By Lynne D. Feldman, Esq.

October 16, 2019

Special needs students and those perceived as in any way “different” are most likely to be bullied. I hope this entry might help grownups who face bullying at work and parents whose children face toxic attacks at school.

In one high school presentation I witnessed while teaching teens, the presenter asked who in the audience of 1400 had been bullied. Every hand went up, much to everyone’s surprise. The speaker then asked several students when the attacks occurred, and whether they remembered the perpetrator’s name. Most, it turned out, occurred in middle school, and every student clearly recalled the attacker’s name. The hurt had lodged deeply and had not healed over time.

“Why middle school?” the expert asked. “It has to do with human social development. For most people, bullying peaks between the ages of twelve and fourteen—that tender period when hormones are surging and people aren’t always their best selves.”

I myself taught for 25 years and presented many anti-bullying programs to all grades, so I agree with the author.

Who is most likely to get bullied? The kid who is seen as “uncool’ within that culture, a social liability.

The problem with middle schoolers is that they’re incredibly insecure. It’s hard to convey this to their peers who are getting bullied, but they are attacking from a profound sense of weakness. They’re becoming increasingly self-conscious. They feel vulnerable, and they have no life experience on how best to deal with their internal feelings.

Don’t you recall feeling middle school is a free-for-all, with no established social hierarchy? These kids are anxious about where they fit in, and so a Darwinian scramble ensues.

“There’s a lot of norm-building, a lot of cliquishness, a lot of jockeying for status,” Jaana Juvonen, a developmental psychologist at U.C.L.A., explained. “What’s created are dynamics where people want to side with the powerful.”

Bullies rise to the top because they’re able to demonstrate their power in clear, understandable ways.

“Unfortunately, for young adolescents, one of the most concrete ways to show your power is to put other kids down,” Juvonen said. “To be mean, laugh at others.”

To make matters worse, we see this same juvenile dynamic at the top of our government.

“What we’re seeing with Trump would happen in the very worst schools—the ones where things are totally out of control.” How difficult has it been for parents to tell their kids, “Show respect! Don’t talk like that!” while the evening news portrays the equivalent of a middle-school bully acting out.

So let’s imagine your child, who has dyslexia, or autism, or ADHD, comes home almost daily crying about the torment they endure in school when they should be excited about learning new skills.

The first rule, says experts such as Barbara Coloroso, the author of “The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander,” is not to “get in the mud” with the bully. Don’t resort to name-calling, as Ted Cruz did in 2016.

“That’s a huge mistake,” Coloroso said. “You can’t do that with a bully. He will be better at name-calling.” “Trump tries to draw people into his bullying so he can identify it as a conflict,” she said.

When tangling with Trump or any school bully, explain to your child, Juvonen said, “it’s less about content and more about power.”

“First and foremost, you have to shift the power dynamics.” She went on, “One of the best strategies for kids who get bullied is to use self-deprecating humor.” This defuses the bully’s insults, and, potentially, helps the nerdy kid seem a tiny bit subversive. Plus, telling jokes could throw an antagonist off balance. “Bullies have very vulnerable egos,” she said. “What gets them angry the most is when someone makes fun of them.”

Call out the behavior, but not the person. “You say, ‘That comment was bigoted, sexist’—whatever,” advised one expert.

“Identify the behavior. Let’s say there’s a group of kids on the playground, and one kid says something mean,” she said. “I might tell the child who was targeted to calmly say, ‘That was mean’ or ‘That was rude.’ Then you turn around and walk away. The person who made the comment is left standing there, with everyone looking at them. It exerts a very subtle form of social pressure.”

The next critical bit of information is that many states have anti-bullying laws to help out the targeted student. At present, no federal law directly addresses bullying. In some cases, bullying overlaps with discriminatory harassment which is covered under federal civil rights laws enforced by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). No matter what label is used (e.g., bullying, hazing, teasing), schools are obligated by these laws to address conduct that is:

Severe, pervasive or persistent

Creates a hostile environment at school. That is, it is sufficiently serious that it interferes with or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school

Based on a student’s race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion*

Although the US Department of Education, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not directly cover religion, often religious based harassment is based on shared ancestry of ethnic characteristics which is covered. The US Department of Justice has jurisdiction over religion under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

New Jersey has been a leader in the establishment of a strong statutory, regulatory policy and program framework to support the prevention, remediation and reporting of harassment, intimidation or bullying (referred to as HIB laws) in schools.  Provided below are information and resources to aid schools in the establishment of HIB policies, the adoption of HIB program strategies, the implementation of proactive responses to HIB and the adoption of effective HIB reporting procedures.

There’s an Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act (ABR) and amendments; New Jersey statutes N.J.S.A.18A:37-13 through 17; N.J.S.A. 2C:16-1  Bias intimidation; N.J.A.C. 6A:16-5.2 Violence Awareness; N.J.A.C. 6A:16-5.3 Incident reporting of violence, vandalism and alcohol and other drug abuse; and N.J.A.C. 6A:16-7.7 Harassment, intimidation and bullying. Also, your individual school district must have procedures for dealing with this general problem.

You and your children should not be left to the attacks of a bully

CURBELOLAW can be of assistance to you and your children in dealing with school districts if you find your child has been harassed, bullied, or intimidated.