Oh, wow. Maybe I'm an expert on bullying. Or supposed to be. I just got the royalty statement for a book I wrote 15 years ago called Bully. My check for the six-month period is double what it was the previous period. It went up from a quarter pittance to half a pittance. I wouldn't say sales have gone crazy, but they do seem to have become mildly disturbed.
Yeah, it's a mistake. People may have bought it because they assumed a book called Bully would be about the phenomenon of youth bullying that is such a big story these days in the news. It's not really. My book is about a bunch of horrible spoiled brat suburban kids who murdered one of their friends because he was a bully. They were all sent to the pen. If your child is the victim of bullying, do not ... I repeat, DO NOT give the kid a copy of my book.
But this week when I saw a story in The Dallas Morning News about anti-bullying policies in a suburban school district, I thought of my recent undeserved pittance of a windfall and it occurred to me maybe I ought to bone up a bit on all these bully laws that have come into existence since I wrote my book. Had such laws existed back then, would they have made a difference in the case I wrote about?
See, here's the problem with that case. The kid who got killed was an asshole. But the kids who killed him were all douchebags. So I was curious: Does Texas law make a distinction between assholes and douchebags? Look it up, right? Exactly. That's what I did.
The main law on bullying is Texas Education Code Section 37.0832. It defines bullying as "written or verbal expression at a school-sponsored or school-related activity" that will "have the effect of physically harming a student, damaging a student's property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of harm to the student's person or of damage to the student's property."
To trigger the law, the bullying behavior has to be "sufficiently severe, persistent, and pervasive enough that the action or threat creates an intimidating, threatening, or abusive educational environment for a student" and also "exploits an imbalance of power between the student perpetrator and the student victim."
Yup. That would be my guy. One of his after-school pastimes was following special ed kids home and bouncing a football off their heads. He was an unlovely person. But none of that is what he got killed for.
He was killed by his own posse, his assistant bullies, the ones who helped him stalk the special ed kids, not because they felt any remorse for that but because he made the mistake of picking on them, too. They were angry.
A few of these kids were from tough backgrounds, but most were middle class church-raised kids -- boys who played Little League, girls who took ballet. They slit their victim's throat, disemboweled him, crushed his skull with a bat and tossed him in a swamp still alive where he was nibbled by crabs until he drowned.
So, I take it back. Maybe I am an expert on bullying. On one narrow aspect of it. That is this: Bullies are performers. They do stand-up. A bully does not bully alone or for his own enjoyment only. A bully plays to the house. He does it for applause. And he gets applause. My guy, the dead guy, was the hero and leader of his group until they decided to turn on him.
On a scale that is small but not trivial, we're talking about the phenomenon of Hitler's willing executioners -- the people who serve as the bully's accomplices and claque. Show me a bully, I'll show you some willing helpers.
I don't mean to over-complicate things. If you've got a kid who's bouncing footballs off the heads of the special ed kids, grab him, round him up and put him in some kind of lock-up or lock-out as fast as you can to make sure it stops happening to the special ed kids. That comes first.
But the Texas law and laws like it elsewhere do worry me to the extent they treat the social evil of bullying as an anomalous one-off behavior by an aberrant individual. Dig just a little deeper, and we will always find some level of explicit complicity or at the very least passive tacit permission given by a supporting group. The douchebags.
Obviously when we're talking about elementary school kids it's difficult to think of any of them as douchebags. But isn't elementary school where children learn the pre-douchebag behaviors that can blossom into full-blown douchebaggery just a few years later?
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How many kids are taught early on to stand apart, to speak out against the group dynamic, to be non-conformists ... well, troublemakers, of a sort, but the kind who make trouble for the bully? Isn't it a mistake to drop the matter as soon as the main bully is gone from the scene? Won't another one show up?
In fact, how do we know that some of the bullying we see in schools today may not even be an inevitable product of extreme pressure on kids to conform and perform? Nobody admires meanness more than a bunch of little Nazis.
Seriously, still don't buy my book for your kid. Very bad idea. I know giving people this advice may take me back down to three-eighths of a pittance on the next semi-annual statement, but I'm willing to make the sacrifice just to see your kid not get shipped off to the pen.
But do think about it. If you hear there's a bully in the kid's class, maybe you should ask your kid what he or she thinks of the bully, what your kid has done to speak up or stick up for the victims. If you hear a series of fawning anecdotes that make the bully sound cool, well, then, you've got a whole 'nuther problem, don't you?