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Bully for You: Why Push Comes to Shove

SOME people are just fair game for being picked on and put down: lawyers, politicians, journalists, mothers-in-law and, now, bullies. These days, everybody is ganging up on bullies, blaming them for all that ails us.

Bullies and their taunting, arrogant ways are said to have been the driving force behind the student shootings at Columbine and Santana High Schools. Young bullies supposedly grow into sociopaths, angry drunks, wife abusers or maybe mayors of major East Coast cities.

The victims of bullying are portrayed as emotionally disfigured for life, unable to shake the feeling that they are unlovable wimps, or that everybody is out to get them.

The news bristles with reports that bullies abound. Recently, in one of the largest studies ever of child development, researchers at the National Institutes of Health reported that about a quarter of all middle-school children were either perpetrators or victims (or in some cases, both) of serious and chronic bullying, behavior that included threats, ridicule, name calling, punching, slapping, jeering and sneering.

Another highly contentious study suggested that too much time in day care may predispose a child to bullying: youngsters who spent more than 30 hours a week away from mommy had a 17 percent chance of ending up as garden-variety bullies and troublemakers, compared to only 6 percent of children who spent less than 10 hours a week in day care.

Everywhere, legislators are struggling to beat each other to the punch in demanding that schools stamp out bad behavior. In Colorado, for example, home to Columbine High School, Gov. Bill Owens has just signed legislation requiring all state school districts to develop anti-bullying programs to prevent bullying.

In a similar spirit, the familiar phys-ed game of dodgeball -- also known as killerball, prison ball or bombardment -- is taking a hit lately, as school authorities nationwide have moved to ban the game on the theory that it fosters hyperaggression and gives the class klutzes an inferiority complex.

Yet even as quick-fix programs with names like "Taking the Bully by the Horns" proliferate across the academic and electronic universe, experts in aggressive behavior warn that there is no easy way to stamp out bullying among children. Short of raising kids in isolation chambers, they say, bullying behaviors can never be eliminated entirely from the sustained hazing ritual otherwise known as growing up.

"Can we get rid of bullying altogether? I don't think so," said Richard J. Hazler, a professor of counselor education at Ohio University in Athens. "We can't eliminate all growing pains, either. It's tough learning to make your way in this world."

Philip C. Rodkin, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pointed out that, despite all the attention being paid to the subject, the root causes of bullying remain a mystery. "This is not a trivial problem," he said. "Bullies have always been with us, and we're only beginning to ask why."

Some researchers say that, despite the hype and handwringing, there is no epidemic of bullying in schools, and in fact the incidence of serious bullying has very likely declined over the years.

"It certainly was a problem when I was in boarding school, but that was ages ago," said Richard Dawkins, a professor at Oxford University who has studied the evolution of aggressive and selfish behavior. "I believe there is far less bullying now, though there probably will always be a bit."

As an example of how bad it used to be, Professor Dawkins cited a passage from the British poet John Betjeman's 1960 autobiographical poem, "Summoned by Bells."

Twelve to one:

What chance had Angus? They surrounded him,
Pulled off his coat and trousers, socks and shoes
And, wretched in his shirt, they hoisted him
Into the huge waste paper basket; then
Poured ink and treacle on his head. With ropes
They strung the basket up among the beams
And as he soared I only saw his eyes
Look through the slats at us who watched below.

As Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, sees it, one of the problems in the standard approach to bully analysis is that researchers tend to ignore the subtle dynamics between a bully and the object of a bully's scorn -- the scapegoat. "Some individuals may have bully characteristics, and others may have scapegoat characteristics," he said. "The two things need to be studied together, but because personality research is generally done from an individual perspective, they rarely are."

Dr. de Waal has observed that bullying behavior is quite common among most species of monkeys and apes, and that many animals at or near the top of the hierarchy will harass, charge, snap and howl at their subordinates for no other reason than because they can. But at least as striking as the presence of simian bullies, Dr. de Waal said, are the resident scapegoats, the low- ranking individuals who seem to be chosen for the role by other members of the group. Whenever a group is under strain, or when its hierarchy is in doubt, the higher-ranking primates start taking it out on the scapegoat, with the result that any time the beleaguered monkey ventures from its corner, it gets beaten up.

"This is not just a way to release frustration," said Dr. de Waal. "The scapegoat also gives the high-ranking individuals in the group a common enemy, a unifier. By uniting against the scapegoat in moments of tension, it creates a bond."

And while primate research can never be applied directly to human affairs, even when those humans are swinging from monkey bars, bully experts admit that children in groups will often encourage, or at least not discourage, a bully's nasty acts against an underling. In one study of how peers contribute to bullying, researchers from York University studied videotapes of 53 episodes of bullying among elementary school students on the school playground. The researchers found that 54 percent of the time, onlookers stood by passively as the bully picked on the victim, an inactive form of activity that the researchers said ended up reinforcing the bully's behavior. And 21 percent of the time, some of the onlookers joined in on the taunting. Only in 25 percent of the cases did a child attempt to step in and help the victim or call a teacher to help.

But as researchers lately have discovered, many bullies in fact are quite popular. "Some kids may be goaders, cheering the bully on because they want to be accepted," said Laura Hess Olson, an assistant professor of child development at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "Or they may just stand by and do nothing because they're afraid they might be targeted next." Whatever the case, she added, "We have to realize that everybody is a player in creating the atmosphere in which bullying occurs."

Another point worth noting, said Dr. Olson, is that the old stereotype of the bully as an antisocial and unpopular misfit is false. In one study of third- to fifth- graders in two East Coast schools, she and her colleagues found that, while the students described by their peers and teachers as friendly, outgoing and self-confident were the most popular, the boys known to be bullies were the second-most popular group, way beyond the perceived wimps, eggheads and teacher's pets.

"There are a fair amount of kids in a classroom who think that bullies are cool," said Dr. Rodkin, "especially when they're attractive and athletic."

ADDING to the challenge of curbing bullies is the fact that, as researchers have learned, many students blame victims of bullying for bringing their troubles on themselves by sulking or whimpering or walking around with their head hanging low. A sizable number of students agree with the premise that bullying can help "toughen" people and teach which behaviors are laudable and which are risible to the group.

In this scenario, then, bullies are neither born nor made, but instead have bulliness thrust upon them. The group needs its whipcracking rulemeister, just as an army boot camp needs its snarling, abusive sergeant if the soft-bellied newcomers are ever to get into fighting trim.

Indeed, it's hard to see how bullying behavior in schools can be eliminated when bullying behavior among adults is not only common but often applauded -- at least if it results in wild success. J. P. Morgan, for example, was thought by many of his colleagues and subordinates to be, in the words of Robert M. LaFollette, the Wisconsin progressive, "a beefy, red-faced thick- necked financial bully, drunk with wealth and power." Yet he was also lionized in his day, described by officials at Harvard University as a "prince among merchants," a man of "skill, wisdom and courage." Hey, he was the richest guy in the world, wasn't he?

It's perhaps a bit of delicious paradox that, at a time when the nation is seized with concern over school bullying, the international community views with alarm the recent moves by the United States to scuttle the Kyoto global warming treaty and to promote the construction of a space-based nuclear missile shield. To the rest of the world, it seems, America is the biggest bully of them all.

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