Monday, April 30, 2012

The Ripple Effect: 3 Ways Bullies Harm Observers

How to Stop Bullies

By Jared Heath

When student see bullying in action,
do they feel like they are on the witness stand?
Bullying is an extremely complex issue--though we never condone actions meant to intimidate, threaten, or cause fear in another student, bullies themselves are often suffering some sort of difficulty. Because they lack control in one essential area of their life, bullies will try to take control elsewhere, such as at school.

But bullying is not a two-way system between perpetrators and victims. Onlookers and observers also come under pressure from what they are observing. Three ways that bullies affect observers are 1) fear of being the next target, 2) guilt for not reporting or intervening, and 3) distraction from school work.

Fear of Being the Next Target

"Don't mess with him/her. You're next if you do."

"Did you hear what [name] did to [name] last week?"

"So there was this fight out in the parking lot Friday after school, and the school cop didn't get there in time . . . "

If you haven't heard any of these recently, then I applaud you for having such a safe school. But inherent in each of these quotations (and explicit in the first quotation) is the idea that you are in danger. Though I won't discuss students' four needs in detail ( love, freedom, fun, and power, as discussed by Diane Gossen), I would make an appeal to each person's fight-or-flight instinct: when in danger, some either lash out to protect him or herself, or he or she will feel an immense urge to run. Both urges are accompanied by a wave of hormones that take over a significant portion of brain function in what comes down to survival instincts.

I know many highly intelligent youth, and I can't think of a single one who can effectively learn why the War of 1812 is important, understand how to properly use the quadratic formula, or care about Ernest Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea when their survival instincts are kicking in.

No, the majority of students do not sit in class with their fight-or-flight in full force. But after the third fight in a week, tension runs high amongst students and teachers. And you know full well how that tension affects everyone--especially you as an educator.

Guilt for not Reporting or Intervening

Unfortunately, fear of being the next target is an effective way to keep many students silent. That silence then becomes costly as the guilt says, "How can I protect myself when someone else needs my help?" Educators and students alike all hope that by ignoring the situation, it will go away. But logically, we all understand that such is not the case.

What system do you have in place to help students report bullying without fear of reprisal?

I seem to remember the general sentiment in my East Tennessee schools was that it was better to be silent and tough it out than to be a snitch, a narc, a tattle-tale. However, I was far more likely to report activity as an outsider rather than a victim. I felt ashamed to be a victim, and so I kept my silence.

The silence, from all parties, is oppressing.

Distraction from School Work

I love Hemingway, though at the age of 15, Old Man and the Sea somehow wasn't as compelling a story as others. It was even less compelling one day in class after having seen a fight between two girls--not even the boys in my school fought so viciously.

But besides being a sideshow and a talking point amongst the student body, bullying of any kind erodes the constitution of the school. It breaks down the sense of security. And with no security, there is no learning.

This month, we are focusing on how to stop bullies, how to understand bullying, and how to create a safe environment in our schools. Email me your thoughts and experiences at, and I would love to publish your best practices for helping all students learn.

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