If you haven't viewed the disturbing video of bus monitor Karen Klein being mercilessly bullied by a group of middle schoolers, be prepared to be affected. I wanted to immediately jump through my computer screen to shield this woman from the malicious attacks and embrace her in a loving hug. Needless to say, I was very upset. Not just because I watched this sweet, innocent grandmother become the target of hatred, cruelty and prejudice, but because the kids behind the bullying would now become targets themselves, monsters in the eyes of many.
It is human nature to want to protect the victim and persecute the perpetrator, especially when abuse is witnessed firsthand: "Punish the punisher and give them a taste of their own medicine. Send them away. Make them pay."
In the short number of days since the Karen Klein story broke, several of the 13-year-old boys involved have received death threats, thousands of calls and threatening text messages, and are under police protection. Just as I wanted to jump onto that bus to shield Karen from their words, I understand where these reactive behaviors come from. Why is it so much easier to see these kids as inhumane monsters who need an ass-kicking than it is to see them as children who are in need of serious help? Can it be that we've become so emotional about this issue that we are unable to see beyond the act that defines the bully? As adults, we need to lead our children toward a kinder and gentler world and that begins by understanding, forgiving and learning so we can be effective leaders.
If we truly long for the day when bullying no longer exists, then we need to reframe the lens entirely on the bully, with a focus on healing versus punishment. This suggestion in no way condones the act of bullying or minimizes the severity of the impact it has on the victim. But punishment without rehabilitation and understanding of the behavior is where many anti-bully programs fall short. If there is no real attempt to understand why the behavior exists, how can we ever find a solution? Without the bully's perspective, there is no real understanding, just theories.
Although there are many reasons why bullies do what they do, we need to consider that underneath their behavior lies a multitude of emotional layers that tend to be coped with aggressively. Our society does not recognize abuse, aggression and cruel behavior as expressions of emotional pain. We are much more comfortable with emotions that don't attack or project the pain onto others, such as crying, depression, withdrawal and anxiety. But in order to create a safe space for a bully to express him/herself, we will absolutely need to shift this perception in order to understand and eventually heal the issue.
Creating a safe environment is imperative if we expect bullies to share anything of value with us. So attacking the bully, threatening to do harm or taking out revenge is counter productive and destructive in creating such a space. If we communicate clearly to bullies that their insight is critical to understand how and why the behavior is developed and that they hold the key to finding a cure once and for all, the door to that safe space is open. From there, trust will need to be built and patience practiced as they work through a roller coaster of emotions stemming from self-hatred and shame, once their behavior is exposed and internalized. A look in the mirror can be a devastating reality, even for a kid who behaves like a cold-blooded monster with no ability for compassion or empathy. Love and understanding are powerful tools in healing and can have miraculous effects when the intention is pure. Many bullies have trust issues with adults, and just with any child still developing, kindness and compassion are absolutely necessary if that trust is to ever be restored. Peeling the layers of an onion is done one layer at a time. Same holds true for a multi-layered child who has no understanding of who he truly is and why he feels the need to control and abuse others.
If we can look beyond the behavior for just one moment and open our hearts to the possibility that the child is not actually a monster, but a symptom of a larger problem, we may very well be on our way to solving this epidemic. But if we continue down the same path as we have been, seeing the bully only as a vicious, cold-hearted monster that needs to "pay" for his actions, stories like Karen Klein's and countless others will continue to manifest.
The time has come for a new approach. Let the peeling and healing begin.