abuse.
Bullies have esteem issues as well. Those who
bully say they victimize to create excitement, alleviate boredom and
increase their status in their peer group. It's important to try to
increase their empathy and see the effect of their words and actions,
"When it comes down to it, adults can't dictate.
Change has to come from the pressure of the peer group. What's needed
is a more open, accepting, positive, supportive and safe school
environment celebrating diversity. If that becomes a culture in a
school, ultimately students will have the greatest success."
For girls, the cultural messages about how
society expects them to behave, act and look are pervasive in the
media and in advertising. But the unrealistic portrayals set up a
dynamic among girls that is as divisive as it is destructive.
Girls need to understand girlfighting and the labeling and
competition behind it, says education research Mary Madden. A
key to turning girls from adversaries to allies is media literacy,
helping them critically analyze cultural messages and sexist
portrayals of girls and women, and respond constructively.
The result is a form of bullying called
Girlfighting is relational aggression girls use
against one another in their struggle to gain self-esteem and stature
in a male-dominated world. Though largely covert and subtle, the peer
targeting hurts girls emotionally, leaving them feeling excluded,
betrayed, insecure and isolated.
"As a result of girlfighting, girls understand
that relationships are not always what they appear," says Mary Madden,
an education researcher at UMaine who focuses on adolescent emotional
and social health issues, including girls' development and education,
gender equity and hazing.
"They also are aware of how quickly they can
become the target. As a result, they try to feel less vulnerable and
divert attention from themselves by targeting others."
Women who experienced girlfighting in their youth
or have daughters who went through it talk about how damaging it is,
Madden says. "When women can remember the details of their experiences
from 30 years earlier, it tells you something about the powerful
impact it has."
Three years ago, Madden coauthored From
Adversaries to Allies: A Curriculum for Change with Lyn Mikel Brown, a
professor of education at Colby College and cocreator of the nonprofit
Hardy Girls Healthy Women, based in Waterville, Maine. The middle
school curriculum addressing girlfighting prevention was cited in the
2006 Maine's Best Practices in Bullying and Harassment Prevention: A
Guide for Schools and Communities, published by the Maine Governor's
In a school with such a curriculum in place, girls
feel safer emotionally among their peers, Madden says. Not all the
girls are friends, but they are all allies.
Evaluation of the curriculum after its piloting in
10 Maine schools found girls who bought into the cultural ideals of
how they should look and act had higher rates of depression and lower
self-esteem. Depression decreased and self-esteem increased among
girls enrolled in the curriculum, says Madden.
With Adversaries to Allies in place, girls see the
value of taking action to support each other as opposed to downgrading
and fractionalizing. In such a school climate, adults are more
responsive to girls' concerns, including issues they see as
injustices. They help girls figure out constructive ways to respond
and make change.
"Once girls see that these are unjust messages by
society, then they can start to constructively respond for social
change," says Madden, whose upcoming research will involve the study
of girlfighting in the context of other social justice efforts aimed
at a more comprehensive approach to improving school climate. "They
learn to stick up for themselves and for kids on the outs, including
interrupting bullying when they see it."
For too long, the perception has been that
youngsters' friendships and adolescents' romances are innocuous
because they are often short-lived and superficial part of the
growing pains to endure on the road to adulthood. But through the work
of UMaine psychologist Douglas Nangle and other researchers, there is
growing evidence of the connections between children's friendships and
teens' relationships, and their implications for healthy adult
Recent research shows that children with bullying histories begin
dating earlier, view their relationships as less supportive, and are
at increased risk for entering into abusive dating relationships,
says UMaine psychologist Douglas Nangle. Research
showing the developmental trajectories of physically aggressive
children and the longer term implications for their future
relationships is sobering.
"We're realizing there's a connection between
physical and psychological aggression in young kids, and how that can
carry into future relationships," says Nangle, whose research focuses
on peer relations. "People need to understand that the different
problems and issues relating to aggression, bullying and dating
violence are connected."
Dissertation research by one of Nangle's graduate
students is investigating whether aggressive adolescent behavior in
peer groups and friendships is a predictor of similar behavior in
dating relationships. One focus is the role of relational aggression.
Nangle is particularly interested in the social
skills required as children make the transition from same-sex
friendships to larger mixed-sex group interactions and eventual
romantic relationships as teens. He and a former doctoral student,
Rachel Grover, now an assistant professor at Loyola College, coedited
a special section on the development of adolescent romantic competence
that will soon be published in the Journal of Clinical and Adolescent
Psychology. A feature of the section is that certain social and
emotional skills and competencies serve to form the foundation for
healthy adult relationships. These can be taught and fostered.
"Looking at dating aggression from a competence
standpoint, for instance, might show that coercive actions stem from
an inability to more constructively problem solve in conflict
situations," he says.
Nangle and Grover have been studying teens'
heterosocial competence, the ability to effectively negotiate social
situations that involve the other sex, including friendships and
dating relationships. They developed an assessment tool, the Measure
of Adolescent Heterosocial Competence, which asks teens to respond to
a range of challenging social interactions with the opposite sex. They
developed a parallel assessment instrument for use with college-age
"In one study, we found that college students high
in a dimension of social anxiety a fear of people evaluating them in
a negative way were more likely to use psychological aggression in
their romantic relationships. Sensing rejection, these individuals may
jump more quickly to coercive and manipulative responses in conflict
situations," Nangle says.
Not enough attention is paid to teaching children
and teens how to have healthy friendships and relationships, contends
Nangle, who also recently studied relational aggression in at-risk
preschoolers. From day one, children's behaviors in friendships need
to be viewed as bridges to more long-lasting relationships.
"The skills we use in relationships of all types
are so complex," he says. "(Yet) somehow we seem to believe as a
society that people will learn them through 'osmosis' or something.
Why not invest in more systematic educative efforts, perhaps as part
of the school curriculum and more."
Bullying in a virtual world
Student-on-student bullying is a
challenging enough dilemma for teachers and school administrators. But
bullying enabled by technology making it more anonymous, insidious,
instantaneous and far reaching is increasingly causing safety and
legal issues for schools and students.
"It's clear to me that this is a new and dangerous
form of traditional bullying," says Dianne Hoff, UMaine associate
professor of educational leadership. "It's (often) about sexually
degrading or terrorizing, making someone fearful, which to me is in
line with victimization."
A confluence of factors gives rise to
cyberbullying, leaving schools at a crossroads, says Hoff, whose
research includes contemporary legal dilemmas in education. More
courts are ruling that schools are becoming overly restrictive on
student dress, speech, and behavior. Coupled with the explosion of
technology and a generation of parents quick to defend their children,
right or wrong, students can bully more efficiently and effectively
than ever before.
Students who are cyberbullied by classmates may
seek help from school administrators, who can impose disciplinary
action as they would for other instances of bullying or harassment,
Hoff says, as long as the behavior occurred or has a negative impact
at school. But defenders challenge schools' jurisdiction in such
matters, claiming that the communication between students occurred
after school on a home computer. Parents of victims want the schools
to take action, whereas parents of the perpetrators argue their
children's First Amendment rights are being violated.
"Schools have an obligation to keep students
safe," says Hoff, who gives safety training presentations in districts
statewide on cyberbullying, intruders and threats. "If the problem is
related to school, I tell administrators they not only have a right,
but a responsibility to act."
Research by Hoff and UMaine educational
psychologist Sidney Mitchell found that cyberbullying causes fear,
anger, feelings of helplessness and inability to concentrate.
Paradoxically, those who have been cyberbullied said they did not stay
off Web sites or cell phone text messaging because the technology is
intrinsic to their social life.
"Research shows that students' most common way to
deal with bullying is to bully back," Hoff says. "There is also a lot
of evidence that cyberbullying can quickly cross over to real-life
stalking and physical assaults. What starts online escalates to
Hoff compares the virtual world that is fostering
cyberbullying to a modern-day version of William Golding's Lord of
"(In cyberspace) kids are on a virtual island with
no supervision, norms or rules. The worry is about an escalating
uncivilized environment for which they have no moral compass and which
has long-term implications," she says.
"Adults have to step up (and) help students
develop healthier relationships, social coping skills, and,
ultimately, appropriate moral compasses for an electronic age."
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from the current issue of UMaine Today Magazine.