Bystanders and bullying—from a millennial’s perspective

I am a college student and a millennial. I have always wanted to pursue higher education. This dream seemed unlikely, though, as my senior year closed. I realized that without serious support, I would not graduate. Like so many kids with extreme circumstances outside of school, I had fallen through the cracks in the system. Starting out as a high school freshman, I had few self-advocacy tools. I needed experienced adults to guide, advise, and protect me.

One of my first college assignments was to view the documentary Bully. This film follows a few students, one of whom had committed suicide, as they experienced the trauma of being bullied. Watching it, I cried from a deep place within. I was hurting not only for what these kids were experiencing, but also for what they were not. They were not experiencing compassion or understanding from the adults they went to for help. They were not experiencing guidance, affirmation, or a hope for something better.

I remember bullying in school. My friend was so beaten down that she attempted suicide in eighth grade. She tried again in ninth. I watched kids being taunted in the lunchroom and felt helpless as peers skipped classes that their bullies attended. Sadly, I also remember being a bully. I made fun of a kid in math class so regularly that one day he broke down and cried. It was only then that it occurred to me that maybe we were not just “kidding around.”

What I do not remember are adults stepping in. Where were the grown-ups? Why did no one step in for my friend and tell her that the girls who were tearing her down were wrong—that she was valuable and they did not have the right to speak to her in that way? Why didn’t my math teacher pull me aside and say, “You are hurting him. This is not a joke.” We needed adult advocates to guide our social development.

‘Kids Will Be Kids’

A common perception is that, since bullying has always existed, it is a normal part of childhood. In part, this is because children have historically been seen as property and had few legal rights. They were often treated in a manner that would now be considered abusive. Children were not protected from adults, so the concept of protection was not on our social radar. Almost all childhood behaviors, no matter how ugly, maladaptive, or dangerous, were considered developmentally and socially normal. In 1885, inspectors investigated the bullying death of a 12-year-old boy at the King’s School in Cambridge. They concluded that bullying was a “misadventure” and that the behaviors leading to the death were a “normal part of a boy’s school life.” None of the children involved in the death were punished.

This “kids will be kids” mentality can soften bullying into a nonissue and suggest that adults have no responsibility to intervene. Any implicit tolerance of bullying by adults in a school system negatively impacts student bystanders.

The tide, however, is turning. What used to be seen as a rite of passage is now recognized as a legitimate issue. We are shifting from a maladaptive kids-will-be-kids standard as schools consistently apply anti-bullying messages. As a millennial, my school experience included a recognition that bullying was not acceptable. This recognition, however, was saturated in a confusing hypocrisy, because many adults operated from a kids-will-be-kids paradigm. Their attitudes implied that intimidating and aggressive behaviors were unfortunate, but formatively normal.

Adult Bystanders and Bullying

The way that an adult responds to bullying is incredibly important. According to a recent National School Climate Survey, only one-third of students who reported harassment and/or assault felt that staff addressed it effectively. When asked how personnel responded, students most commonly said that “staff did nothing and/or told the reporting student to ignore the victimization.”

This sends a mixed message to student bystanders, who are often told by adults to help. Students are told to intervene, but they cannot safely do so if they see no model for it. The response of an adult in authority to peer abuse defines appropriate behavior for children. Ineffective or passive adult responses impart a diminished sense of responsibility to students. When adults fail to intervene, students lose trust in schools as a safe setting. This has a huge impact on the worldview of all students.

Intentional Nonintervention?

So why don’t more adults in schools effectively intervene? Some do not realize their impact. Some abdicate power to outside influences. Alternatively, some adults genuinely want change, but find themselves paralyzed with hopelessness because of the endless negative influences children encounter. Bad neighborhoods, poverty, lack of parental attention, exposure to drugs, abuse, neglect, hunger, and homelessness are all factors that require attention and compassion. External factors do not, however, create the culture within the school. Submission to helplessness fosters a culture of negativity for both educators and students. Lack of intention and loss of hope hand the controls to outside influences.

Many adults simply tell children not to respond. Often, this advice comes from genuine concern that a response will only escalate the situation. This can be true. What is not true, however, is that the only two available responses are to ignore the offense or fight back. Verbal abusers are most concerned only with eliciting a response. Telling a victimized person not to respond is not only callous, it is ineffective.

Verbal abusers will continue to push buttons until a nerve is hit and a response is received. Instead of teaching victims to ignore abuse, which forces them to endure social isolation and embarrassment, educators should teach children how to slip out of that chokehold undamaged. By kindergarten age, children can learn linguistic tools to communicate their needs and defend themselves against verbally abusive speech. Our responsibility as influential adults is to practice the use of these tools and share them through modeling and instruction.

Impacts of Bullying

In a school where bullying is not resolved effectively, students also learn destructive coping mechanisms that can develop into real social problems. There is long-standing agreement about the negative impact of violence. Bullying among children as a part of those statistics, however, is relatively new. There has been a significant increase in citations by the American Psychological Association involving bullying over the last 20 years. From 1900 to 1990, there were only 62 citations. In the 1990s, it jumped to 289. Between 2000 and 2004, citations regarding bullying had risen to 562. Data collection on bullying is growing exponentially. Despite this, bullying remains a predominant problem that is statistically alarming. This has led to increased legislative mandates for safer schools.

Comprehensive Safe Schools Programming

Cultures that cultivate effective conflict resolution are cultures of proactivity and hope. Creative positive culture, however, is more complex than asking adults to change. It requires training everyone on the adverse effects of bullying and the benefits of a whole-school approach. Beyond that, schools need to have systemic mechanisms to work with all parties—victims, students who bully, and bystanders. Using a framework to resolve conflict and restore relationships educates the whole school community about responding to victimization. The natural precursor to increasing adult and student bystander involvement is the intentional creation of a positive school climate.

Since bullying is often coined as “the hidden culture,” changes must be specific, transparent, and explicitly discussed. Displays, public service announcements, schoolwide events, classroom discussions, public forums, curriculum, safe space zones, and policy postings all provide common language on these issues. This motivates all to keep children safe. My millennial experience was a “one and done” assembly that did little to permeate the school culture. One explicit teaching session about bullying cannot create a pervasive, ongoing, cohesive conversation.

In any encounter, verbal abusers are not bad, evil, mean people, nor are victims weak, incapable, unlovable people. I have met both of these types, and I have been both myself. I saw adults standing by when I exhibited bullying behavior, and I saw adults standing by while my friend was victimized. I look back and am sad at what was lost. I think about how different those experiences could have been had we experienced modeling and healthy communication lessons during this formative time.

Children need advocates, guides, and protectors. We must equip ourselves to better fill those roles in their lives so that they can enter the adult world with the ability to make it better.

Amanda Rogers is a student at Stetson University in Florida. (Two associate professors at Stetson, Chris Colwell and Joyce Mundy, assisted in the writing of this article.)