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AN EDUCATION IN TAUNTING; SCHOOLS LEARNING DANGERS OF LETTING BULLIES GO UNCHECKED


MICHAEL D. SHEAR; JACQUELINE L. SALMON
WASHINGTON POST STAFF WRITERS
Sunday, May 2, 1999 ; Page C01

Samantha Gray measured each day in first grade by the intensity of the torment she received at the hands of the most popular girl in class, a blue-eyed blonde who had already become a cheerleader at age 6. Some days, Samantha's nemesis at Vienna's Cunningham Elementary School drew stick figures of Samantha with spiked hair and fangs and passed them around for all to see. The other children would laugh. At Christmastime, when students exchanged presents, Samantha opened her Secret Santa stocking and dog biscuits tumbled out. Her classmates barked at her.

Each day, 6-year-old Samantha ate her lunch alone and cried. "She got the whole class to pick on me and hate me," Samantha recalls now, a decade later, with vivid clarity. "Everyone wanted to be friends with her, and I felt like I wasn't wanted."

On playgrounds and school buses, in hallways and at bus stops, even inside classrooms, thousands of children like Samantha are taunted and humiliated every day by other children. Once dismissed as kids-will-be-kids antics, chronic teasing and bullying are beginning to be viewed by teachers, psychologists and others as dangerous social acts. Recent studies have shown that up to 30 percent of children endure harassment in school and that as much as 7 percent of eighth-graders stay home at least once a month because of bullies.  The massacre at Colorado's Columbine High School has refocused attention on the barbs and insults youngsters fling at one another. Schoolmates of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine shooters, have said the pair endured years of harassment from their peers, many of them athletes.

One student wounded in the assault later told reporters that Klebold and Harris were called "dirt bags," and that when they ate lunch, other students often threw things at them.

While very few victims of bullying seek revenge with deadly force, counselors say that what Klebold and Harris did serves as a stark reminder that youngsters who are bullied often carry their psychological scars into adulthood.

With the nation's attention focused on ways to prevent violence, experts who work with children say that schools and parents need to change an atmosphere in which teasing and bullying are treated as harmless rites of passage.  "We live in a culture where this kind of `dissing' may be considered cool or sarcastic," said Lillian Glass, a New York City psychologist who has written two books on bullying. School officials, she said, "ignore it. It's like nothing." The cruelty of children, it seems, knows no bounds.

Often, youngsters are ridiculed for the simplest of reasons: They are too short, too tall, too fat, too smart, too skinny. Anything that sets them apart is fair game.

They are pushed or tripped in the hallways. Anonymous hate notes are put in their backpacks. Their pants are pulled down. An unlucky few get stuffed into lockers. Some receive threatening phone calls and e-mail at home; others endure false rumors about their sexuality. Often, boys are called faggots and girls whores.   "You look at the kids who are the victims of teasing," said Henry Ticknor, principal at Brookfield Elementary in Fairfax County, "and you want to say, `Why?' "

Samantha Gray still struggles to answer that question for herself. But she can't. Bullies seem to target their victims at random, she said.  "I think they just pick a person every year to torment," she said.

Erik Berndt knows how that feels. From second-period band, where youngsters make fun of his looks, to sixth-period PE class, where they mock his athletic skills, school has become a nightmare for the eighth-grader at Langston Hughes Middle School, in Reston. "I can only do two pull-ups, and everyone else can do 10," he said. "They say `Oh, you're so fat.' And when we play baseball and football, I don't know the rules, and so when I make a mistake they say, `You're so stupid.' "

Erik's parents and teachers know what's going on. His counselors even tried to suspend some of his tormentors, a move Erik opposed. He doesn't believe adults can really do anything about it and, after nearly three years, he said he's come to expect that school will be an angry, uncomfortable place.  "They tell you to ignore it, and I try," he said. "They say if I don't react, they'll stop. But they don't."

Since second grade, Jay Patel, now 12, has been the target of a litany of stinging taunts -- "Hey shorty!" "Midget!" "Smurf!" The words ring out when he stands up to sharpen a pencil, waits in line in the cafeteria or walks the halls at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, where he is a seventh-grader.  There is nothing he can do, he said, except hope that he eventually outgrows -- literally -- the harsh words. But each new verbal barrage "stays with you for a while," he said quietly.

Andrew Hopping, a senior at Bethesda's Walt Whitman High School, endured years of bullying after he gained weight in first grade. "Pillsbury" was a favorite put-down, Hopping recalled. When he slimmed down in ninth grade, the taunting stopped, but the bitter memories linger.  Teasing and ridicule among children have long been ingrained in the popular culture, from Eddie Haskell's seemingly benign ribbing of "the Beav" on TV, to movies like "Carrie," whose title character wreaked revenge at the prom, and the current film "Never Been Kissed," in which Drew Barrymore portrays a young woman reliving painful memories of high school tauntings.

There can be a positive side to teasing, counselors say. Children often pick on each other in jest or when they are awkwardly trying to show they like someone.

"It's how kids learn social skills," said Judith Vessey, a professor of nursing at Johns Hopkins University. "Teens use it to flirt."   But the brushoff attitude some adults adopt toward teasing can mask its painful effects, those who work with children say. Adults almost always remember the names of their tormentors from decades earlier, psychologists say, and intense bullying can lead to depression, anger, even suicide.

Fourteen-year-old Laura Gately, who lives in Washington state, said she seriously considered killing herself to escape two years of ridicule by her middle school classmates. The harassment was relentless, she said. Students refused to sit near her at lunch. They mocked her clothing, hurled sexual slurs and giggled whenever she spoke.

"Sometimes I told my teacher what they did, and she would start crying because she felt so bad, but she never really did anything," Laura said.   The harassment ended only when Laura graduated last spring. She now attends high school.

In 1994, a Georgia student, Brian Head, fatally shot himself in front of his classmates after spending years as the butt of their jokes. His father, Bill, pushed for a new state law, signed in March, that makes bullying a crime and requires school officials to alert parents if it happens.

"Psychological bullying is the worst," said Kevin P. Dwyer, president-elect of the National Association of School Psychologists. "That's what gets people to obsess: `I'm no good. To hell with them all.' "  Glass, the psychologist from New York, said she believes bullying can be severe enough to cause the kind of rampage that occurred in Littleton.

"Yes, these two pathological children were off the charts in terms of how they related, but that's not to say that the teasers are not to blame," she said. "These jocks are tormentors. Teasing is a form of verbal abuse. It's torture." 

A 25-year-old Virginia college student said her stomach still churns when she drives by the homes of the girls who harassed her at Woodson High School in Fairfax.

They tried to beat her up, tossed toilet paper and eggs at her house and drove by screaming obscenities -- "things that I will never, ever forget," she said. Out of fear, she moved her bed away from the window.

After a death threat from a fellow student, the school even assigned a security guard to escort her to and from class, said the woman, who asked not to be identified.

Children are taught to confide in an adult when someone or something is bothering them. It can be hollow advice.

Twelve-year-old Lady Argenal said she tried telling her teachers at Robinson Secondary about the children who call her "fat" because she is physically more developed, and "Dalmatian" because of her freckles. Just last week when Lady brought a camera to school, one classmate told her, "You don't have to be in the picture because you're so ugly," the seventh-grader recalled, her eyes growing misty. But the teasing only intensified after she told a teacher, she said, "so it's better not to complain."

And there's a dilemma for adults: what to do?  Parents say they feel unsure about how to respond when their child is teased. Is it better to let them work it out themselves? Will calling the school stop the teasing or make things worse?   "Your first initial reaction is to protect your child. But their first reaction is, `Don't call anybody,' " said Melanie Jabbour, Samantha Gray's mother. She said her daughter never told her about the trouble in first grade but did confide in her about teasing by boys last year.  "We told her we would be willing to talk to the teacher. She said no," Jabbour said. So "we told her to try to avoid them, stay out of their way."

Erik Berndt's mother, Jan, said she has tried to convince him that wearing all black clothing -- a practice he started long before the Littleton slayings hit the headlines -- is an invitation to harassment. Torn between letting her son express himself and wanting to protect him, she told him he could wear black only three times a week. The day after the Colorado shootings, she and her husband begged Erik not to wear all black that day. "You are setting yourself up for trouble," she told him.   Erik disagrees. He says the students at school will tease him, regardless. His mother doesn't believe that, but gives in sometimes, realizing that "you have to kind of let your kids learn some lessons."

Knowing what to do is difficult for teachers and others as well.   Sally Murphey, an eighth-grade counselor at Robinson, said schools are just beginning to realize that the tried-and-true methods of resolving disputes between students don't work well with bullies.  Peer mediation, for example, can settle fights between students by bringing them together to talk things out. It doesn't work when a student is being harassed by dozens of others, or even when there's only one bully.

"Bullying is basically a power imbalance," she said. "You don't put a victim together with someone who has terrorized them."

More and more schools are adopting new programs.  Since the mid-1990s, students at Brookfield Elementary in Fairfax have met weekly to talk about bullying and teasing. In each classroom, students sit in a circle and are encouraged to bring up specific situations that bother them. "Because it's not accusatory and because the teacher is there to moderate the discussion, it really helps the children to be aware of how their actions impact the feelings of others," said Ticknor, Brookfield's principal.

Elsewhere, Bully-Proofing Your School, a nationwide program developed recently, teaches children to recognize bullying and to develop ways of protecting themselves, such as humor and avoidance. Teachers and other school staff, including bus drivers and cafeteria workers, also receive guidance.

In Charlottesville, Leslie H. Walton Middle School launched the program in October as part of a two-year-old effort to crack down on bullies. The school, which Principal Carole Hastings says was known for its aggressive children, now automatically suspends any student who harasses another.

"We do not put up with bullying," Hastings said.  In suburban Chicago, where police and university officials are conducting a year-long study of bullying in four schools, University of Illinois professor James E. Rollin said he too often hears from parents who don't take it seriously. "That's normal childhood behavior," they'll tell him. "What are you worried about that for?"   Asked what he would say to that, Erik Berndt grows quiet for a moment, then says, "I think people who say that have never really gone through this kind of thing."

Facts About Bullying:

What parents can do

SOURCES: National Association of School Psychologists, Connecting With Kids Web site, Bullyproof.Org Web site

Articles appear as they were originally printed in The Washington Post and may not include subsequent corrections.