When Students Egg On a Bully . . . And What to Do About It

Why, I often wondered, do bullies gain a following? I could see why kids might not have enough courage to defend a victim, why they would slip right by a bully event and disappear down the hall. Bullies, after all, are scary. But what made kids join in the taunts and applaud pushing and punching?

After decades of teaching them all—the victims and the bullies and their fans, here’s my take on what students think as they egg on a bully:

  • I’m not alone: Most would-be bullies have been victims themselves. And since misery is easier to bear when others are miserable in the same way, watching another victim suffer brings consolation. The Germans call it schadenfreude—this finding pleasure in the pain of others.
  • I’m mad: Fans of bullies borrow the anger and language of the bully. If they were brave enough, they’d do what the bullies do and say what the bullies say. So watching and applauding is cathartic, but it’s also safe. Only the bully will get in trouble.
  • I’m tough: Since triumph demands an audience, bullies seldom work without a crowd. And the students who cheer from the sidelines participate in vicarious victory. This, in their minds, elevates their status.

So with these attractions, how do you keep a bully from poisoning the well, from spreading violence across a school?

I found only one answer for this, an approach that seems counterintuitive: to love the bully.

Generally, I didn’t talk to a class about an individual student. But I broke this rule when bullies made high-profile moves. If something is already public, not talking about it contributes to its violence.

“You know,” I said, the morning after John shoved Kamhar up against the locker and spat in his face, “I care about all of you. That’s why I’m teaching you. I care about Kamhar, and what happened to him is wrong, not to be tolerated.”

Students expected this much, but I wasn’t finished. I told them I also cared about John. Suspended, he couldn’t hear my words, though he would later, from his buddies.

“Someone who does what John did,” I said, “has something broken inside. So it’s up to the rest of us to help him.”

We’d talk together about how students see and hear what teachers don’t, how their voices in defending each other are stronger than teachers’ words, and how positive peer pressure wins over school discipline every time.

“Right now, you’re stronger than John,” I told them. “And so am I. So let’s use our strength to help him be good.”

To be honest, I was always surprised that this worked. But calling students to be change agents, seemed to pull them together to accomplish a tough task, even those who had cheered on a bully.

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