A lot of us tend to have very heated reactions to instances of bullying. Part of that probably is because of the fundamental injustice typically involved in it; the strong intimidating the weak, the many tormenting the one, the ins ridiculing and shunning the outs.
It makes us mad and that’s good because that concern for the weak, the lone and the disenfranchised is among the things that defines Americans.
Part of the fuel probably also is our own experiences with bullies, and we’ve all experienced it one way or another. We’ve either been bullied, witnessed it or perpetrated it ourselves.
One of the things we’ve learned in producing our special report “Bullied to the Brink,” the fourth installment of which appears on page A1 today, is that the former group, the victims of bullying, never forgot and the memories of those experiences remain raw for years. We’ve gotten calls from people older than 50 who’re still angry and humiliated about being bullied and still afraid of the people who bullied them in grade school.
It’s the sort of thing that makes you clench your teeth and your fists.
Because of all that, it’s easy to forget that most of the time everybody involved in an instance of bullying is a child.
The issue here, and in Part Four of our series, is about attempting to deal with the bullying as if it were a crime, rather than something else better dealt with through means other than law and law enforcement.
Most of the experts we interviewed argue that as a society we took a wrong turn years ago when we began treating bullying as a crime needing policing, rather than a social and perhaps a mental health issue needing far broader and more complex types of intervention.
Certainly there are times when bullying is criminal and ought to be dealt with through the criminal justice system. The case of Brandy Vela, the young Texas City woman who shot herself after suffering what authorities allege was a campaign of cyberbullying, is an example.
The most insidious kind of bullying is far less extreme and clear-cut than that case, however. It’s intimidation and sometimes violence that happens in the halls and restrooms, in the gym and cafeteria, at the bus stop and the way home every school day everywhere.
The more common type of bullying is serious; it’s a problem. It keeps the victims from learning and from enjoying their educational experience; it eats up time and energy in the schools, to cite just a couple.
But should it be a crime?
By approaching it that way we may ensure some relief and justice for the bullied and, if we’re being honest, perhaps some delayed vicarious justice for ourselves, but there is a steep downside, the experts warn.
For every victim we name in a crime, we must also name at least one criminal. In the case of bullying, these all will be children.
We don’t know yet what the better method is, but we have come to believe this: This is not a problem either the schools or local law enforcement can solve alone. We have come to think that whatever the detailed solution turns out to be, it will require putting the public back into the public schools.
• Michael A. Smith