“Shaming someone involves a loss of face, diminished self-esteem, and induces a sense of rage. For some people, rage and shame are turned inward and may result in self-destructive behavior, such as eating disorders, stomachaches, drug abuse, or even suicide. For others, rage precipitates an explosive action towards others.”
– Garbarino & deLara (2002, p. 80)
Most bullied children do not become violent. In fact, bullied children tend to be kids with more empathy and a less aggressive personality. Yet bullying also has an indisputable effect on school violence, since even the soundest of individuals can only internalize so much before they explode. While most bullied children do not lash out violently, OTHERS DO resort to violent acts as a direct result of the bullying they experience. This violence can take forms ranging from fist fights to Columbine-style school shootings.
Bullying as a form of school violence
In the most direct way, bullying is related to school violence because much of what bullies do IS physically violent. Shoving someone into a locker, kicking or punching them as they walk down the halls, or shoving them down stairs all qualify as significant acts of violence, and can even lead to serious injury. One boy, for example, was left paralyzed from the neck down after being shoved down a staircase at his school by a bully. Other children are attacked by groups of aggressors, sometimes jumped on their way home from school. Rocks, hard objects, or other items may be hurled at them – sometimes launched in their direction from a moving car. These types of assaults would be treated as a potentially serious criminal act if we were dealing with adults, and we should take it just as seriously when our kids experience them. This violence affects not only the bullied child, but other children who must spend their day in a violent environment where such assaults are considered commonplace.
How bullying leads to retaliatory violence
On the other side of the equation, the psychological harm done to a bullied child can often incubate violent tendencies or spark a violent act in retaliation. Bullied children are shamed on a regular basis, and psychologists have long known there is a strong causal link between shame and violence. (Gilligan, 1997) Bullied children also face alienation from their peers. This social exclusion is known to lead to distraction, preoccupation, lethargy, and a sense of meaninglessness, which in turn breeds violence. (Twenge et al., 2003) There’s only so much torment and humiliation bullied children can take before many resort to lashing out in return.
When New York magazine surveyed teens about their reactions to the Columbine shootings, one 19-year-old captured this sentiment when he stated, “To be honest, when I first heard about it, part of me feels like, ‘Yay!’ This is what every outcast kid has been dreaming about doing since freshman year.” (Jacobson, 1999) His feelings are more common among mistreated teens than parents might imagine. Thankfully, most children remain stable enough through it all to keep from acting out such vengeful thoughts in the real world. Yet for evey bullied child who goes on a shooting rampage at school, countless others act out in less-dramatically violent ways on an everyday basis all around the country.
School shootings & bullying
“Much of the violence in schools is really caused by children who are retaliating against bullies and other forms of peer pressure. In fact, among 48 incidents of recent school shootings, most of the shooters were responding to having been mercilessly bullied.”
– Malcolm L. Smith (2010)
Following the tragedy at Columbine, the media rushed in to frame Klebold and Harris (the two shooters) as two demented psychopaths whose actions were entirely independent of their environment, while going to great lengths to downplay the bullying and harassment they experienced at Columbine High School. Let us be clear: there is no excuse or justification for the horrible crimes they committed that day. Yet pretending that this tragedy had nothing to do with bullying or social dynamics at the school is also a cop-out, and a gross distortion of the facts.
There’s a reason there has been such a concerted effort by school officials to control the message and downplay the role that bullying played in this tragedy, and similar tragedies in general. As Garbarino & deLara (2002, p. 85) note, “Why are adults reluctant to see the systematic connections (between bullying and school violence)? Some of it is the result of their own psychological self-defense mechanisms. … As long as adults who view those kids who commit serious acts of violence at school as merely unstable or mentally ill, the school as a system does not have to make the connection, and thus it does not have to intervene in the consistent bullying that some students experience daily.”
Although school officials may try to downplay the role that bullying plays in such attacks, research shows the link is clearly there. After interviewing 41 school shooters in 37 separate incidents, one study found that two-thirds had been bullied by classmates and their attacks were motivated by a will to seek revenge. It’s also important to note that the shooters did not limit their attacks to students. Teachers and school administrators were also frequently targeted. (Vossekuil et al., 2002) While most of these incidents involve junior high and high school kids, it can also occur in grade school. In Flint, Michigan, an incident occurred that just might be the youngest known case of an intentional school shooting. A 6-year-old boy brought a gun to his school and killed a classmate in retaliation for a conflict the two youngsters had engaged in the day before. (Barboza, 2000)
Another study found that among students who are involved in bullying, an alarming number carry weapons around with them at some point. Forty-three percent of boys who said they had bullied others at least once a week in school had brought a weapon to school, while 29% of targets who had been bullied weekly brought weapons to school. (Seale, 2004)
Violence emerges from conflict, and bullying in every form includes conflict of some type. So the more conflict that is brought to our schools through bullying, the more school violence we’ll have. Trying to get our bullying problems under control would do more to ensure our children’s safety than campus police or metal detectors ever could.