On March 24, the New York Times published a profile of a boy named Billy Wolfe who had been brutally bullied since middle school. What made this case unusual was not the frequency or brutality of the beatings, but the fact that Billy's parents, having exhausted every other option, had decided to sue the parents of one of the bullies.
The following day Matt Lauer interviewed Billy on the Today Show. After watching a series of video clips: Billy being beaten up at the bus stop, Billy being beaten in the school bus, Billy being humiliated on a Facebook page called, "Everyone that Hates Billy," Lauer posed the following question:
"Anybody who just watched that piece has to be sitting at home asking the same questions: Why this young man? What is it about Billy Wolfe that gets the kids to pick on him, these bullies to target him?"
"I'm not completely sure," Billy replied, and stammered something about moving to a new neighborhood and being the new kid in the class.
"Are you doing anything?" Lauer pressed him. "Are you a wise guy... the kind of guy who makes comments to kids as they pass by? Are you provoking this in any way?"
One is reminded of the prosecutor who asks the young lady what she did to get herself raped. Was it the short skirt, the provocative walk, the heavy makeup?
While these activities -- being a wise guy, etc. -- may make kids angry, they do not justify repeated beatings or even a single beating. Let us remember that the beatings we see on TV every night are simulations. In real life a single punch to the head may result in long-term problems such as double vision; a sharp blow to the sternum has been known to cause death.
While I've never met Billy Wolfe, I can make a few educated guesses about why he is bullied. I've spent the last six years studying school rampage shooters, many of whom were bullied relentlessly from a very early age, and all of whom eventually became bullies themselves -- bullies of the very worst sort; bullies who tormented and killed their victims.
"Childhood was the germ of all mistrust," Graham Greene wrote. "You were cruelly joked upon and then you cruelly joked. You lost the remembrance of pain through inflicting it."
In the "basement tapes" -- the video tapes recorded by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold during their preparations for the assault on Columbine High School -- Eric talks about moving around the country with his family, from one army base to the next, starting over from zero, socially, at every location. He recalls how classmates made fun of him, his face, his hair, and his choice of shirts; and how they called him "The scrawny white kid" Dylan Klebold even recalls being snubbed by the "stuck-up" kids at the Foothills Daycare Center, which he attended when he was three years old!
Eight months after the Columbine shooting, Regina Huerter, Director of Juvenile Diversion for the Denver District Attorney's Office, prepared a report on bullying at Columbine for the Governor Owen's Columbine Review Commission. Interviews with 28 parents and 15 current and former students, confirmed that bullying at the high school was sadistic in nature, frequently committed, and often went unpunished because teachers feared losing their jobs.
The bullying at Columbine High School was terrible, but perhaps no worse than the bullying at any other school.
The principal of Columbine, as well as most of the deans and assistant principals had been coaches or had coaching backgrounds and were biased toward the athletes, who received the preferential treatment we usually associate with movie stars. Some of them were bullies and their acts of brutality often went unpunished. It is not uncommon for gym teachers and athletic coaches to be promoted into top administrative positions because of their ability to handle large groups of unruly kids.
The Fayetteville School District, where Billy attended school, stated that they consistently punished the boys who had beaten him, but they could say no more because of federal privacy laws.
Dan Olweus, a Norwegian psychologist who is considered the authority on children who bully, and the creator of the anti-bullying program on which most programs around the world are modeled, makes the point that bullying cannot be prevented unless the school (and preferably the community, and city, and state) have a zero tolerance policy toward all acts of bullying and that punishments are dispersed immediately and equally upon all. Any failure to report an act of bullying, any delay in reporting it, any inequity in its punishment can be interpreted as compliance in the bullying. The nature of bullying is such that even a wink, or a half smile, can give the okay. Once a community discovers that it can harass an individual, or a group of individuals, without consequences, the behavior is hard to stop, particularly in stressful times, when identifying a scapegoat can act as a valve to lower pressure -- at a terrible expense. We see it in schools, in tribal conflicts, in ethnic hostilities that have persisted for hundreds of years; in colonialist-style takeovers of smaller countries with valuable resources.
If we tolerate bullying in any way, at school, in our homes, or workplaces, or in the greater theater of international politics, we are demonstrating our complicity.
So Matt Lauer asks, what is it about Billy Wolfe that gets the kids to pick on him?
The answer is: Because they can.