Paul Coughlin Christian Blog and Commentary

Truth About Bullies

On December 1, 1997, fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal, a bespectacled ninth-grader, walked into Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky, carrying a large parcel wrapped in a quilt.  He lied and told a somewhat suspicious teacher that the bundle contained “props for a science project.”  Shortly before 8:00 a.m., just before the first bell rang, this son of a respected lawyer and elder put down his bundle, inserted earplugs, drew a weapon, and fired twelve shots into a circle of kids gathered for prayer in the lobby.


Students screamed and wept.  Two girls lay dead.  A third died a short time later.  Five others were hospitalized; two were partially paralyzed.


“I’m sorry,” Carneal calmly told principal Bill Bond, as another student forced him to drop his gun and pinned him against a lobby wall.


According to Bond, Carneal’s school essays and short stories revealed a recurring theme: He felt picked on, weak, and powerless.  The boy apparently “had been teased all his life” and “just struck out in anger at the world.”


As we’ve seen, children who have become fearful and timid are prime targets for bullies.  They haven’t been trained in the ways of true courage and honest humility, and in their perceived powerlessness they are ill-equipped to handle the rough-and-tumble side of adolescent life (and, later, adult life).  We parents need to better understand why certain kids are so often singled out, and we must learn what we can do to help these children escape the treachery of serial mistreatment.


We also need to tackle misconceptions like the belief that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.  Nihilism and Social Darwinism have fed us this line, which brings comfort to those who temporarily teeter on top of corrupt pecking orders but doesn’t sit right with most anyone else.  A voice within us, the voice of truth, tells us something much different.  “Like the parents who rush to their children’s school the day of a violent catastrophe, we know that what’s happening isn’t the way things are supposed to be.


On October 11, 2006, a Japanese boy, still in junior high, wrote in his suicide note, “Bullying is to blame.  I’m really serious.  Goodbye.”  The only thing that had been “made stronger” in him was the conviction that he was worthless and weak.  Rather than “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” it might be better said that what is stronger can kill a soul’s desire to live.


There are adults who believe that bullying makes kids stronger.  But they’re fooling themselves, perhaps literally so, in justifying their own cowardice and apathy.  Here are the facts: Those who undergo intense and prolonged adolescent bullying often do not grow stronger.  They become infused with anxiety and depression, with humiliation and soul-crushing self-reproach.  They are turned into the metallic arms of isolation, where they can be buried under paranoia and despair.  Some are buffeted with thoughts of revenge; some, in the furious rage of powerlessness, become homicidal and/or suicidal.


On September 29, 1998, in Arizona, Jared High committed suicide.  He’d been mired in a major depressive episode brought on by his approximately eight-minute-long violent beating at the hands of a known bully in a school gymnasium.  One doctor reported that High may have been within one hit of having his neck broken.  He was just thirteen years old.


According to authors Neil Marr and Tim Field, approximately sixteen children commit suicide in England each year due to bullying, like sixteen-year-old James Rogers, who would come home from school with bruises and torn clothing and would eventually poison himself.  The authors thrust a new word into our lexicon, “bullycide,” which we will undoubtedly hear more about in the years to come.


In order to help our children become confident, courageous, and successful, we must confront this hideous form of treatment that if unleashed upon an adult would put the perpetrator behind bars.  As it stands today, due in part to its prevalence, bullies, these purveyors of torment, are sometimes unlikely even to get detention.  Some signs of improvement do bring hope.  For example, the state of South Carolina passed legislation, effective January 2007,  that expands anti-bullying policies beyond the traditional ban on inflicting physical harm.  New district policies now include bans on intimidation and other forms of emotional bullying, including cyber-harassment via cell phones and computers.  I see here a fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s command:  “Learn to do right!  Seek justice, encourage the oppressed” (Isaiah 1:17)


Sadly, though, this is still the exception.  The injustice many kids experience on a regular basis is so extreme yet so accepted that in many ways it could qualify as the next stage of the civil rights movement.  As with other unacceptable atrocities, my hope is that we as a culture will look back upon what we used to tolerate in this arena and say to ourselves, “What were we thinking?”


I wrote earlier that children need to feel bad sometimes in order to become confident and virtuous adults.  By “bad,” though, I mean moderate challenges, effectively doled out, that serve them with opportunities to analyze a problem, create a plan, execute a solution, and experience success.  I don’t mean that children need to feel miserable and despairing.  There’s a difference between a temporary setback and prolonged anguish.  Between sadness and sadism.  Between good-natured teasing and torrential torment.  Many sufferers of bullying aren’t challenged by their ordeal—they’re squashed by it.  And sometimes the bullied become the bullies, squashing others in their desperate attempts to feel empowered.


The sins associated with bullying on school campuses do not only include the effects upon the victims who live in a constant state of fear and do not receive the education afforded to them by law.  On that premise we can expect more lawsuits against school districts that fail to handle bullying effectively.  Additionally, bullies who aren’t confronted by peers and leaders don’t receive the confrontation and correction they need to do well in life, and they often go on to bully as adults.  They’re prone toward spousal abuse, and 60 percent of boys named as bullies in grades six through nine have at least one court conviction by age twenty-four.  Their chances of drug and alcohol abuse also increase dramatically.


Bullying is a timidity factory, because it fills bystanders, both peers and authority figures, who rarely intervene, with cowardice.  Bullies provide others the opportunity to exercise courage and bravery, to grow their moral backbone.  But these usually fail the test.


Cowardice is the enemy of courage.  Cowardice makes us feel sludge-like; it erodes our integrity and our dignity; it mortifies our souls and diminishes our self-regard.  Odd that we wouldn’t already be focusing on this, in an age where self-esteem is an untouchable sacred cow.  It seems we’re all for bolstering self-esteem in our kids—until it comes to the exercise of courage, the virtue upon which all other virtues depend.


The U.S. military defines cowardice as “misbehavior before the enemy.”  It includes running away before an enemy and willfully failing to do all within one’s power to fight or defend when it’s his duty to do so.  Cowardice’s maximum punishment is the death penalty.


It’s important not to take this next analogy too far, but we know that about 85 percent of school shootings have as their motive (1) revenge against bullies and (2) retaliation against authority that was perceived as failing to protect.  It’s not always unrestrained bullying—in many cases, authority did intervene and tried to curtail bullying.  Yet teachers and school administrators a whole are not as good at recognizing or combating bullying as they say, or as school districts want us to believe.  Studies show that school officials are in a very real way “misbehaving before the enemy,” and with increasing frequency a death penalty is being paid by others.


At the same time, like the levies in New Orleans, the line of defense comprised only of teachers and administrators is not strong enough to hold back the magnitude of this hurricane.  Do teachers need more training and legal support to defend them when they do behave courageously?  You bet.  But why focus only on teachers and related staff?  Why not peers, the majority of whom witness these acts and, by and large, do nothing helpful? 


A good portion of the blame that goes toward teachers and administrations is a convenient rationalization for society’s lack of courage and related virtue.  The problem is far too large to blame on one group alone or one line of defense.  The levies are not built to withstand the pressure.


Next time: Bullying Defined 


Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying. 

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