In a recent post I criticized Matt Lauer for bullying Billy Wolfe, the boy from Fayetteville Arkansas who was beat up so badly and so frequently that his parents felt compelled to file a lawsuit against the offenders. I accused Lauer of bullying the victim because he asked Billy what he had done to make the others pick on him. Lauer's "sin" was mild compared with the verbal aggression of Bill O'Reilly, for example, who sometimes seems to leave black and blue marks without ever touching his victims.
Now we learn, courtesy of a HuffPost reader in Fayetteville, of an article in the local paper, The Northwest Arkansas Times, which claims that Billy Wolfe bullied too. The article (Who's the bully? Police, school records raise questions...) describes him sneaking up behind his next-door neighbor, a boy confined to a wheel chair with muscular dystrophy, and shouting in his ear. Auditory hyper-sensitivity, a side-effect of MD, heightened the boy's surprise, confusion and pain. He also described an incident when Billy bounced a rubber ball against his head, ignoring his pleas to stop.
Another episode occurred in shop class. After Billy Wolfe was excluded from a group of boys, he returned and insulted one of them, Benny Burk, calling him a "gay [expletive] German" (Burk had grown up on an army base in Germany.) A few minutes later Burk was told by a friend that Billy Wolfe had insulted his mother, calling her a "vulgar name" behind his back. Burk's mother had passed away recently following a nine-year battle with cancer. Burk lost his temper and punched Wolfe in the cheek, causing lacerations that had to be sutured. Burk's father paid the medical bill.
A disciplinary log compiled by Bryon Zeagler, then vice-principal of Woodland Junior High, where this all took place, documented a list of Billy Wolfe's acts of aggression. Billy's mother believed that Zeagler had fashioned the log to discredit her son and stop the family from pursuing the law suit.
It reads, in part:
-May 5, 2006 - Burk struck Wolfe in the face after Wolfe called Burk's (deceased) mother a vulgar name.
-Sept. 9, 2006 - Wolfe was talking back to a substitute teacher and not listening to the teacher.
-Sept. 7, 2006 - Wolfe was given an assignment and directed to write a report about a certain issue. Wolfe gave the assignment back to the teacher and wrote "Ya right LOL (laugh out loud ) you write a three page report about dancing. "
-Nov. 8, 2006 - Zeagler spoke to Wolfe regarding four complaints from teachers and students about him picking on students.
-Dec. 19, 2006 - Special Education Teacher Becky Knight witnessed Wolfe pushing a student. Wolfe admitted wrongdoing and stated he would not do it anymore.
-February 2007 - Special Education Teacher Terri Speer witnessed Wolfe scaring a disabled student in a wheelchair in the hallway. Speer also said another student told her that Wolfe stole his markers. He told Speer that he didn't want her to say anything to Wolfe because he was afraid of Wolfe.
None of this behavior should come as a surprise. We know that victims of bullying are often bullies themselves, and vice versa. Epidemiologists have found that the roles of bully, victim and bystander are, in fact, often interchangeable. Dan Olweus wrote about this, and Barbara Coloroso has explored the subject in depth.
But here's the point:
Even if Wolfe did behave really badly, having other boys punch him as a punishment, or as an expression of their anger, is not acceptable. If he did it, he shouldn't have. If they did it, they shouldn't have. Punching does not bring about justice, end the violence, or improve the situation in any other way. When our children strike out with their fists, we should encourage them to use their words instead. When they get into a fight, we should break up the fight and make them sit down and talk it out. We should do everything we can to get justice for our kids without resorting to violence or vigilantism. Litigation and lawyers are a last resort. As awful as a lawsuit is (and I speak from experience; the most miserable years of my life were spent defending myself in a lawsuit) it has the capability of bringing social problems into the arena of public discourse.
What Matt Lauer should have done -- and it's easy to be the Sunday morning quarterback -- is invite Billy Wolfe on the Today Show with the boys who bullied him, and those whom he had bullied, and have them all talk about the awfulness of it.
If Lauer won't do it, maybe Oprah will.