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March 31st, 2010
11:51 AM ET

Excerpt: The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander

Editor's Note: More students have been removed from a Massachusetts school in the investigation of the alleged bullying campaign against a 15-year-old girl who committed suicide, a school official said Tuesday. Nine students at the school have been charged in what a prosecutor described Monday as a months-long campaign of bullying that led to the suicide in January of Phoebe Prince. Bullying is an issue in schools across the United States. Barbara Coloroso is an author and a consultant on parenting, teaching, positive school climate and nonviolent conflict resolution. She advised the school district on how to prevent bullying. Read an excerpt from her book below.

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Barbara Coloroso
'The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander'

The bully, the bullied, and the bystander are three characters in a tragic play performed daily in our homes, schools, playgrounds, and streets. As the examples in the introduction make clear, the play is real and the consequences can be deadly. A child who is playing “the bully” dresses, speaks, and acts the part, as do “the bullied” and “the bystander.” It is the posturing, the words, the actions, and the consequences of these elements combined that is the concern of this book. Most young children try out all three roles and play each one with relative ease, then abandon the bully and bullied roles to become bystanders. Some children play both bully and bullied and move effortlessly between the two. A few get typecast and find it almost impossible to break out of the role they have mastered, with no opportunity to develop more constructive social skills.

Typecasting raises the issue of language. As a former teacher, I have seen how easy, efficient, and nonproductive it is to use language as a kind of shorthand to mold a diagnosis and a child into one entity and use that term as if it encapsulates that child’s entire identity. A child who has diabetes is identified as a diabetic, a child with epilepsy is an epileptic, a child with asthma is an asthmatic, a child with a learning disability is a learning-disabled child. It takes a bit more effort and a few more syllables to say a child who has epilepsy, a child who has asthma, a child with a learning disability. I think it is worth both more effort and more syllables to keep from defining a child by his or her illness or disability.

So why use the terms the bully, the bullied, and the bystander? Some argue that to label the participants of a bullying episode is to typecast them and prevent them from moving out of their negative character roles. These writers prefer to focus on changing behavior and avoid labeling participants: the person bullying, the person bullied, the person observing. The emphasis is on providing alternatives for those taking part in or subjected to bullying.

Others use labels to intentionally typecast kids, viewing the bullying issue in black and white, as a good guy/bad guy script: “Bullies and Their Victims; the Game of Blame and Shame.” In this view, it’s a matter of them versus us—get rid of the bully and you get rid of the problem.

A third option is to use labels as identifiers of certain roles and the behavioral characteristics of those roles. I choose this option. When any one of these terms—the bully, the bullied, or the bystander—is used in this book, it is intended to identify only a role that a child is performing at that moment, in that one scene of the bully, the bullied, and the bystander one act in a longer play. It is not intended to define or permanently label a child. The goal is to gain a clearer understanding of these roles and how the interactions involved in such role-playing, though commonplace in our culture, are not healthy, not normal, and certainly not necessary and in fact can be devastating to children playing any of the three characters.

Once we understand these roles, we can begin to rewrite the script and create alternative, healthier roles that require no pretense and no violence. We can rechannel the governing or controlling behavior of the bully positively into leadership activities. The nonaggressive behaviors of the bullied can be acknowledged and developed as strengths. The role of bystander can be transformed into that of a witness: someone willing to stand up, speak out, and act against injustice.

Our children are not merely acting out their scripts, they are living them. They can’t go home after a performance and “get real,” because home is a part of their stage. But the scripts can be rewritten, new roles created, the plot changed, the stage reset, and the tragic ending scrapped. The actors can’t do it alone. We adults have to get out of our seats—we cannot afford to be a passive, inattentive, bored, alarmed, or deeply saddened audience. We can’t walk out, close the show, and send it somewhere else. We can’t merely banish the bully and mourn the bullied child. It’s the roles that must be abandoned, not our children. Our children need a new play, and we adults can become active participants in a total rewrite. Before we can begin the rewrite, though, we need to analyze and understand the original tragedy.

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Reprinted by permission of the publisher Harper Paperbacks, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

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