Can you imagine going into work every day and knowing that before the day is over, someone will have physically assaulted you? You do not know when or where the assault will come, so you change your routines and look over your shoulder, trying to put it off. But you know you won't escape.
Think of the most hurtful things anyone has ever done to you. Now think of being forced to face those things every day. Imagine the helplessness, the terror, the sense of your own worthlessness that would begin to pervade your life.
Now imagine facing all that as a little girl.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with three teenage girls about the girl-on-girl bullying they have witnessed and experienced themselves.
Chastity went to school every day -- an activity she used to love -- and was kicked, slapped, punched, pinched, insulted and mocked. Her parents complained to teachers, the school administration, even to the parents of the students accused of the bullying, but nothing changed.
Was Chastity asking too much? "I just want the bullying to stop." The girl had such a miserable time at school that her parents eventually sued the school district. Most of the members of the school district have had no comment, presumably under legal advice, but there is one statement worth noting: "All reported incidents of bullying are investigated thoroughly and action is taken in line with the school's anti-bullying policy."
That was the only statement offered by an administrator at Chastity's school. It can be translated into four little words: "It's not our fault." And yet, Chastity continued to be bullied.
That's not our stereotypical understanding of bullying. We tend to picture a tough boy out on the playground shaking down the skinny boys for their lunch money. But the truth is that girls are getting bullied, and most often they're being bullied by other girls.
The Experience of Girls Bullying Girls
Girls' bullying, while the favorite topic of many teen movies, is not well understood, and is not targeted by many anti-bullying campaigns and policies. Two other teenage girls I talked to, Rachel and Cameron, both aged 15, have a clearer understanding of female bullying than most of the adults in charge of policy.
Rachel says, "Girls always go in groups, because it shows that you have the group to back you up. If you have the group, you can do anything you want."
Studies back up her observation. According to EduGuide.com, "Girls who stand by quietly and go along with a bully simply build up the bully's power by making it seem that the bully has support all around her. This makes the victim feel as though everyone is against her, including the bully and all her friends."
Cameron agrees, and adds, "Girls always go for the drama of the thing. The longer you can drag it out, the more attention you get, and then you win."
Teachers, even those trained in preventing bullying, are usually oblivious to the reality that their students experience from day to day.
"The bullies in our school are really good students, and they're usually the athletes, like the guy football players and the girl basketball players," said Kara, an 8th grader. "Teachers think they're great, so when someone tells on them, teachers either don't believe it, or they give them a really light punishment."
Rachel adds, "A lot of people get bullied because they don't fit in in small ways, ways they can't help."
Clearly, some girls are making life miserable for other girls, and teachers aren't doing anything to stop it. But the victims are living in terror, missing school, getting sick with anxiety, being marginalized and isolated, and having their sense of self-worth stripped away, layer by layer, day by day. The dynamic is very similar to what abused women experience in domestic violence -- only girls are doing this to other girls.
And sometimes, it ends tragically.
"Everyone says that violence isn't the answer," Rachel says, "but sometimes it is. You can only take so much."
What is Chicago Doing to Prevent Bullying?
Chicago doesn't want to see its girls bullied, and has taken a multi-pronged approach to preventing bullying among youth throughout the city and the region. There are three important elements to this approach, some of which apply specifically to girls: cyberbullying, violence prevention, and protocols for dealing with bullying when it occurs.
• Cyberbullying. Girls frequently abuse other girls through words, and words are the medium for online communication. In this situation, the abuse follows the girl home, giving them no safe place to turn to. Some girls have been driven to suicide through cyberbullying, motivating Chicago to develop a code of conduct on cyberbullying and making graphic words sent over computer networks (including Facebook, email and texting) a punishable offense. The Chicago Cyberbullying Policy forbids "Use of any computer, including social networking websites, or use of any technology device or hacking into the CPS network to stalk, harass, bully or otherwise intimidate others, to access student records or other unauthorized information, and/or to otherwise cause a security hazard."
• Violence Prevention. The YWCA offers training in violence prevention, available to schools, afterschool programs, and other youth services providers. The intention of these programs is to stop violence in all its forms before it gets started. It includes teaching on violence and its effects, increasing awareness of behaviors that can escalate to violence, problem-solving, role playing, and discussion in which students can develop solutions on their own, based on the information they learn from trained adults.
• Protocols. The best example of a model protocol put into place comes from DuPage County. A task force of several committed experts gathered in June of 2010 to formulate a model policy on bullying which could then be adapted to use in each of the county's school districts according to its own needs. It lays out helpful definitions of bullying (as opposed to teasing and free speech) and suggests what penalties should be meted out when bullying does occur. These penalties may even be given to those who stand by and watch the bullying happen, an important part of girls' bullying.
Girls' bullying is as serious as boys' when it comes to making life and education more difficult for a child. I applaud those in Chicago and the metro area who are aware of the problem, both in schools and online, and are working together to keep girls safe, strong, and learning in our schools.