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Bullies are Empowered by Bystanders

Dr. Frank Sacco

Social Thinking Article

Bullies only do what bystanders allow. Bullying is a useless and harmful human behavior that occurs at all age levels, in all countries, to all levels of income with some very clear challenges for parents, teachers, schools, and policymakers. Simply put, bullying is publically and repeatedly targeting someone or a group with shame-causing messages sent directly or online.


Bullying is developmental. Little kids do it by size and fear. Middle school kids are just entering puberty and are at the height of their sensitivity to an ever-changing world. They switch to social aggression or being mean about inclusion and exclusion in groups or use the Internet to shame. Peer group inclusion is the first set of challenges in the youth’s identity voyage. Transitions from Middle to High School can be very rough and getting past tenth grade is a big challenge. Teenagers begin to become mean, hate their parents and overvalue their friends, and are thrust into the social hierarchy of school, which becomes a nasty fishbowl. Bullying does not stop there and continues into Community College and University as painfully seen at Virginia Tech or in the so-called “going postal” metaphor for workplace violence.


A bully is not a person but a process with co-created roles. You can’t have a bully without a victim. We have learned from watching this in schools around the world: the audience of bystanders fuels the problem. Adults have to become paralyzed or become abdicating bystanders. Every school has a dynamic that is their own and thus every solution has to become a school issue with collaborative adults working together to create safety by open dialogue, safety training, and respect for differences. There are no simple fixes and all problems need custom solutions that are simple, organic and continually building pride, respect; safety will follow! Canned, recipe-oriented programs will not fit every school; it’s the process, not the content of a bully program that works to create safe schools.


Building safety demands that the right people be involved. Our field experience has taught us that there are two types of leaders. The typical, run for office, professional chairperson, and award seeker with great intentions. The other is what we have come to call natural leaders. People that are strong, quiet, respected, compassionate, and care about the collective good, not self-acclaim; they are not selfish. I always think of my son’s football coach, Coach Parker, who could be seen picking up trash, filling water bottles, fixing helmets, and endlessly redirecting testosterone. He was the guy troubled kids turned to. They have to be discovered, treasured, and empowered with full school leadership support.


What’s a parent to do? Start by praying…accept that there is only so much that you can control. You need peer-level intelligence at all costs. So keep your ears open and your mouth shut. This is a way for increasing your child’s safety. Punishment and judgment close off key sources of early warning. This is the parent’s best tool.


Next, open your eyes and ears to your kids and save your speeches for the school and community. Parents must become advocates without becoming “royal pains” carping about their wonderful kids. Reach out to the school’s leadership; open a dialogue; offer to become involved to help all kids. This needs to be done behind the scenes. Do not embarrass your kid by publically fighting his or her battles. A school that believes it has no problem is the one to watch out for; they have their head in the sand and dangerous youth behavior is sure to follow.


School counselors and leaders need to be resource magnets. Problems at school are a community reflection and as such need community support to fix. Counselors can’t do this with any individual or small group technique. Vulnerable kids should be obvious from early grades.


One good example is kids with social cognitive learning challenges. They may become the targets of bullying. Their subtle or not-so subtle social awkwardness and lack of deep peer networks makes them an ideal and easy source of prey for the socially vicious bully.


Bullying this type of kid should become the lowest form of social behavior in a school. Being the opposite of a bystander, what kids in Australia coined “upstanders”, is the key to improving school climate. The school could create a simple “buddy” or “peer mentor” program for socially vulnerable kids. Challenge the sports teams to offer strong and popular kids as mentors to be upstanders and buddies for more physically, socially, and emotionally vulnerable kids. It’s free!


Schools also have to become aware that some kids are big trouble and need special attention to be able to attend public or private school. These kids have usually been hurt, deprived, abandoned, or stressed into defiance or rebellion and take out their pain on others. These kids need help and the community is the place to pull that help from using the school as an anchor point to secure them with services that extend to their homes and into the community. School counselors can become case managers arranging for services and making sure the impact of help is felt in the classroom and school corridors, bus, and recess.


Kids need to be educated early that bullying is for losers and being an upstander is HOT, COOL, and IN! This needs to start in early grades and it will follow the kids. If you try to start too late (4-5th grade) the kids already have bad habits that get results in school, at home or in the community. Victims need to learn assertiveness strategies to cope with bullies. Bullies thrive on submission and perceived weakness.


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