Stop Panicking Over Bullies

Despite a flurry of recent documentaries and attention, school hasn't been reduced to jungle law.

Note: This article originally appeared in the March 31, 2012 edition of The Wall Street Journal. Read it there.

"When I was younger," a remarkably self-assured, soft-spoken 15-year-old kid named Aaron tells the camera, "I suffered from bullying because of my lips—as you can see, they're kind of unusually large. So I would kind of get [called] 'Fish Lips'—things like that a lot—and my glasses too, I got those at an early age. That contributed. And the fact that my last name is Cheese didn't really help with the matter either. I would get [called] 'Cheeseburger,' 'Cheese Guy'—things like that, that weren't really very flattering. Just kind of making fun of my name—I'm a pretty sensitive kid, so I would have to fight back the tears when I was being called names."

It's hard not to be impressed with—and not to like—young Aaron Cheese. He is one of the kids featured in the new Cartoon Network special "Stop Bullying: Speak Up," which premiered last week and is available online. I myself am a former geekish, bespectacled child whose lips were a bit too full, and my first name (as other kids quickly discovered) rhymes with two of the most-popular slang terms for male genitalia, so I also identified with Cheese. My younger years were filled with precisely the sort of schoolyard taunts that he recounts; they led ultimately to at least one fistfight and a lot of sour moods on my part.

As the parent now of two school-age boys, I also worry that my own kids will have to deal with such ugly and destructive behavior. And I welcome the common-sense antibullying strategies relayed in "Stop Bullying": Talk to your friends, your parents and your teachers. Recognize that you're not the problem. Don't be a silent witness to bullying.

But is America really in the midst of a "bullying crisis," as so many now claim? I don't see it. I also suspect that our fears about the ubiquity of bullying are just the latest in a long line of well-intentioned yet hyperbolic alarms about how awful it is to be a kid today.

I have no interest in defending the bullies who dominate sandboxes, extort lunch money and use Twitter to taunt their classmates. But there is no growing crisis. Childhood and adolescence in America have never been less brutal. Even as the country's overprotective parents whip themselves up into a moral panic about kid-on-kid cruelty, the numbers don't point to any explosion of abuse. As for the rising wave of laws and regulations designed to combat meanness among students, they are likely to lump together minor slights with major offenses. The antibullying movement is already conflating serious cases of gay-bashing and vicious harassment with things like…a kid named Cheese having a tough time in grade school.

How did we get here? We live in an age of helicopter parents so pushy and overbearing that Colorado Springs banned its annual Easter-egg hunt on account of adults jumping the starter's gun and scooping up treat-filled plastic eggs on behalf of their winsome kids. The Department of Education in New York City—once known as the town too tough for Al Capone—is seeking to ban such words as "dinosaurs," "Halloween" and "dancing" from citywide tests on the grounds that they could "evoke unpleasant emotions in the students," it was reported this week. (Leave aside for the moment that perhaps the whole point of tests is to "evoke unpleasant emotions.")

And it's not only shrinking-violet city boys and girls who are being treated as delicate flowers. Early versions of new labor restrictions still being hashed out in Congress would have barred children under 16 from operating power-driven farm equipment and kept anyone under 18 from working at agricultural co-ops and stockyards (the latest version would let kids keep running machines on their parents' spreads). What was once taken for granted—working the family farm, October tests with jack-o-lantern-themed questions, hunting your own Easter eggs—is being threatened by paternalism run amok.

Now that schools are peanut-free, latex-free and soda-free, parents, administrators and teachers have got to worry about something. Since most kids now have access to cable TV, the Internet, unlimited talk and texting, college and a world of opportunities that was unimaginable even 20 years ago, it seems that adults have responded by becoming ever more overprotective and thin-skinned.

Kids might be fatter than they used to be, but by most standards they are safer and better-behaved than they were when I was growing up in the 1970s and '80s. Infant and adolescent mortality, accidents, sex and drug use—all are down from their levels of a few decades ago. Acceptance of homosexuality is up, especially among younger Americans. But given today's rhetoric about bullying, you could be forgiven for thinking that kids today are not simply reading and watching grim, postapocalyptic fantasies like The Hunger Games but actually inhabiting such terrifying terrain, a world where Lord of the Flies meets Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, presided over by Voldemort.

Even President Barack Obama has placed his stamp of approval on this view of modern childhood. Introducing the Cartoon Network documentary, he solemnly intones: "I care about this issue deeply, not just as the president, but as a dad. ... We've all got more to do. Everyone has to take action against bullying."

The state of New Jersey was well ahead of the president. Last year, in response to the suicide of the 18-year-old gay Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, the state legislature passed "The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights." The law is widely regarded as the nation's toughest on these matters. It has been called both a "resounding success" by Steve Goldstein, head of the gay-rights group Garden State Equality, and a "bureaucratic nightmare" by James O'Neill, the interim school superintendent of the township of Roxbury. In Congress, New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Rep. Rush Holt have introduced the federal Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has called the Lautenberg-Holt proposal a threat to free speech because its "definition of harassment is vague, subjective and at odds with Supreme Court precedent." Should it become law, it might well empower colleges to stop some instances of bullying, but it would also cause many of them to be sued for repressing speech. In New Jersey, a school anti-bullying coordinator told the Star-Ledger that "The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights" has "added a layer of paperwork that actually inhibits us" in dealing with problems. In surveying the effects of the law, the Star-Ledger reports that while it is "widely used and has helped some kids," it has imposed costs of up to $80,000 per school district for training alone and uses about 200 hours per month of staff time in each district, with some educators saying that the additional effort is taking staff "away from things such as substance-abuse prevention and college and career counseling."

One thing seems certain: The focus on bullying will lead to more lawsuits against schools and bullies, many of which will stretch the limits of empathy and patience. Consider, for instance, the current case of 19-year-old Eric Giray, who is suing New York's tony Calhoun School and a former classmate for $1.5 million over abuse that allegedly took place in 2004. Such cases can only become more common.

Which isn't to say that there aren't kids who face terrible cases of bullying. The immensely powerful and highly acclaimed documentary Bully, whose makers hope to create a nationwide movement against the "bullying crisis," opens in selected theaters this weekend. The film follows the harrowing experiences of a handful of victims of harassment, including two who killed themselves in desperation. It is, above all, a damning indictment of ineffectual and indifferent school officials. No viewer can watch the abuse endured by kids such as Alex, a 13-year-old social misfit in Sioux City, Iowa, or Kelby, a 14-year-old lesbian in small-town Oklahoma, without feeling angry and motivated to change youth culture and the school officials who turn a blind eye.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • AlmightyJB||

    They should have registration. But no moderater.

  • Suki||

    How can we be safer with all your bullying in here?

  • Abdul||

    It's easy for the Jacket to think concern about bullies is overblown. It's harder to see when your underwear is pulled up over your head.

    Or, so I heard from kids who got picked on, because i never did.

  • Suki||

  • T||

    This is an example of the modern trend where the tiniest of dangers to the precious snowflakes becomes an existential crisis that requires the full might of the federal government to combat. These people want their kids to grow up in whiffle world were nothing ever hurts and there's no adverse consequences. How the fuck you expect your kid to function out in the big bad world when you raise them like that is beyond me.

  • Soc Indv Sparky||

    Wiffle world? I take it you've never been hit with a wiffle bat. Nerf world would be more accurate.

  • Soc Indv Sparky||

    Also, as callous as it may sound, every time I hear about some kid committing suicide because they were bullied I think good riddance.

  • T||

    Nerf has become an arms dealer for young children. I can't criticize that, even indirectly.

  • Soc Indv Sparky||

    Leave it to a stupid wasp to bring a nerf cannon to a super soaker fight.

  • This Dave||

    I think you're taking it to far by saying "whiffle world were nothing ever hurts and there's no adverse consequences". You're asking what it will be like for them as adults, so let's pretend that you, and adult, are the bullied child. Every day when you go to work, you are repeatedly physically assaulted by your co-workers. Every day. You try to fight back but there are too many of them and they are bigger than you. You go to the police, but they have a "boys will be boys" attitude. So you take the libertarian course, and get a gun. The next time you are assaulted, you kill your assailants. In the adult world, most of the people who read Reason would say you did the right thing. As a school boy, you are a little psycho who should be in jail forever.

    I'm just saying. If we're going to compare it to the "real" world, let's play by "real" world rules on both sides.

  • This Dave||

    Is there any particular reason why we can't edit our posts for typos?

  • ||

    You know, one of the biggest problems is the asymmetry of punishment. The kids who suck at school and have no discipline have no consequences. They're not going to go to college or have an unblemished record anyway. So they can pick fights. And the school's response is "no tolerance" bullshit and pushing every kid along one grade per year. An it's possibly for the better, as I'm yet to meet an administrator who should be put anywhere near discretionary authority.

    Kids have no experience being on the other side of that fence. They maybe know but can't conceive that things get a lot better. You go to college and enter the real world and do better than the punks who wind up at car washes.

    I kept my head down in high school because it was really a no-win situation pretty early on. I punched one kid, and I'm thankful I did it in a class with a cool teacher. After the little fucker complained, the teacher said, "Well, I didn't see anything." But generally, if you can't retaliate, schools are effectively behind the bullies.

  • o3||

    like my old man told me; dont look for trouble, dont run from it, & trouble will look for someone else. now dont get me wrong, i took some beatings (& got-in sum nice shots) but earned respect. >wimp-ass parents are part of the problem.

  • sticks||

    So a student wears a t-shirt that reads "Jesus is not a homophobe." to protest bullying. Student gets bullied censored by school admins.

  • Tonio||

    Well, if you're a cowardly school admin, of course you'd shit your pants. Educrats are terrified of both religion and homosexuality, so the combination must have been terrifying to them.

  • T||

    I dunno about Jesus, but his dad sure had a big hate for teh gheys.

  • Sevo||

    Well, according to *some* of the stories.

  • Tonio||

    This is an example of the modern trend where serious existential threats to teh chirrun (wolves, polio, etc) have been eliminated leaving the parents with bullying, or more often "bullying."

  • ||

    It might be just an aside reference, but I can't see why teenagers having less sex would be a good thing. I'm going to assume when Nick says incidences of sex are down he means among post-pubescent adolescents. I'm still young enough to remember being a teenager, and the difference in my happiness when I was getting laid versus when I was not was enormous. If you want to add qualms about it not being a good idea to have unprotected sex with people before they are tested and you know they practice good sexual habits or are exclusive to you fine. But I can't for the life of me fathom people who thing post-puberty adolescents should not be having as much sex as they can get.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: End Child Unemployment,

    It might be just an aside reference, but I can't see why teenagers having less sex would be a good thing.


    You really think so? Because having a lot of sex raises expectations that, in later life, one will be able to keep up the same performance even when the wife gets fat and whinny. Or the husband hairy and with man-boobs.

  • ||

    I disagree. all libertopian supermen and superwomen know that their bodies will age and their appetites slow somewhat as they get older. I question the amount of tradeoff required as well - plenty of people stay in great shape well into their late fifties, which helps sustain the libido. Finally, I think we can reasonably expect boner pill technology to continue to improve.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    But I can't for the life of me fathom people who thing post-puberty adolescents should not be having as much sex as they can get.

    Less than 100% effective contraception?

  • Soc Indv Sparky||

    Hey "Dick" Gillespie, how about you shorten up these pieces. Don't make me come over there and kick your pansy journalist ass. And while you're at it, tell that geek with the glasses that's always hanging around you to find a wardrobe that doesn't make him look so gay.

  • Soc Indv Sparky||

    PS - NTTAWWT

  • T||

    By "look so gay" do you mean that some of Matt's still photos make him look like a mddle-aged lesbian? NTTAWWT.

  • Soc Indv Sparky||

    On the nose.

  • Suki||

    Glasses can pinch the nose
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4b-VecqRlc

  • Soc Indv Sparky||

    Question: I've seen FIRE get involved in what I generally believe to be the right thing in most cases. Are they one of the good guys, or do they pick and choose ACLU style?

  • sticks||

    As far I can tell they are one of the good guys. What cases have you seen them take that you didn't think they were involved in the right thing?

  • Soc Indv Sparky||

    I can't recall anything in particular unfortunately as most of them were some time ago. I just vaguely remember a couple stories over the years that made me think something wasn't quite right. I was just trying to gauge if the stories I read with a mention were because of where I read them printing stories I was predisposed to being with.

  • Soc Indv Sparky||

    Bite me again squirrels.

  • ||

    When they started up a bunch of folks thought they were a front for imposing conservatism on academia by force. So I'm assuming the horror stories were exaggerated nothings from that era.

  • Soc Indv Sparky||

    I can't recall anything in particular unfortunately as most of them were some time ago. I just vaguely remember a couple stories over the years that made me think something wasn't quite right. I was just trying to gauge if the stories I read with a mention were because of where I read them printing stories I was predisposed to being with.

  • Soc Indv Sparky||

    *begin with

  • Applederry||

    "it's a world where kids like Aaron are convinced that they are powerless victims."

    Being forced into a building with your tormentors for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week, 36+ weeks a year has a tendency to do that.

  • Sevo||

    "Being forced into a building with your tormentors for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week, 36+ weeks a year has a tendency to do that."

    Naah. You only have to put up with that jock-wannabe of a gym teacher one hour a day.

  • Michael||

    "For show and tell today I brought a to-scale knitted replica of my mom's uterus, but I like to pretend it's actually a baby elephant with Down's syndrome. It's the only friend I have to talk to a lot of the time. *Sigh* I guess I'll be seeing some of you at the far end of the play lot after school for my wedgie."

    http://www.cnn.com/video/?hpt=.....odels.wfaa

    (P.S.: Sorry for the repost.)

  • Killazontherun||

    There were so many sensitivity checks in that article, I felt like giving Nick a purple nurple. Sheesh. I don't want my kid to be anything like Aaron Cheese, a goddamn narc who calls in the grownups when he has a problem and serves their evil schemes by appearing at a presser to their bidding. He'll surely be a worthless human being one day as he is well on his way to that goal now. I want him to be like me as a kid; don't start shit, but make them back in hell and dividends when they do cross you.

  • Killazontherun||

    There was this one kid who use to make fun of how my papers had a few skipped words in them. I would read through while editing and fill them in in my head without realizing it. I told his mom on him for being so mean.

  • tallyho||

    Killazontherun|4.4.12 @ 5:04PM|

    "He'll surely be a worthless human being one day as he is well on his way to that goal now."

    Well he does say he wants to be a lawyer.

  • Old Mexican||

    One thing seems certain: The focus on bullying will lead to more lawsuits against schools and bullies, many of which will stretch the limits of empathy and patience.


    But also, maybe, the focus on bullying will lead to an end to compulsory school attendance as school district managers and school superintendents become overwhelmed by these lawsuits: Applied Saul Alinsky.

  • Killazontherun||

    Good old Saul would have approved. He hated bureaucrats. How did the party of bureaucrats get associated with a decent man like that?

  • A Frayed Knot||

    Though it may not be surprising that bullying mostly happens during the school day, it is stunning to learn that the most common locations for bullying are inside classrooms, in hallways and stairwells, and on playgrounds—areas ostensibly patrolled by teachers and administrators.

    So it's not surprising that most bullying happens during the school day, but it's just shocking that it happens practically everywhere on school grounds? That's an absolutely brilliant piece of writing right there.

  • Killazontherun||

    Back in Nick's day, all the bullying occurred in the cafeteria, the library, the lobby, and the teacher's lounge. This is an alarming trend.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Cripes,

    Sick Ralphie on them...
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvijyBIgazE

  • Brian from Texas||

    One thing I learned at a very young age is that most bullies are major pussies. When I was in middle school some dumbass made the mistake of trying to extort lunch money from me. I when ballistic and beat him so bad even the jocks avoided my skinny ass from now on.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    What I want to know is, who does this "crisis" serve? Who's being stroked by this? Who gets more power to push people around?

    Kids have always teased. Some real bullying has always happened. I gat my share, and probably did my share too, though those memories aren't as clear etched. Good schools and good teachers kept it down as much as they could. Bad teachers and schools could be hell, but local parents could do a lot.

    So where is this going? Who stands to gain a lot of power? Whose agenda does this play into?

  • Cult of Personality||

    The whole bullying problem stems from the fact that kids are taught to not even stand up for themselves anymore. It's not like "bullying" suddenly got worse, the repercussions for defending yourself did.

  • This Dave||

    If you teach your kids to stand up for them selves, one day they might believe in the 2nd Amendment. Better to shut up and hand over your lunch money for the next 75 years.

  • Jesse James Dean||

    ^^^This

  • feitian||

  • PaganPriestess||

    Memories of what school was like for me, are one of the many reasons I homeschooled my kids. Bullying problem solved.

  • joy||

    Even President Barack Obama has placed his stamp of approval on this view of modern childhood riem lee

  • Bryce McMinn, Meriden||

    Which isn't to say that there aren't kids who face terrible cases of bullying. The immensely powerful and highly acclaimed documentary Bully, whose makers hope to create a nationwide movement against the "bullying crisis," opens in selected theaters this weekend.

    Bryce mcminn meriden

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement