Behind Bullying: The People, Causes, and Ramifications
When Ryan Dutcher steps in front of a group of middle school students, he talks to them about bullying, using videos and sharing his personal experiences – as the victim of childhood bullying – to get the message across.
His story, while sad, is not unusual. According to pacer.org, in 2016, “[m]ore than one out of every five (20.8%) students report being bullied.”
Bullying at a young age can make some become stronger, while others will be diagnosed with depression and anxiety. However, bullying can actually change a person’s DNA, said a local bullying expert.
“It changes the way that you respond to different types of situations, so it can have a very lasting impact,” said Honey Minkowitz, the bullying prevention coordinator at the Mediation Center of Dutchess County. “Certain situations that people are in can actually influence and change the way that their brain works and change the way that the genes are made.”
The effects of bullying often linger for a long time, leaving the victims physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially scarred. Yet, many people experience bullying in some form – whether as a victim, bully and/or bystander, as bullying is something that’s common in many schools and workplaces all over the country and world.
While there is a good chance that the impact bullying has on DNA is reversible, according to a 2012 ABCNews article, “research shows that the chemical structure surrounding part of the genetic blueprint of a young child is physically changed by bullying, leaving the victim less able to respond properly to the stress and possibly paving the way for mental problems later in life.”
Isabelle Ouellet-Morin of the University of Montreal conducted a study on the effects of bullying, using 28 pairs of identical twins. They found that “the level of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, was suppressed in children who had been bullied,” according to the ABCNews article.
Other effects for students who are bullied, while maybe not as drastic as their DNA changing, can be just as harmful. “Long term effects run the gamut of problems from significant anxiety, and avoidance of social encounters to significant depression and difficulties in school,” said Dr. Joel Haber, a bullying speaker, expert and counselor based in based in White Plains, NY. “Bullying can make kids fearful of activities that involve other kids so they miss out on the emotional growth and opportunities for resilience building.”
According to Minkowitz, people can have an increase in suicidal thoughts, feelings of depression, anxiety, as well as other physical and mental health issues. “There are many repercussions for students who have been habitually bullied – we see impacts across a lifespan,” Minkowitz said.
According reputable news media reports, below are four extreme cases of bullying that occurred within the last 10 years.
Tyler Clementi, a college freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey, was spied on while he had a sexual encounter with another man in his room, via a webcam that was set up by his roommate and another classmate. Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge on September 22, 2010.
Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old girl from British Columbia, was cyberbullied when a picture of her flashing her chest (after she was pressured to do so by a man she had met online) was circulated around. She was also physically and verbally bullied by many others, before committing suicide on October 10, 2012.
Gabriel Taye, an eight-year-old boy from Ohio, was physically beat up and bullied to the point that after one particularly violent incident, he became unconscious and later that night, went to the hospital because he was throwing up. Two days after that assault, he hanged himself, on January 26, 2017.
Mallory Grossman, a 12-year-old from New Jersey, was socially and verbally bullied by a group of her classmates for months – both online and in person. Grossman committed suicide on June 14, 2017.
While there isn’t one definition for bullying, there’s a general understanding that it’s an intentional, negative thing done by one person to another. “It’s when someone repeatedly and on purpose, says or does mean or hurtful things to another person, who has a hard time defending himself or herself,” Minkowitz said.
Minkowitz said that the type of students who are bullied are those who could be seen as easy targets – high achievers, socially anxious students, those with less developed social skills and those who are shy.
“I was different and normally people who are different or do different things, it’s easy to be a target for someone to pick on them,” Dutcher said. “I got picked on for wanting to be a magician and do magic.
Now, Dutcher – who does shows for Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses in Ulster Park, NY – partnered up with them and goes to schools in New York State and talks to students, as part of the “Don’t Be A Monster” bullying prevention program.
On the bully end, Minkowitz says there isn’t one single reason why students bully others – however, there are a couple of trends. One, although it doesn’t excuse the behavior, is that the bullies might not realize they’re bullying.
“The highest rates of bullying are between the grades of three and five,” Minkowitz said. "They’re young, [so] maybe some of them don’t know they’re actually engaging in bullying behavior – they haven’t been able to differentiate what that means [and] they’re still learning social skills.”
Another trend that Minkowitz has seen is that the bullies are popular – at least within his or her own social circle. So it “could also be said that students who engage in bullying behavior are also trying to reinforce a social norm and reinforce their superiority over others,” Minkowitz said.
Minkowitz also pointed out that bullying is socially supported, so there are fellow students that condone the bullying behavior.
However, she said that over the past 10-12 years, bullying rates are declining, nationally. Yet, there are still programs and organizations and experts to educate students and other adults involved in the education system about bullying and how to stop it. The Mediation Center of Dutchess County where Minkowitz works, is one such organization.
While their focus is shifting slightly to restorative justice – which is more about conflicts (which, as Minkowitz stressed, bullying is not) and using conversation to get the responsible party to take responsibility for his or her actions – people can still reach out to the Mediation Center regarding bullying.
However, she emphasized that they would never conduct mediation between the bully and the victim. “It would be re-victimizing the person who’s being targeted,” Minkowitz said. “Inherently in bullying, there a power differential – there’s a power dynamic. So, if you put two people together in mediation, we assume the people are on equal footing…in a bullying situation, that’s not the case.” So, Minkowitz said, mediation isn’t an effective way to deal with bullying because it just re-emphasizes the power difference between the two people.
Olweus Bullying Prevention Program
Something that the Mediation Center currently has (although the grant for it will be ending at the end of the year), is the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. This worldwide program is the only evidence-based bullying prevention program and it has over 35 years of research to support its methods.
Not only is it one of the ways to ensure that the Dignity for All Students Act is followed through with, but the program is also grant funded, so it’s free for schools. Possibly partially due to that, the Mediation Center has trained 13 schools in Dutchess County so far.
Melissa Lawson, the principal of Ralph R. Smith elementary school in Hyde Park, said that their district was approached about four years ago. The Mediation Center “reached out to our district because they had some grant money to implement and train about the Olweus program in a school or group of schools,” Lawson said.
The program focuses on training adults. “Adults are responsible for social behavior and role modeling,” Minkowitz said. “Adults need to be seen as not just authority figures in school, but also as people that students can feel safe coming to…A lot of students do not tell anyone and one thing that contributes to that, is they don’t feel safe telling adults in school…We want schools to change their culture.”
People in her school were interested, so Minkowitz and people at the Mediation Center came and trained a group of people who expressed interest – including parents, teacher assistants and lunch monitors. The school called this group the Coordinating Committee and they were responsible for training the rest of the school staff.
After about a year, they had a kickoff with stations for the kids. We “walked our kids through understanding what it means to be a bully, what it means to be a bystander and how it can help prevent bullying,” Lawson said.
The main part of the program happens in the classroom. Once a week, the teacher has a classroom meeting, where they talk about bullying and helpful interventions. A lot of modeling is done during those meetings.
“I feel like the program has broadened students knowledge about bullying versus conflict and how to intervene when you see a friend in need,” Kelly Schluter, the school psychologist for Ralph R. Smith elementary school, said.
Lawson really emphasized that the change was in the language. They’ve always had some sort of program where the students are able to work on their social skills, but the difference with this program was narrowing in on a clear definition of bullying. “One of the things that we benefited from right away is a common language, so that we were really talking about bullying and what that is and what it isn’t, in the same way,” Lawson said.
Although they’re continuing to work on identifying what is bullying and what’s just a conflict, Schluter agreed. “The immediate effects of the program is building classroom community…[and] adopting [a] school language,” Schluter said. She added that “[t]he program encourages whole school/community involvement so we have done bullying walks in the community and we now have a touch-base program with bus drivers which has helped to cut down on bus issues and helped staff connect with bus drivers.”
According to Lawson, the numbers of reports of bullying have gone down (but she thinks that’s more related to now having a clear definition of bullying). Regardless, “our survey data has shown an increase in kids feeling safe at school and feeling like they have an adult to go to and they have friends that they can rely on,” Lawson said.
The Mediation Center used to have an annual Anti-Bullying Youth Summit for students in grades seven to 12, in Dutchess County and beyond. However, the Mediation Center wasn’t funded to support the summit this year, so they weren’t able to do it.
Rose heard about the event through volunteering at the Mediation Center and for three years, some students in her Social Inequality class chose to lead some of the workshops. “I thought it was great for the kids that participated, but also great for our students and I thought it was great to have our campus involved,” Rose said.
Minkowitz advises that bystanders “reach out to the person who’s being bullied – one person can make a huge difference..I really feel like the onus is on other people to reach out to the student, if they know someone’s being bullied.” However, she noted that if it’s a dangerous situation, don’t risk your own safety, but go get help.
As for those being bullied? “There’s always hope,” Minkowitz said. “Reach out to at least one person…it always does get better.”