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Beneath the bullying, another victim

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 17, 2002

I could tell by the lateness of the call that he had given it a lot of thought.

My 5-year-old grandson, a couple of weeks into kindergarten, was facing his first bully and his father, my son, wanted to hear my thoughts on how he should deal with it.

He told me that he had already passed along the instructions I had given him when he was about that age and I was about his, the short version of which is: Never start a fight, but if forced to defend yourself, win.

Of course, now I added the suggestion that he should make sure the teacher and other school authorities were aware of the problem before he sent his son to school armed with permission to fight back.

That was a step I had left out of his instructions. The experience and common sense I relied on for parenting guidance -- rather than the latest fad theory of some childless expert -- told me that it is usually not convenient to excuse yourself in the middle of being bullied to go tell the teacher. Sometimes, telling plays right into the bully's hands, affirming to him that you are afraid and need help dealing with him. Sometimes, telling intensifies the bullying, which is usually done without benefit of an audience, or with an audience of others who already fear the bully.

Experience taught me that bullies may like to beat up on kids, but they generally don't like to fight. They push around those children who are afraid to offer resistance. Common sense tells me that in the long run you do the bully a favor by punching his lights out. You teach him that assumptions about size and strength, personality and character are sometimes not valid, that there are consequences to trying to control and exploit other people.

I learned -- and taught -- that lesson as a timid first-grader when a high school boy thought it would be funny to keep me from getting off the bus at my stop. What to him was a joke to amuse his friends was deadly serious to me: If I missed my stop, my normal six-tenths of a mile walk home would have more than a mile added to it.

Size notwithstanding, I managed to swirl and bloody his nose.

I never had any trouble getting off the bus after that, and he endured teasing about the incident that grew in each retelling so that long before he graduated, it was simply "the time a first-grader beat him up."

My reputation after that -- and that I had four older brothers -- kept the rest of my school days essentially bully-free.

But there is another side to bullying, especially, as in my grandson's case, when the bully is 6 years old. A child that age, who already displays such dysfunctional behavior, undoubtedly is dealing with other problems that make him more victim than the target of his bullying. Unfortunately, it is he, and not the parents, who ends up getting punched in the nose.

That's what my son found when he accompanied my grandson to school the next day to make sure teachers and school administrators were aware of the problem.

On sight, my grandson, who didn't inherit my subtlety gene, announced to his bully -- and whatever teachers and students were within a 100-yard range: "My dad said I can beat you up!"

The bully, confronted with responsibility for his actions, behaved like a timid 6-year-old, creating for my son a quandary: It's easy enough to fix an instance of bullying, but how do you fix the problems that led to that behavior and will probably continue in other forms?

That is where I ran out of experience. The landscape is different now: The disconnect between school and community has never been greater. The fabric of family has never been more tattered. Standards of morality and notions of discipline have never been more muddled.

The chain of accountability that used to keep behavior corralled into manageable range has been broken: Children are shipped to schools miles outside the neighborhoods where they interact with children they see only at school. Parents know teachers only through the names that appear on report cards.

With so much working against them, school officials deserve praise for keeping school grounds from becoming more battleground than they are. Until that continuum is resurrected, until parents assume more responsibility for guiding their children, until we as a society learn that setting boundaries for children is as important to a child's development as letting them explore new ones, schools will be stuck in its growing role of treating symptoms.

It was disheartening to think what lies ahead for my grandson's 6-year-old bully. Pinellas County schools have a program of training for teachers and administrators devoted to bullying. It is run by the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program and came into being about nine months ago after analysis disclosed that two-thirds of school shootings involved young people who had been bullied.

Consequently, said Linda Jones, supervisor of the program, the emphasis is on teaching children who are being bullied how to respond appropriately. She and Jan Urbanski, one of the prevention specialists conducting the training, confirmed some of my conclusions about bullying and said there has been little research.

They do know that the bully is searching for power and control, that it's most prevalent in middle school, that in earlier grades it's more likely to result from a lack of social skills than an ingrained desire for control, that it's easier to fix at that stage.

I was surprised they did not reject out of hand my advice for my grandson. Within the three R's taught in their training -- recognize, refuse and report -- I suppose my suggestion would fit under the refuse part. Jones and Urbanski emphasized, though, that the victim should resist only when he determines it's safe to do so.

With any luck, the little bully will acquire some social skills and become a well-liked, healthy citizen of his school and community.

Preferably without a bloody nose.

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