Dispatches from my childhood

...on growing up in New Jersey...
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OCTOBER 10, 2011 11:33AM

On Bullying & the Anti-Bullying Message

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School hallway


My first bully, I’ll call Jeff. In the fourth grade he was merely bigger than me. By the time we reached high school he had been replaced by other tormentors, but the logical fruition of his early menace appears in a baseball team photo in my senior yearbook: A hulking knuckle-dragger with a scuzzball moustache and a gape-mouthed expression of dumb contempt. In my fourth-grade class, the preferred game for boys during recess was Kill the Guy With the Ball. Imaginatively, Jeff turned the rules on their head by grabbing the ball and killing me instead. Long after graduation, I learned he became a cop.

I still had a few friends in the fourth grade, and they began to call me names. When I asked them why, they shrugged. "It's your turn," they said. This, I took at face value. After all, weren't grown-ups always telling us we were supposed to take turns? So, in the spirit of friendship, I took my lumps and waited for someone else's turn to come. And kept waiting.

I was picked on for many of the same reasons other boys are: Underdeveloped, a little too bright, no athletic ability, emotions too close to the surface. Grown-ups called me sensitive (read: crybaby), a late bloomer, the euphemistic kiss of death. But there were other contributing factors that were less common.

Not long before Jeff began to bruise me silly, anatomy lessons started triggering in me mysterious, mortifying fits of terror. I’d be overcome with panic and nausea, and in a cold sweat I’d flee the classroom. Anxiety attacks were not part of the public consciousness at the time, and even though I was otherwise well behaved, my outbursts were misinterpreted as a class-dodging scam by my teachers and digested as comedy by my classmates. I felt singled out as freakish and weak.

Well into my adult life, I finally traced my anxiety attacks to the first grade and the death of my best friend and classmate, Hal, of a disease. He was my age and his body had simply failed him. Anatomy lessons were a graphic reminder that mine could, too, and at that age I lacked the emotional resources to process it. That was one reason I didn't fight back against my abusers: I was afraid of receiving an injury I couldn't recover from.

I was an easy mark. The more I was denied acceptance, the more I craved it, and the fewer social skills I developed, which seemed to validate the scorn aimed at me. I became awkward, a nerd. The cycle perpetuated itself. I imagine this is typical.

A few individual bullies came and went after Jeff, but more often the abuse was a group effort. I felt like a community resource, the go-to victim for any phys-ed tough or cool kid after a quick hit of social currency. Occasionally I was threatened, shoved or struck. More painful was the routine derision and ridicule. I had a hard time making friends.

The abuse peaked for two weeks in the eighth grade, when for reasons that remain a mystery, every time I entered the gymnasium for morning attendance the class erupted with laughter at the sight of me. I'd quickly find a seat in the front of the bleachers and try to look invisible as my classmates jeered at my back. It didn't occur to the teachers to have me report for attendance somewhere I wouldn't be publicly humiliated, or to my parents to keep me home as I'd begged.

Inevitably I developed some issues. The experience in the gym seemed to confirm everything I’d come to privately fear about myself, that I was somehow less. I began to loathe myself. One hundred and twenty-five eighth-graders, I reasoned, couldn't be wrong.

In many ways my adult life has turned out well. I like who I’ve become. But the ways I’ve been disappointed I can trace to the parts of myself that grew as a response to being ostracized and bullied. I think about it not all the time, but more often than I care to admit. I’ve had enough time to get over it. I know I'm dwelling in the past when I recall these memories, that I'm the one keeping them alive. But our childhoods are the foundation on which the rest of our lives are built. We’d be kidding ourselves to pretend it doesn’t matter.


My feelings about the recent anti-bullying movement are mixed. Obviously I support the message, but one wonders whom it is meant to reach. Lets start with parents: It's been frequently noted that children who bully are often acting out from dysfunctional home environments. Their parents tend not to be the most attentive, or even necessarily compassionate. Even parents who would intervene can't be around all the time. The same goes for teachers, although they are more likely to have a front-row seat to the problem. They can respond to bullying if they see it, but do little to prevent it. As for kids...for them bullying is a daily reality. They hardly need their awareness raised. And by the time they're old enough to be part of the problem, they've already chosen, wittingly or not, which side of the issue they're on. They can be encouraged to change their minds, sure. But kids aren't stupid. They know when adults are trying to manipulate them, and -- especially the ones most likely to bully -- respond as any young adult working to establish an independent identity would.

A bully terrorizes the weak for personal validation and social status, the most coveted prizes in adolescence. He's unlikely to sacrifice them just because the teacher said so. Will he think twice about his behavior if he thinks his victim might commit suicide, as the latest anti-bullying campaign seems to suggest? He might. But he's far more likely to realize that such extreme reactions are rare, and reckon he has too much to lose by deferring to that remote possibility.

When we speak out against bullying, I wonder if we as a society really mean it. In the U.S., we believe in compassion, but we believe in self-determination more. America loves a winner, and it’s your own fault if you’re not on top. That’s fair, I guess. But we tend to leave it at that. We don’t help the weak as much as we might because on one level, we blame the victim. The bullied are typically bullied because they won’t fight back, and part of us is repelled by that passivity. We might identify with an underdog, but not a loser.

We won’t -- at least through official channels -- give the bullied the only viable guidance, which is to stand up for themselves and fight back, because it condones violence, is far from fail-safe and may get them hurt even worse. We don’t want to take responsibility if it goes badly. So we take the easy way out with feel-good, non-confrontational advice: Ignore the bullies, turn the other cheek, be yourself. Those don’t work, I tried.

If the anti-bullying movement prevents some schoolyard misery, provides some comfort to the bullied or stays even one victim from taking his own life, then it’s worthwhile. But it attempts to stamp out behavior deeply rooted in human nature, and it's hard to see how a handful of Youtube videos are going to do that. That's why this latest message, though necessary and long overdue, is difficult to take seriously as a tool for change.


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Are you gay sulaco?



You han't the vaguest idea not the slightest interest in what's really going on here and what's really at stake -- the lives of LGBT kids.

I've no doubt you couldn't care less so once again

A moving and very honest piece, Sulaco, on all fronts. I do still think about what I've endured and how it's contributed to my failures more than my successes. It does get better, but you still internalize a lot of that crap without even thinking about it.

I do still believe in the power of the anti-bullying campaigns. It Gets Better has had an enormous impact for LGTB youth. I wonder if there's some sort of a gap for non-LGTB bullied kids, or if they themselves avoid It Gets Better for fear of being branded gay, etc. ?
Yes, David, actually I am gay.

No, not really. But I was called every gay slur there is, if that makes any difference to you. Which, strangely enough considering my article had nothing to do with LGBT kids specifically, appears to be quite a lot.

Would I be more deserving of compassion, would my pain be as valid as yours, if I was attracted to men?

I don't need to defend myself against that kind of logic.
ChillerPop - I agree with you about the "It Gets Better" campaign. That, I do take seriously. However, I thought of it as a gay pride campaign. I did not think of it as a general anti-bullying message, although I see it has overlap. I think the success of "It Gets Better" has to do with its focus: it has a clear message for a specific audience. It would be nice if there was something like that for the rest of us...I don't mean segregated, but something similarly focused. I think the scope of the problem makes that impossible, though. It's human nature to form cliques and pecking orders. Someone is always going to get the short end of the stick. No campaign will ever change human nature. Even "It Gets Better" is about providing comfort to the wounded. It does not, as far as I know, try to prevent the bullying itself.
It's anti-bullying for LGTB kids, although some of the messages do overlap into general sentiments about bullying in general. The focus is important since suicide rates in gay teens are considerably high.

Great point also about the gay slurs.

I hear what you're saying about human nature and the general "ignore them, turn the other cheek" advice, as well as the uncomfortable truth about fighting back. But I also think it's powerful for bullied kids to know there's a great big wide beautiful world out of the little hell you're currently in.
A bully is compensating for his stupidity, so outsmart him or take your lumps.
Ignore them worked for me. I was picked on in Jr High by a girl who was jealous of me because I had a bust and she didn't. I wasn't particularly impressed with my body, so I thought she was crazy --- and it showed.

I was a loner, far from the "in" crowd, ripe to be bullied, but my basic disdain for the opinions of people who weren't my friends made their comments roll off my back and they moved on to better targets.

I think schools need to have interventions and bullying awareness, but it needs to be targeted to the situation. I've certainly found the bullying awareness makes me more vigilant when my kids come home saying something troubling.

My son has repeatedly said another boy farts, smells bad, etc and has repeated that at least one other boy joins in. I find it hard to deal with, since before he started picking on the victim, he had tried to befriend him, until he learned through their sisters (who are friends) that the other boy had said some hurtful things about him.

I don't know if my son says these thing in the presence of his target or if the other boy feels bullied.
Bullying is ENTIRELY an attack on LGBT kids or those "perceived' to be so.
Wow. This was such an astute examination of the genesis and psychology of the bully-bullied dynamic. I was thinking last night, as I watched Dr. Drew's show on bullying, about the irony of financial bullying -- the 1% bullying the 99% and that Occupy Wall St. is really an example of the bullied fighting back. I do think anti-bullying campaigns are important and I think we actually need to get more forceful with bullies because that's the only language they understand.
And yes the "It Gets Better" campaign IS a Gay Pride Campaign.


Apparently you do.
David, take it somewhere else. I've already made my position on LGBT clear in my comments even though my article had nothing to do with it. Go pick a fight with someone else.
Your article SHOULD have had to do with it.
This is one of the most clear-eyed, unsentimental, astute descriptions of bullying I've ever read. I'm so sorry for what you had to endure.

As a substitute teacher, I've seen my share of bullying, and the more I know the muddier it all gets. As Malusinka suggests, it is very complicated. As one example, one school developed a new anti-bullying program that had notes going home to parents of children who had demonstrated bullying behavior--little "incident reports"-- and I began to notice that some very outspoken kids began using that system to get at other kids, calling on me to send a bullying report home to so-and-so. In a twisted way, some kids used the system to bully others.

It's the "emotions too close to the skin" that most accurately describes the best indicator of whether someone is bullied, in my experience. I have studied, observed, and written about this for literally years, and the very best advice I can come up with for children is to not care. I realize it sounds ridiculous, and it may even be impossible for people whose organic makeup involves deep caring about everything. But Malusinka hit it on the head when she said she had disdain for her bullies. There is nothing, nothing, so precious as that disdain when it comes to fending off a lifetime of bullying. As you so well record, the bullying itself takes a toll, makes its mark, begins to create a person.

Needless to say, a societal contempt for bullying is also--no, mainly--important. But that is a meaningless strategy for individuals and their families. If there is anything at all I would say to them, it's this: Life is so much broader than your narrow school world. Look up and around and understand, at the deepest level, that there are a million other interesting and important things to do: books and music and art and hard work and history and politics and the environment. There is content> all around you. Find something that you love and do it and understand that the idiots who are bothering your psyche right now are nothing at all.

It sounds lame, but ruminating on who likes you and who doesn't will not only not help you right now, it will make things worse, because knowing that you care is like blood in the water to the sharks.

What do you mean by "not care" Lainey?

Isn't that just "don't pay attentio to them and they'll stop"?
The problme is bullies DON'T stop. And "not care" can end upas tacit aproval.
This is going to sound like it's coming from left field, but if you are still having anxiety about being around others (PTSD from being bullied) you are not alone.
Personally, I'm a fan of propranolol. The SSRIs gave me a skin to be less invested in others needs over my own, and the propranolol helps me have less of a fight or flight reaction to stress. YMMV, but it's worth talking to your doc if you think it might help ease life a bit.
and David, I'm bisexual and don't see your point
perhaps I'm not gay enough?
Great post. I am sorry that you endured such things as a child and young adult. I think you are correct that the campaigns will change little as long as our society values winning over everything else. But the the anti-bullying movement will build tolerance for all people, LBGT, Jewish, fat, ethnic, etc. It's even more important these days when the trend is heading the wrong way. A poor economy breeds all kinds of intolerance and xenophobia.

David Ehrenstein: It's not all about you. It never is. When I was a 5th grader, being called a queer was the most common insult. I am sure that none of us knew what it was about since our education about sex was mostly from peer gossip. Queer meant girly, weak, unmanly, different.

Even later when it meant someone who sucked cocks, we didn't get why someone would do that. It might as well have meant someone who ate boogers. But kids today know all about that stuff by the 5th grade, a full two or three years younger than us.

Acceptance of LBGT is important to me. But LBGT is not the only reason people are bullied. So broaden your focus a little and show some empathy.
No it's not about me -- it's about the LGBT community. I am not everyone.
Kids are bullied for being gay being perceived to be gay. "FAG!" is a verbal weapon of loathing and disgusted directed at actual LGBT kids and everyone else for them to "stay in line." Cause to be perceived as gay is THE WORST THING IN THE WORLD.

The Schools have not protected LBGT kids. In fact most have gone out of their way to keep from protecting them. A sympathetic teacher or two is not enough -- as the muder of Lawrence King shows.

Oh and BTW, a group of jurors on that "hung" first trial have formed a support group to free the murderer.

So broaden YOUR focus a little.
erhenstain is the bully. loud mouth old queen hides in the dark corners of this schoolyard called open salon. shut the fuck up yourself.
Get some therapy, David. Really. You're over the top.
Ehrenstein, settle down already. No one here is denying that LGTB kids are bullied or that gay slurs are popular ways for bullies to cause harm. But it's not the ONLY factor involved nor the only reason kids are bullied.
"erhenstain is the bully"

Right on time. I was waitng for that one. But i'm generally called "Urinestain" when I'm being dissed.
My experience had nothing to do with perceived (or real) gayness. Phoebe Prince, the Massachusetts girl who was bullied and committed suicide was not gay, perceived to be gay, nor called gay slurs.
"But it's not the ONLY factor involved nor the only reason kids are bullied."

It's the overwhelmingly primary factr. Again, as I've nentioned before "FAG!" is the bully's primary verbal club. And "FAG!" is used against one and all.

You can downplay this all you want to in here. It doesn't alter the facts in the real world.
I'm not downplaying anything. You seem to be denying the fact that non-LGTB kids are and can be bullied, and you seem to think that focusing and reflecting on that experience - which is Sulaco's own - somehow minimizes LGTB kids or is some kind of expression of homophobia. It doesn't. Yes, "fag", a homophobic slur, is hurled universally, that doesn't mean that it's easier for a non-LGTB bullied kid to connect with It Gets Better. The problem is too complex.
Thank you for writing about your bullying experiences. I posted it to the Little Baby Face Foundation wall on Facebook because I think other children can always benefit by hearing they are not the only ones being bullied. Bullying is such a disturbing societal problem. It reminds me that people still have remnants from the animal kingdom where the weak are abandoned, overpowered, left for dead. I am all for any efforts that can be made towards anti-bullying. It is frightening how many children are literally bullied to death — by suicide. Huge problem. I wish I had the right answers. But I do think that talking about it openly is important. Thanks again for the well-written piece.
Boy! Talk about bullies! My junior high school students use the word gay freely to refer to anything that they see as bad. After frequent class discussions, I came to realize that these students have internalized what the media has been spreading. Gays should not marry, they should not adopt children and they should not be spreading those "gay germs" into our neighborhoods. When we learn as a society to treat all people with dignity and respect, than maybe the bully on the playground won't be the most popular kid in school.
I for one think your argument is anything but compelling or useful. You use your own history of being bullied as a warrant for downplaying the problem that it represents. You appropriate the authority of victimhood to discourage the extant tactics for empowering victims. Gee, thanks.

I don't see how your critique of the anti-bullying message helps anyone--except maybe the bullies themselves. Certainly the 12 year old boy recently bullied to suicide for his perceived bisexuality in my son's school district would not have benefited from your insights (heavy irony).

But as long as you are going to try to mitigate the evil of bullying, allow me to advise you that the "deeply rooted in human nature" skepticism is about as weak as it gets. What evil is not deeply rooted in human nature? Maybe we should stop speaking out against racism, wars of acquisition, greed, all of which are so deeply rooted as to make their extirpation unlikely if not impossible. Or maybe...we should start talking about steps that might enhance the existing anti-bullying message, like crafting a meesage for bullying-defeatists like yourself. Never has the phrase, for evil to flourish, it is sufficient for the good and decent to do nothing, rung quite so true as in this situation.

And make no mistake, throwing cold water on the anti-bullying message without giving even a hint of an alternative strategy for stamping out this scourge is in fact a recipe to do nothing. Ehrenstein may have been ove the top in telling you to shut up, but I'll be damned if I can find any purpose you served by opening your mouth in this defeatist and tacitly collaborationist fashion.
Thanks teachfortruth! You get it.
libertarius - My intent was not to appropriate or discourage anything. I merely presented my experience and opinion for whatever they're worth, and if you decide that's nothing, that's fine. I'd give you back the three minutes you spent reading it if I could.

The suicide at your son's school district is tragic. It's a pity that boy did not benefit from the insights on offer there. Despite what you think, I really do hope you achieve better results with your approach. Let me know how it goes.
Tough question. I grew up in a time and place where my father not only warned me about bullying, he started teaching me at age 6, the combat training he had learned during WWII.

I had 1 older and 4 younger brothers, and beating the crap out of each other was what we did for amusement.

The first bully I encountered was at age 6, my father had a scout troop, and he was teaching some 11 to 13 year olds how to defend themselves. I was the troop "mascot" and was present as my father demonstrated the element of "Surprise". One kid thought it was extremely clever to follow me around and trip me, commenting "surprise!"
Finally I turned around and punched him as hard as I could in his balls ( which were about shoulder height on me at the time). He never did anything like that again .

I was fortunate to have a father who was a sort of "Mr Myogi" (Karate Kid). But I was also saddled with the clear understanding that it was my job to be sure NO ONE was bullied in my presence.

Al I can say is that trying to analyze what makes people into bullies doesn't usually stop bullying. As far as bullies acting out "Self-Esteem" issues, it's been my observation that most bullies have too much of it, and unearned at that.

The one clear thing that always stops bulling is not only the knowledge of how to, but the recognition of the right to defend yourself, and the obligation to defend others. Our current policy of "Non- Violence" simply seems to designate targets and foster violence. Kids get hurt by bullies. In my school, bullies got hurt, usually only once.
The problem with Middle School boys is that they are at an age when peers and their place in their peer community is becoming more important. At the same time, they don't have the maturity to put themselves in another's place.

My son's solution to gay marriage, which he thinks is just weird and shouldn't be allowed, is just be straight. Problem solved. Everyone is happy. It works for him. He's not mature enough to appreciate why it might not work for everyone else. Discussing the issue from an adult perspective doesn't work. To address homophobia in Junior Highs, we need to develop strategies that work for the developmental stages that the kids are in.
Where on earth do people get the idea that most bullies come from dysfunctional homes? In my grade school it was quite the opposite - the bullies were very popular from 'nice' families. The bullied were the poor (Ann) the homely (Kevin and Bob), the ones with awkward social skills (Robbie) or damaged by their families (me).

Grades 5 and 6 were pure hell - I have almost no memories that don't involve being bullied or ill from the anticipation or aftermath of bullying. I weathered those years, and I've had a very good life, but I can still name my bullies (Ann, Kelly, Barbie, Jodi, Melissa) and recount a dozen instances of humiliation - I don't purposely try to remember, but I've not learned the trick of forgetting, and I may never - it was the worst time of my life, bar none.

I took refuge in books and in many ways that has served me well. But I'd tell any bullied kid, you have to deal with it directly. You have to refuse to cooperate in their own humiliation. That can mean fighting back verbally or physically. For me it meant making a conscious effort to find new friends. It was very hard - friends have never come easily to me, maybe in part because I could never dare to let anyone come over to my house.

Fear of getting hurt physically or emotionally in a confrontation has to be vanquished as surely as the bully himself, else we hand over all our power without a fight.
As a short kid who skipped a grade and whose birthday is late in November, I am familiar with bullying. And it is bad no matter who does it. The only thing that I object to is that a simple message--put these sons of bitches far away from our kids--has been hijacked by the homosexual lobby.
Oooooo "the homosxual lobby" -- GO GET 'EM rrbill. Those fags have no reason to object to ANYTHING -- right?

That was half typo/half slip.. I don't like to mess witha persons name.. sorry David.. , I spent some quality time at you blog and learned that you are an excellent photographer and are on the right side of the more important issues. I see you frustration with this topic.

I've never heard "to be straight" held up as a "solution" to gay marriage, let alone to the homophobia at work in thinking gay marriage "weird" and "shouldn't be allowed." Really that's hilarious! As is the notion that everyone is happy with the kind of homophobia your son expresses or your rather complacent toleration, not to say connivance, for that homophobia.
Rrbill, you're way out of line with that homosexual lobby crap. If anything, it gets better was partly a response to a religious conservative lobby.
I think it's hard to give advice to bullying victims without sounding like you're blaming the victim. Conversations go round and round like this. One might say that the only position anyone in authority can take is an active approach aimed at the bullies. But I maintain that we can hold two ideas in our heads at once: 1. Discuss, formulate, enforce anti-bullying measures targeting bullying behavior. 2. Talk with the victim about what he may do in the meantime.

It's that No. 2 that gets us in trouble. Some maintain that there is simply NO advice that can be given to a bullying victim that isn't inherently blaming the victim. I say that that's a copout and a betrayal to the victim. WHILE the authorities are doing No.1, victims can practice whichever thinking or behavior helps mitigate their pain. This may vary with individuals and it must certainly be handled sensitively. I don't really know if it's ever possible to move an individual from an emotionally pained position into an uncaring, disdainful one, and I certainly didn't mean ever to suggest that as an easy solution. That notwithstanding, this is true: Kids who, as a rule, don't care, aren't sensitive, don't hold their emotions "too close to the surface" are not bullied. They simply are not. As the parent of a bullied child, I have wondered before how to move my child from the one position to the other. I have thought about this more than I care to admit, and I am not sure I succeeded at the time it was necessary. I certainly don't think it's fair or right that a victim is in a position to be changing something potentially organic about himself, that he is made to feel guilty or burdened with the change. The only thing I keep coming back to as a potential gift to the bullied is this: perspective.

Malusinka, I have to agree with Libertarius that I have not before heard of kids thinking a gay person should "just be straight." I can't pretend to be privy to all middle schoolers' thoughts, even when I am teaching there, but I've not really heard that articulated before.

Sandra, I thought the exact same thing you did when I first went through this thread. Bullies are often PTA families, from parent down to last child.

Finally, in my experience, there really isn't this binary set of "bullies" and "victims" or even "bullies" and "nonbullies," although the latter is more accurate than the former. Mostly there seem to be bullying situations, where the players can change. Some kids are more often bullies, others more often victims.
True story:

Jimmy, 6, Asperger's syndrome, obsessed with bugs. Like his OCD, Asperger's dad (who can't mow his lawn or trim flowers b/c he can't kill anything), Jimmy likes his bugs alive in their natural environment. He spends recess squatting on the playground watching ants or looking at bees on clover from a safe distance.

Dustin, 6, with an absent father and inattentive mother (Do these things matter?), sees something vulnerable in Jimmy--that intangible quality, that guilelessness that turns a nice, interesting kid into prey--and, with an audience, calls Jimmy over to him. Then he very deliberately steps on the ants near him. This upsets Jimmy profoundly and causes him to flap his arms and cry in protest.

Is this bullying? (I think so). Is this easy to report on forms where every conceivable type of bullying behavior is codified? Not so much. Where is the box for "stepping on ants"? Still, I don't know anyone who wouldn't call this bullying. And a good teacher would find a way to respond, including calling in the mother of the stomper, and reporting something like "Caused Jimmy emotional distress."

The next month or maybe year after similar incidents and a general class habit of excluding Jimmy, not for reasons easily articulated (by the kids) but because Jimmy is different, doesn't easily socialize, prefers to be by himself except when he doesn't want to be and then feels lonely, appears not to notice or care about what others think or feel:

Dustin says something off-the-cuff about Jimmy, standing nearby, and he laughs. It's rather mild as these things go, but Jimmy is frustrated from missing a beat in music or having to keep up in gym or what-have-you, so he turns in frustration at Dustin, beet red, and screams "I hate you! I HATE you! You are mean!" and maybe even throws a block.

Now who gets written up? In this situation (a real one. I'm neither parent nor teacher of any of these kids), Jimmy did.

Years later after a complicated dynamic has developed, after Dustin has gotten written up and even suspended for mistreatment of Jimmy (and others) but who also, at various times, has been involved in some good things like a school play and the basketball team, and where he seems to get along with others much of the time, something else transpires--I cannot remember what, but it was verbal-- Jimmy, now 11, says with gritted teeth to Dustin, "I wish I could just kill you." Picture someone with Autism saying this. He stutters and speaks in uneven cadence.

Dustin (whose mother has since died. Does this matter?) was suspended for whatever he said. Jimmy was expelled.

This is the fourth time I have gotten into discussions about bullying on OS. My experience has been that there is a real willingness to blame the victim here--I would cite Anne Nichols and Cranky Cuss as primary offenders, but others have chimed in as well. The grounds are various: a) their own children have been accused of bullying and instead of looking to the particulars of the case, they insist that the victims of school abuse tend to provoke it--a classic form of denial (see Anne Nichols) b) they believe that it is a part of life that kids must learn to abide, and if they can't abide it, well it is their fault (see Cranky Cuss) c) they believe nothing can be done by schools or societies to stop it, so we have to teach the victims to stop it themselves, and if they can't it's on them. In none of these cases does sympathy for the abuser emerge from the difficulty of speaking to the issue--though that difficulty certainly does exist. Instead people on OS have regularly exploited the very real challenges surrounding the elimination of bullying, the prosecution of bullying or even the stigmatization of bullying in order to downplay the importance of the phenomena and thus rid themselves of the burr on their conscience. That by the way is exactly what the school did in seizing upon Jimmy's words as an excuse for expelling him (autistic kids are just so much trouble), while the bully continued on, licensed for all intents and purposes by the establishment. You will never make me believe the school was actually in doubt about who was the provocateur and who was the target in the Dustin-Jimmy conflict. They knew and in each case were interested in finding a technicality on the basis of which they could side with the "normal" bully at the expense of the "abnormal" victim. Which is to say, the school itself acted the bully.

If one looks at the problem of school bullying, what is needed above all is some good faith on the part of school officials and adults generally. The students' ability to "game" the system, as you put it,relies heavily on school officials refusing to acknowledge what they know perfectly well, i. e. which kids are prone to bullying and which kids make ripe targets. But the bullies are usually more popular, more mainstream, less anomalous than the bullied, who often occupy the role of misfit, weirdo or, of course queer. And the dirty little secret in all of this is that school officials identify with the popular students, the leaders of the pack, not the misfit, and so find means, whatever their stated policies, of mitigating their misbehavior and magnifying any retribution the misfit might exact.

Bottom line: everybody reviles bullying, but too many people (on OS and in schools) still prefer the kids who bully to the kids who are bullied. They blame the victim because however badly they feel about what he suffers, they really don't like him very much, and so they don't like having to punish others on his behalf.
I was trying to express my son's thinking. I can (and have) put 'gay' as a insult on a list with other swear words. I have tried to engage my son in discussions of the issue. But, my point is, since he is too young to understand sexual feelings, 'just be straight' seems like a logical solution to him.

I can tell him what he is supposed to think, but actually getting him to think it is another matter.

In general, he is very tolerant of difference and I've assumed when he's older with a more mature understanding, he'll be tolerant of different ways of loving, too.

I mentioned it because we have to understand how kids think to be able to influence them. Asking an 11 year old to think like a 21 year old is not going to yield useful results.

I really couldn't agree more with your last two paragraphs. I've mentioned this many times myself, in similar language. The dirty little secret, indeed, is that the bullied are often not liked by the adults in the room.

I don't see the meta problem so much as a sinister agenda--school personnel are all too human and mindless for such conspiracy--but rather an outcome of what educational historian David Blacker calls "liberal proceduralism," a hollow sort of administrative focus devoid of any substantive seeking of truth. He describes the predominant culture in schools as a sort of “proceduralism run amok,” with a bunch of fine-print legal notices, waivers, footnoted handbooks, etc., aimed clearly at self-protection of the institution.

This is where I've seen much difficulty. Because of schools' (and the public's) stated concerns about bullying and attempts to codify it, to have zero tolerance for it, there have been attempts to create programs and forms to describe bullying's every iteration. Sometimes victims can get caught up in the net too because the literal descriptions of bullying may in fact depict some behavior of the people you and I (and thinking people) understand to be, in the big picture, the victims.

I have another story for you if you can stand it: I tutored a boy last summer who was clearly on the autism spectrum. I say this as someone who's experienced with the issue, so you'll have to take it on faith since he had no diagnosis. He was being educated at a local (and not very good) Catholic school. Long story short, he shared with me many conversations he'd had about another boy at school, who was heavy. My tutee used words like "wide load" and said a lot of other insulting things, but he recounted them in an earnest manner while describing his desire to help this kid slim down. He had apparently written a note to the kid and asked the gym teacher if he could "teach" the kid about why it's important to get in shape and eat right, and he had also, apparently, volunteered to take this kid jogging with him. My tutee--a 14 yo boy--wasn't a regular jogger but was willing to do this for this other boy.

Now you can imagine what I was realizing: It sounded for all the world like this tutee was picking on the other kid for being fat. I can't really adequately describe here how insulting much of it came across, (secretly hoping he didn't get behind the kid in between classes because he took up so much space, stuff like that, including words he had clearly used to address the kid) but I hope you understand, too, how completely sincere (though misguided) my tutee was. None of this was any of my business--it was all incidental to what I was doing, as I was just hired as an after school tutor. But I could imagine being the parent of the overweight kid hearing bits and pieces of this incidentally and becoming outraged.

I'm sorry for the length of this. I'm trying to get across that I think it's complicated. I wish people--parents, principals, teachers--would really look at the big picture and look at intentions rather than this kind of zero tolerance form stuff that has us looking at behavior rather than intentions. Because if we look only at behavior, then some well-intended or clueless kids, victims themselves sometimes, can get caught up in the net. Does this make sense to you? I guess it all comes down to human resources in my mind. I want thoughtful people looking at the big picture.
Malusinka, what you say makes complete sense to me.
Something else I meant to mention as a potential side topic is this:

In my first story, Jimmy was not anywhere on paper listed as autistic. Now in his 20s, he didn't get a diagnosis until he started college--it was a self-discovery process that took him down that road. I knew all along that he was on the continuum b/c his behavior matched that of Asperger's kids perfectly. His dad, too, is classic AS. They both call themselves that now and have been diagnosed as adults.

My question: Does this matter back on the playground in First Grade? Like in my second story, we are talking about a supposedly neurotypical kid, but one who is really undiagnosed Aspergers. This is true for many with ADHD and other diagnoses. I'm wondering if the label matters, if having a label either 1. makes them more protected by school personnel and/or 2. actually allows them some leeway on what in others might be called bullying behavior. (like throwing things or wishing people were dead or calling names). I am mulling this over.

I'm sorry. I'm not buying it. The racial attitudes of 11 year olds used to be every bit as unacceptable as your son's homophobia. The adults in the room didn't change that by making concessions to the 11 year old mind. They changed it by holding 11 year olds to standards of civility and enlightenment we all share. Given the determination, and that is exactly what is lacking, we can greatly reduce, if not eliminate, homophobic bullying. You might stop making excuses for your kid's toxic attitude for starters.
And when I say toxic attitude, I am referring to his claim that gay marriage "shouldn't be allowed." This clearly goes beyond the widespread attempt of children to find their identites in conformity with social approved mores or norms and to an aggressive will to enforcement of said norms that can only conduce to the social marginalization or injury of others. I've never met an 11 year old who didn't have theconcept of the unfair rule or prohibition very near the surface of his or her consciousness. Whether it would take some special indight into juvenile psychology to dispel the notion of same-sex desire as "weird," in your words, it takes no such perspicacity to show your son why denying people basic human rights is out of bounds.

I agree with you in the main about proceduralism I would never advance a conspriacy theory in this area. I would add this point however. Because procedrualism involves a soulless, affectless machinery and the people who administer it are not without a spiritual and emotional life, procedures are never applied in the entirely neutral or objective manner in which they seem to have been conceived. They take the impress of the biases motivating the officials in question. Since, as we agree, those officials usually don't like the bullied very much, yet could never acknowledge as much, even to themselves, they tend to be most rigorously procedural in those areas that will safeguard the bully from punishment and will release them from any obligation to exercise extreme vigilance on behalf of victims. The procedures, that is to say, work as both a weapon to advance their biases and a "neutral, dispassionate" cloak to conceal them (from themselves and others).
Agreed, Libertarius.

Question: Given the clear gains in public perception by young people for gays--I am speaking in the political arena, referring to polls about gay marriage and DADT--what specifically do you think caused that? I have heard political academics and pundits on NPR talk shows refer casually to the complete nonissue that gays will become soon, how it will simply not be a wedge issue for the right the way abortion and other religious and social issues always seem to be, even if they are roller coasterish in occurrence. Perhaps (and this is me talking, not them) homosexuality will never be erased as a difference, much like race and other tribal (my word, meant to convey some organic recognition of family/nonfamily) identifiers, but it seems at least to be going the way of race in its acceptance in the broad population as just a difference.

Do you attribute this sea change in any way as coming from any effort on the part of schools? I don't know what I think.
Lainey & libertarius - You make some fantastic points about teachers' role in the bullying problem, especially that bullied children are often not liked by the teachers. This ties into what I was getting at when I said we tend to blame the victims of bullying. I had many teachers that I believe despised children, and at least a few I think didn't like me in particular. I can think of a few reasons for that, and one of them might have been that I was bullied in the first place. Some of the teachers couldn't be bothered to go out of their way for much, and I can see how they might see a kid who gets bullied as a trouble magnet and an inconvenience. It also might have been that they couldn't identify with me because they saw me as a misfit. I agree that more of a good-faith effort against bullying is needed from the teachers.

Lainey, I really like your observation that advice for the bullied is often seen as blaming the victim. I think you're suggesting that any refusal to give advice for that reason is a cop-out, and I agree. That was a reason my parents gave me a few years ago when I asked why they weren't more proactive in helping me get out from under the bullying. They said they were afraid that they might hurt my self-esteem by suggesting how I might handle things differently. But it sure didn't do much for my self-esteem to have the other kids treat me like a joke, either. Frankly, I suspect my parents had other things on their minds during those years and this is the justification they came up with for their inaction after the fact.

Token - Thanks for the fantastic story. It sounds like your father was a man of unique character and he passed it along to you. I like your point that kids need to feel as if they have the right to defend themselves. I did not feel I had that. "No fighting": My parents and teachers were clear on that. And if I was so easily intimidated by bullies, you can imagine how cowed I was by authority.
America is a bully. Is it any wonder so many Americans are?