Understanding the bully and the victim [Commentary]

The cast of Baltimore-filmed and -set web series "BFA" (from left to right): David Brasington, Katie Hileman, Sean McComas, Anderson Wells, Katie Kopajtic, Jessie Poole.

Emily Bazelon, author of a deeply researched book on teenage bullying titled "Sticks and Stones," tells this story on herself.

She is riding a subway and a group of teens starts tormenting a vulnerable — poor or perhaps homeless — man. She watches and then says to herself, "Wait, what am I doing sitting here? I am writing a book about bullying!"


She intervenes, and the young people turn on her. When the train stops, they follow her out of the car and into the station, taunting her and threatening her. She feels the eyes of everyone in the station on her. She hears them wondering what she has done to merit all this anger.

After, when she has collected herself, she thinks: "This is what we are asking our kids to do. To not be bystanders. To step up when they see someone being bullied." She is an adult, a lawyer and a journalist and with the confidence to know that she was doing the right thing. Yet she'd been deeply rattled when the bullies turned their attention to her. How can we expect our children to do this?


Ms. Bazelon, who is also a Yale Law School professor and a senior editor at Slate, an on-line magazine, was in Howard County talking with parents, educators and students last week in support of Stand Up HoCo, the anti-bullying initiative begun by County Executive Ken Ulman after Glenelg High School sophomore Grace McComas took her own life after having been bullied for nearly a year.

Ms. Bazelon's book grew out of her reporting on the bullying suicide of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old from Massachusetts who had recently emigrated from Ireland. In it, she focuses on the stories of three kids, two who were bullied and a third who faced criminal charges in Prince's death.

Ms. Bazelon argues that grown-ups need to make a distinction between teen drama or a one-off fight and bullying, which is carried out over time and reflects a real power imbalance. She wants us to use the label sparingly because it now carries a powerful stigma.

She wants us to listen carefully to the kids and not jump to conclusions about what is happening and who is to blame. And she wants us to take a careful look at the bully, who may be carrying around serious pain of his or her own. Bullying is a way to acquire social power — it may mean that the bully is powerless in some other circumstance.

She talked about the challenge of the Internet and the toxic kind of bullying that goes on there, and she talked about ways to change the environment in schools, ways to empower kids to say "We don't bully in our school."

Most poignantly, she described the small gestures that mean the most to victims. You don't have to step between the bully and the victim at school in front of 50 witnesses. A touch on the shoulder, an invitation to join in an activity, a kind note. Victims, she said, talked of how much these little things meant to them, how they kept them from losing hope.

She talked for more than an hour in front of just a couple of dozen adults and young people, all of whom admitted during a show of hands to having been bullied or having witnessed someone else being bullied — and of being a bully themselves.

It was a shamefully small group for such an important lecture. Attendance should have been required of teachers and administrators in Howard County, and students should have been offered extra credit if they showed up — double if they brought a parent.


Bullies are a problem. But adults who don't get it are a bigger problem.

Until teachers, school administrators and parents admit that they know less than nothing about the secret life of teens, and until they do more to understand what is going on under their noses, they will not be able to help the kids.

The bullies. Or the children they bully.

Susan Reimer's columns appear on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at and @SusanReimer on

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