Schoolroom Torment

updated 02/05/2001 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/05/2001 AT 01:00 AM EST

Everyone remembers the schoolyard bully. He was a social misfit with no friends who took his ill humor out on his peers, right? Wrong. According to studies by psychologist Dorothy Espelage, the typical bully is not a lumbering outcast but rather a popular kid, usually male, often an athlete, who knows how to butter up adults even as he persecutes his peers.

Bullying can have serious consequences. Taunting, teasing and coercion can leave victims depressed, anxious, even suicidal-and inclined, says Espelage, "to do to someone else what has been done to them." Or worse: Of the 73 victims aged 11 to 14 interviewed by Espelage, one in four said that although they would never shoot their harassers-taunting has been cited as a factor in most school shootings of recent years-they understood how kids could be driven to such violence.

An assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Espelage, 32, has been observing bullies since 1995, focusing mainly on the transitional middle-school years, a time of flux, she says, when "children are negotiating their status within peer groups." She recently shared her thoughts with correspondent Barbara Sandler.

How do you define "bully"?

In our study we defined it as those kids who tease and intimidate other students. We also included those who spread rumors and form exclusive cliques. We did not include kids who physically assault other kids, a much smaller group who tend to have more serious problems.

What's behind bullying behavior?

First of all, there is this social structure that rewards bullying. You can fit in, be cool, if you bully. Second, these kids don't feel that great about themselves, and bullying buffers that feeling. A third factor is that we don't give kids skills to tolerate differences. So when they see people who are different, they lash out and make fun of them.

Are bullies usually from broken homes?

Bullying appears to have little to do with whether families are intact or not. Nor are bullies necessarily poor kids with single parents. We find bullying just as often where there is a mom and dad with high economic status. The No. 1 family variable is parental supervision. If kids are unsupervised, they're more likely to become bullies-or, for that matter, to abuse drugs or get involved in all kinds of harmful activities.

Are they depressed?

Yes, about 30 to 40 percent report significant levels of depression. On the outside they look fine, but they may be very lonely or may deliberately try to hurt themselves or have trouble eating or sleeping. Bullying behavior is often a cry for help.

Can teasing ever be good for kids socially, as some suggest?

It's not so simple, as all teasing hurts. Teasing can start out as playful and end up being damaging. Victims of teasing are hurting and often don't have friends. Moreover, there is strong evidence that bullying can escalate into physical aggression. A report done by the Secret Service, looking at all school shootings since 1940, found only one constant: The majority of the teenage shooters had been victimized.

What can parents do about bullying?

The parents of victims should not go barging into school. It will just make things worse for their kids. Instead they need to let their children know they have someone to talk to. On the other side of the equation, few parents will admit that their child is a bully. What parents need to recognize is that even if their kids are good and popular, they may still be disrespectful of their peers.

Parents can't fix this problem. It's up to the schools. There needs to be schoolwide intervention. You can target the bully, but you've left out the group that is backing him up. If you pull that bully out, another will just take his place. We need to change the climate of the school so there isn't any tolerance at all for this sort of behavior.

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