The victims of bullying who wreaked terrible revenge

24th April 2009 at 01:00
School harassment was identified as a trigger for the Columbine killings. But teacher support can ensure that it doesn't lead to dysfunction and crime

School attitudes to bullying can make the difference between a cold-blooded killer and a successful, high-functioning professional, according to new research.

Ten years ago this week, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Colorado and murdered 12 pupils and a teacher, wounding 23 others before killing themselves. Investigations revealed that both had been victims of bullying.

Following the shootings, Laurie Bennett, professor of education at nearby Denver University, spoke to a gathering of 40 academics and teachers. All had degrees and many had postgraduate qualifications. Almost all had been bullied at school.

Professor Bennett decided to investigate why some bullied pupils go on to achieve success while others develop deeply antisocial behaviour.

She interviewed 35 high-achieving 17-year-olds at Liston High, a mainstream school, all of whom had been bullied at primary school. She also spoke to 65 residents of Riverdale Academy, a juvenile correctional facility, who had also been victims of bullying.

The high-achieving Liston pupils said they were challenged and inspired at school. Sara, who was sexually harassed and targeted by a "hate club", said her studies "kept my mind off things and challenged me; I could kind of lose myself in English".

By contrast, many Riverdale pupils had been taught more traditionally. Luis, who was bullied because he had ADHD, described lessons as "boring". "All they would do is lecture, then they'd expect you to do a test on everything they said."

Extra-curricular activities were also vital. Sara found friends by joining the school band. Her classmate, Warren, who was bullied because of his cleft lip, also played in the band and represented the school at tennis.

However, not all pupils found it as easy to join in with such activities. Riverdale pupil Jeff, bullied because he was small, failed to find refuge in school and instead joined a gang when he was eight. By 14, he had been arrested for attempted murder.

"Bullying can be a profoundly isolating experience," Professor Bennett said. "The Riverdale boys strove to escape their isolation, but nothing in and of school seemed to facilitate that escape."

The school's response to bullying was also key. When Sara reported her harassment to school authorities, they took prompt action.

But when Riverdale pupils had reported bullying at their schools they were asked for evidence. In the absence of corroborative testimony, the pupils' claims would be dismissed. Luis said: "They really couldn't do nothing about it unless they'd seen it. I mean, they couldn't just take our word for it."

The victim often responded by taking a physical swipe at the bullies. They, rather than the bullies, would then be punished.

And the Riverdale pupils had rarely had helpful adults in their school lives. Where Sara could turn to her English teacher and her band leader, Jeff only had his gang leader.

Instead of taking firm action against bullies, the Riverdale pupils' schools had run anti-bullying programmes, which the pupils described as "a bunch of crap".

Professor Bennett believes careful management of bullying is vital if bullied pupils are to be prevented from descending into truancy, crime and violence. "Schools can be a place where kids find both safety and challenge, a sense of belonging and a sense of being supported by adults whom they respect and whose example they yearn to follow," she said.

"It behoves our schools to figure out how such needs might be met so that children who are bullied now might nonetheless achieve school success."

The Pupils Path to success

Warren: The son of air force officers, Warren lived in five different places as a child. He was bullied for being the new kid, and also for his cleft lip and palate. But teachers in each of his schools watched out for him and would find ways to include him in group activities. He now hopes to go into the law or foreign intelligence.

Sara: The child of a broken home, Sara was bullied for being bright. She was sexually harassed by a boy and derided by girls for lack of sporting prowess. Her former friends formed a "hate club" to spread rumours about her. She told her mother about the sexual harassment and the the boy was suspended. She found escape through academic work and joined the tennis club and school band, where she made new friends.

Descent into crime

Benny: Raised in an affluent suburb, Benny was high-achieving, but bullied for being a "nerd". When he fought back he was suspended. He told no one about the abuse, but his school attendance plummeted and he became involved in crime, leading to incarceration at Riverdale.

Jeff: Joined a gang when he was eight for protection from the bullies who called him "midget" and beat him up. Teachers, he said, only intervened when they saw him hit back: it felt as though he was always the one in trouble. At 10, he was caught in crossfire and shot in the head. After that, he only attended school to sell drugs or fight. He was repeatedly arrested for drugs and fighting, and - aged 14 - for attempted murder.

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