More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
The Basics of School Bullying
July 24, 2005
The Providence Journal

"Middle school is a dangerous time for kids," says Dr. Jeffrey Hunt, a psychiatrist at Bradley Hospital and the Brown Medical School, "because of all the changes they're experiencing and because they're impulsive. They live in the moment. So when they think of cutting, purging, whatever, they're more apt just to do it. Bullies are especially impulsive. And one of the higher-risk factors for danger to self and others is persistent bullying. It's a risk factor for depression, suicide and homicide and it starts in middle school. The median age for the kids upstairs [in Bradley's locked wards] is 13."

Unfortunately, at this "dangerous" time of their lives, most public schools systems move 10- and 11-year-olds from their mommie- model classrooms of elementary school and cut them adrift in huge, anonymous pseudo-high schools, where there is no consistent and caring adult to help guide them through the emotional chaos that is the pubescent's typical day.

Anonymity encourages bullying. School anonymity creates unsafe conditions for adults and kids. What really blows me away is that districts are starting to address anonymity in high schools while completely ignoring middle schools, where the kids are more vulnerable and beginning to develop what will become their adult habits and attitudes.

Hunt says, "So with all the changes, some kids project outwards and instead of getting to their own issues of feeling not okay, they say: He's not okay. He's fat; he's poor. Sometimes with bullies you'll find harsh and demanding parenting styles at home. Usually there's something else negative going on in the lives of persistent bullies." So someone needs to give the kid a chance to talk about whatever that is.

Hunt elaborates, "This is an important time to learn to negotiate. Girls are better at tolerating moods and changing alliances. Boys are resistant to talking about their feelings. Girls get ultra clickish. Girls are prone to say mean things and boys get physically intimidating. Just talking about each other is not bullying, though, but social negotiation. Bullying is picking on the other person in order to make them feel awful. And schools don't see the bullying. It's happening in the hallway or lunchroom. But by not having consistent relationships, you completely lose track of what's happening to Susie."

Indeed, the adults at Davisville Middle School in North Kingstown were truly shocked to discover the extent and degree of bullying that had been taking place right under their noses. This discovery came about several years ago when certain school "incidents" -- which the staff declined to name -- led them to consider whether they shouldn't put in an advisory system so the adults could know more what was going on in the kid culture. To get started, they surveyed both students and staff for input as to what they might like to see in an advisory.

School counselor Ann Sullivan says, "We were really surprised at the high percentage of kids who reported having been bullied or witnessed bullying. We found out we had students not coming to school for fear of bullying. Or grades were going down because the child was afraid. That survey lifted up the rock and shined a light for us. So we ended up putting bullying on the front burner, and this year I had so many more kids coming to me who want it stopped."

Sandra Brown, sixth-grade teacher and part of the advisory design committee, notes, "The teachers had to know more about bullying, partly because it's different now. Some teachers didn't consider some things bullying that the kids did. And of course now you have cyber-bullying through Instant Messaging, chat-room junk-talk and electronic rumor."

I visited on a day when the student leaders put on skits for their classmates, illustrating the four kinds of bullying:
  • Verbal - involving both putdowns of various kinds and blame.
  • Physical -- hitting, spitting, scratching, etc.
  • Social -- ignoring and shunning. The kids made the point that this was the kind of bullying most unnoticed by adults.
  • Stalking -- following and scaring. This is the kind that is especially aided by electronics -- text messaging and e-mail.
"Most of the time the kids who are successful foster connection," continues Hunt. "They do a sport or seek out mentors. They get involved in smaller sub-groups and alliances. But the kids on the outskirts have their isolation reinforced. The kids who are most at risk have anxiety disorder, which is about 10 percent. Often they're polite, quiet kids who are afraid to raise their hands or who have a social phobia. Teachers tend to gravitate towards the extroverts. The reason this group is important is that these are the kids who develop depression or an interest in alcohol because it lowers the depression. Most schools aren't set up to catch this."

Sheila McGraw, sixth-grade teacher, says: "Advisory is so important because the kids are pulling away from their families, so they have to get their answers from another trusted adult." Otherwise they will get answers from the peer misinformation mill or worse, from the media.

Hunt emphasizes: "Keeping kids connected is the whole game. But to do that, the adults need to know the kids. Kids need close advisors and those advisors need to have the power to make changes in the circumstances of that kid."

Davisville principal Jane Kondon offers an administrator's perspective: "The connection part makes them want to come to school. They want to belong and have an identity here. And when they're connected, they focus much more on class."

As a result of their investigations, Davisville has become the rare Rhode Island school that has actually implemented most of the research-recommended middle school components. Their advisories only meet twice a week -- more is recommended -- but they have been in place now for three years. The staff feels that advisories have made huge changes in the school culture. The school continues to improve academically and was named a "Regents commended school," for the third year in a row.

We've got to quit abandoning these kids to anonymous warehouses and then getting all snippy because the kids make us look bad on tests. Boosting middle-school academic performance necessarily involves supporting the kids themselves.

To reiterate Hunt: Keeping kids connected is the whole game.

Julia Steiny is a former member of the Providence School Board; she consults and writes for a number of education, government and private enterprises. She welcomes your questions and comments on education. She can be reached by e-mail at or c/o The Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.
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