from educational Horizons Summer 1998
©1999 Gary K. Clabaugh
According to classmates, both Mitchell Johnson, thirteen, and Andrew Golden, eleven, were school bullies. And their bullying reached a climax on Monday, March 30, 1998 when police say the two boys ambushed students and teachers outside Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Armed with three stolen rifles and four handguns, police officials explain that the two youth flushed kids and teachers out of the school by means of a false fire alarm then opened up on them. When they stopped shooting, four students and a teacher lay dead and 11 others were wounded, one critically.
One classmate, Michael Barnes, 12, is quoted as saying that when the shooting started he immediately thought of the pair. "They're rough," Barnes recounted, "and they always said they would, but nobody believed them." Barnes was referring to signs of the impending ambuscade. Long before the event Johnson reportedly told a fellow student that he wanted to hurt people. He also allegedly pulled a knife on a classmate. And officials say that just before the ambush, Johnson told an acquaintance, "I got a lot of killing to do and I'll see you tomorrow." When a girl asked if she was one of those scheduled for killing, Johnson reportedly replied, "You'll have to wait to find out."
Were Jonesboro school officials adequately alert to this bullying? Had they been more vigorous in rooting it out could the disaster have been averted? We will never know. But we do know is that entirely too much bullying goes on in US schools. The National Center for Education Statistics National Household Education Survey, 1993, reported that a majority of students in the 6th to 12th grades, 56%, said that bullying had occurred in their school during the last year.
Despite its prevalence, bullying is easily overlooked. It usually is covert and both victims and witnesses often are coerced into silence. So busy educators often either fantasize that bullying doesn't exist in their school, or at least cynically pretend that it doesn't. Consequently, in classroom after classroom, kids sit with knots of fear in their stomach because bullies are making their school lives miserable. Even kids not directly assaulted or threatened are victimized by such bullying because they know they might be next.
It should be self-evident that students who have reason to fear for their safety experience a very different learning environment than kids who feel protected. And because of bullying the very weakest school kids can lead a hellish existence that scars them for life. Consider John Famalaro,the man convicted of abducting Denise Huber off a California freeway in 1991. A jury found that he sodomized and murdered her then froze her body for three years. But his older sister testified in court that Famalaro was bullied so much in grade school that she rode the bus to protect him from other children. "He was a weakling," Marion Thobe, the convicted murderer's sister, told the court. And she added that he dreaded school so much that he would break into nervous fits on Monday mornings. Did relentless bullying contribute to Famalaro's cruelty? We can't be certain; but it sure didn't make him any kinder. Besides, no child should be forced to endure such torture.
Educators who don't stop that sort of thing are failing in their most fundamental obligation, to protect those in their charge. And bullying not only ruins individual lives and retards learning, it also sows the seeds of general school disorder and rebellion. Just as it is foolish to maintain allegiance to a government that fails to protect its citizens, so it is senseless for students to cooperate with educators who permit their victimization by bullies. Most kids know that and act accordingly.
Lamentably there is a melancholy similarity between schools where bullies operate with impunity and out-of-control prisons. Savage victimization goes on in jails when warden and guards look the other way; and victimization also takes over in schools when educators fail to exercise due diligence. And when inmates are victimized at least there is the modest consolation that most of them did nasty things to get themselves into this predicament. In the case of school children, however, innocents are sentenced to daily misery just because they have the misfortune of living in a neighborhood served by a bully dominated school.
This prison analogy might seem a bit much; but actually, at least when it comes to bullying, some schools are more like concentration camps than out-of-control prisons. In the November 1988 Readers Digest, for instance, former Secretary of Education William Bennett praises a principal who took over a troubled inner-city Washington, D. C. school. The first day of school this "educational leader" assembled the student body and, in Bennett's words, "... with practiced eye chose 20 potential troublemakers to help enforce her tough new standard of discipline." Can you imagine? The school is out of control and the principal's solution is to put the bullies in charge! How is that like a concentration camp? Hitler's SS used bully boy inmates, called Kapos, to maintain order there. Frankly,even a former Secretary of Education should be able to see how extraordinarily cruel and stupid such a policy is. Perhaps Bennett was too busy working on his The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories to think the right and wrong of this one through.
Is putting the bullies in charge the very bottom of the wicked school practices septic tank? Unhappily, no. The most unscrupulous practice of all is when school authorities first abandon kids to bullying; then, if they happen to muster enough courage to defend themselves, suspend them for "fighting." This diabolical system spares administrators the burden of finding out why a "fight" took place. And it even pays public obeisance to popular simple-minded mewing against school "violence." But it puts the victims of bullying in an impossible position. The school is a jungle; but protect yourself rather than meekly submit to domination or a beating and both you and the bully are suspended. Imagine a criminal justice system first failing to maintain law and order, then punishing self-defense. This is the worst possible combination -- a witches stew of immorality seasoned with stupidity. Yet this is exactly what school officials are doing when they administer blanket suspensions for "fighting". And to make matters worse, bullies often celebrate the suspension. It's just time off from school for them. But missing school usually is very real punishment for their victims. So, in the end, decent kids with guts end up being punished more severely than the indecent gutless bullies who make their school lives miserable.
Kids in bully dominated schools sometimes feel forced to use desperate measures. I know of a situation in a Philadelphia public school where a frail and studious Vietnamese-American lad was subjected to relentless bullying by a gang of African-American toughs. Many teachers knew about the bullying, but did nothing. After all, it wasn't happening in their class. Administrators must have known too, though they might have been too busy filling out central office paperwork to notice what was going on under their noses. Anyway, the youngster finally couldn't take the bullying any longer and brought a knife to school. Then when a young thug started to give him the usual treatment, he stabbed him. The bully was only superficially damaged, but his victim ended up in very serious trouble with the law. Was the Vietnamese-American kid the only person responsible for the stabbing? You decide.
Sure, bullying sometimes is tough to spot; and even the most diligent educators aren't able to stop it completely. But that is all the more reason for them to develop policies and procedures that aid early detection and insure swift and certain punishment. That at least discourages bullying while it simultaneously encourages victims and witnesses to break the silence that fosters it. Were Jonesboro school officials sufficiently vigilant regarding school bullies? Could they have prevented the tragedy had they taken greater care? Maybe yes, maybe no; but the tragedy certainly should remind us that school bullying must never be ignored or winked at. Children whom we require to go to school must not be turned over to bullies once they get there.TO TOP