Elephant in the Room

America’s flawed new antibullying movement.

Getting tough on bullies
Getting tough on bullies

( Spoiler Alert: This article gives away a small plot point of the movie Elephant.)In a pivotal scene of Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s Columbine-inspired film, a couple of handsome jock types in chemistry class lob spitballs at a pale boy sitting in the last row. Up until then, the camera has kept us guessing as to which kid (maybe the blond, sad one?) will turn out to be a killer. Now we know. Sure enough, the camera follows the pale boy home to the guns. As he and his accomplice plot the attack, he assigns himself the hallway with the “best targets”—that is, the “best jocks.”

Four and a half years after Columbine, there is an elephant in the schoolroom—or rather, a bully and, an even more unnerving presence these days, a bullee brooding on the bully’s taunts. Educational experts and administrators are focused as never before on what now goes by the name of “relational aggression,” the term for behavior that extends to subtleties of social invidiousness well beyond spitballs. Bullying is invoked as the cause of everything from school shootings to youth suicide to adult depression and violent crime—or if not the cause, then a strong correlate. Concern about the “culture of cruelty” in childhood has inspired antibullying legislation in 13 states and a surge in bully-proofing consultants peddling their services to elementary and middle schools.

You could call it the No Child Left Out initiative, a campaign that makes a point of giving bullies and their victims precisely what teachers and parents have traditionally worried was only likely to spell more trouble for both: lots of attention, above all from adults. The conventional wisdom used to be: Just walk away or slug the big lout while no grown-up is watching. That’s now lore from the dark ages. A far more comprehensive, intensive, adult-directed, scientific cure—imported from Norway, the land of the Nobel Peace Prize—has caught on over the last half decade or so. It’s known as a “whole school policy approach.” The paradoxical, if predictable, result has been to incorporate bullying as a topic into the curriculum—all in the service of striving “to eliminate bullying at school altogether”!

Dan Olweus, the psychologist at Bergen University whose research inspired Bullying in School: What We Know and What We Can Do and the influential Bullying Prevention Program, will settle for no less. He and his acolytes have created a very big challenge for themselves. He debunks the “myth” that bullying is merely a phase that a few unfortunate misfits—hulks lacking in self-esteem and lonely twerps—eventually outgrow and that adults do best to ignore. He marshals more than two decades’ worth of data (derived from the notoriously unreliable “self-report” method) to portray a near ubiquitous phenomenon that calls for close and constant monitoring.

Olweus found that 15 percent of Norwegian kids say they’ve been involved in bullying “now and then,” a slippery statistic that slides upward in the United States to as high as 25 percent of students reporting they’ve been victims and 20 percent confessing to being bullies. (Actually, the National Center for Education Statistics cites a much lower figure of 8 percent for the bullees, but you won’t find that on many Web sites; my kid admitted that in her class, the students were in such a rush to get to recess that they barely read their bullying questionnaires.) Identifying a continuum of predatory behavior, Olweus warns that teachers and parents may have to look hard to spot the power-hungry perpetrators, or the victims, who can be any sensitive kid lacking in social skills—especially now that, as William Pollack notes in Real Boys, playground protocol has banned overt physical aggression, encouraging bullies to resort to “a subtler set of strategies that include ridicule, shaming, making others feel inadequate.”

But the bully-proofers are undaunted as yet more “myths” are shattered, such as that girls or small schools are exempt from the problem. In fact, their crusade thrives on conveying the message that relational aggression is pervasive—that even the 60 percent to 70 percent of kids who are the “silent majority” are, depending on how you look at it, either secondhand victims or complicit bullies themselves. If that is so, only a wholesale, preventive approach can work. What Olweus and his allies are peddling is a “systems-oriented” intervention that charges adults with engineering a cooperative schoolwide culture of respect and inclusion.

It’s enough to require a special coordinator. After all, the mission entails not just exhaustive supervision (especially at recess), but regular discussions—with everyone, from janitors on up to parents—about “bullying and the negative impact it has on school climate,” as the Project on Teasing and Bullying based at the Wellesley Centers for Women puts it. Such communitywide consciousness-raising has more voguish appeal than does dealing with the individual kids actually involved in bullying; there the bully-proofers are stuck with the same old nostrums for beleaguered parents and overburdened teachers. Develop a warmer, more trusting yet firm relationship with your aggressive meanie; try to help your bullee, Olweus counsels, become “better adjusted.”

The antibullying crusade is practically begging for a backlash, and conservatives have been among the first to oblige. The typical complaint is that Scandinavian wusses (Sweden has been at the forefront of the field as well) and their homegrown acolytes are working to erode the resilience of American kids, turning them into thin-skinned sissies hypersensitive to slights. In an exposé of the “latest feel-good fad,” a Weekly Standard writer mocked the touchy-feely therapeutic types busy pathologizing normal rough-and-tumble behavior. It doesn’t help that the antibullying cause has a theme song, “Don’t Laugh at Me” (featuring such lyrics as “I’m a little boy with glasses, the one they call a geek … and I know how it feels to cry myself to sleep”), that proves an irresistible target—especially when it’s sung by the treacly lefty Peter Yarrow. (His latest mission is Operation Respect, a nonprofit that hands out its antibullying curriculum for free.)

But the real problem with the new bully-proofing campaign is not so much that it instills wimpiness as that it encourages a hypervigilant wariness, which hardly seems the best way to promote the community spirit of courageous solidarity the crusaders tout. Amid widespread concern that Americans are ever more prone to pathologize normal kid behavior (diagnosing rowdy boys with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, for example), it’s easy to miss an arguably more insidious process at work: The unwitting effect of the bully-proofers’ approach is to normalize more subtly and deeply pathological behavior.

What lessons in discrimination and intimidation, never mind respect, are adults teaching kids when they suggest that from spitballs (and dodge-balls) and spiteful “queen bees,” it’s merely a few steps down the hall to school murderers and “tomorrow’s adult violent offender”? It may sound inspiringly democratic to suggest that all kids are incipient bullies or victims, and thus heroes if they rise above the behavior. But the message is in fact demoralizing and surely wrong.