Changing concept: Bullies don't fit a mold

Bullying is happening everywhere, including in our schools.
Bullying is happening everywhere, including in our schools.

The profile of a bully used to be simple, and potential bullies were thought to be easy to spot.

Think of the movie “A Christmas Story” and the bully named Scut Farkus, said Julie Hertzog, director of the Pacer National Bullying Prevention Center.

Today, it’s not as simple as that. Casting the bully as a physically intimidating outcast isn’t necessarily accurate, Hertzog said.

“There is no particular profile,” she said. “It used to be that people thought that kids who bullied had very low self-esteem, but we’ve found just the opposite to be true. A lot of times they are social leaders.”

According to a Northwest Herald and Regional Office of Education bullying survey sent to every McHenry County school, it appears that girls are more likely to bully and be bullied.

Of those who responded, 67 percent said girls have a greater tendency to bully, compared with 33 percent of boys. At the same time, McHenry County school officials said females are most likely to be targeted, followed by males in general, and next, surprisingly, by students with at-risk behaviors.

“Kids bully just because they can,” Pioneer Center’s Cjay Harmer said. “There’s no real specific mold on who can be a bully. Anybody can be a bully.”

“Bullying happens a lot of times because they’re a victim and they want to feel empowered themselves,” Harmer said. “A lot of times bullying starts at home because they’re getting bullied by somebody – a parent, uncle, older brother, older sister – and they don’t want to feel like a victim.”

Other times, it’s monkey see monkey do, experts said.

“Some kids, not all kids, are modeling what’s happening at home,” said Judy Freedman, a bullying expert and author. “Whether they have harsh and punitive parents, or older siblings who are bullying them, they feel powerless at home, and when they come to school, they can [feel] powerful when they act like that toward their classmates.”

The fight against bullying has featured documentaries, songs, skits, books and talks with those who have been tormented. Their stories are available, in great detail, documenting the difficult times that they and many others have faced daily. But the other side of the story isn’t so easy to find. Hertzog said that it’s not surprising that few would stand up and say they had been bullies.

“It’s a harder thing to acknowledge,” she said. “We are stigmatizing that. … It’s being said that kids who do this are bad, and we have to be careful. People aren’t going to admit that.”

Anti-bully activists will make appearances and ask for a show of hands of those who are bullied, resulting in dozens of hands going up. But when asking whether anyone there had been a bully, very few hands are raised. Stella Katsoudas, the lead singer of the Chicago rock band Sister Soleil, asked the question at a video shoot for an anti-bullying song Katsoudas recorded, “Stand for the Silent.”

“That’s a tougher question,” she said, noting there were only a few who would admit that they had, at times, been bullies.

Jodee Blanco, a Chicago-based author of two prominent anti-bullying books – “Please Stop Laughing at Me” and “Please Stop Laughing at Us” – attempts to define the bully. She identifies the “elite tormentor,” a “mean-spirited popular student who employs subtle, insidious forms of bullying.”

And she pointed out two specific types of bullying. Aggressive exclusion, she wrote, is “the most damaging form of bullying,” which she said is “a deliberate omission of kindness.” Another, she wrote, is arbitrary exclusion, “when a best friend or group of friends inexplicably turns on someone and persuades everyone else in the clique to follow suit.”

Julie Nicolai, author of “Road Map Through Bullying,” said that it can be difficult to identify such situations. Nicolai, a fourth-grade teacher at a school in Glen Ellyn, said she tries to look at the faces of her students, and she usually can tell whether one is behaving like a bully. She has learned to recognize the signs.

Nicolai, 35, remembers bullies being much easier to identify when she was a student, close to the situation that Hertzog described with Farkus and “A Christmas Story.”

“A lot of times, those were the kids who were segregated,” Nicolai said. “They were kids who just didn’t fit in, but they might have been really big and strong.

“Nowadays, [the bullies] might be more along the popular lines. They have formed this group bully idea, where the popular kids will pick on other kids who are maybe popular or maybe not. They’re trying to get ahead in society by picking on others.”

She said it’s not always easy to identify such situations.

“It takes a lot of investigation to find out who is doing what, and how they did it,” Nicolai said.

Hertzog said she doesn’t even like to use the word “bully.” She said there are situations in which people are bullied on the same day they are exhibiting bully behaviors. Katsoudas, who has recorded two anti-bullying songs, understands that, as well.

“This isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Katsoudas said. “But a lot of these kids who bully are getting bullied somewhere else. A lot of times, these are kids who are lashing out.”

• Northwest Herald reporter Chelsea McDougall contributed to this report.

Upcoming bullying-related events

• No More Bullying parent seminar with speaker Jason Raitz, 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30, Willow Creek Church, 220 Exchange Drive, Crystal Lake. Information: www.willowcrystallake.org or 224-512-1737.

• Town Against Tragedy 3, community screening of the film "Finding Kind" and discussion with filmmakers, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 3, McHenry High School, West Campus, 4716 W. Crystal Lake Road, McHenry. Information: 815-385-7077.

• Rachel’s Challenge event for parents and community, 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 11, Hannah Beardsley Middle School, 515 E. Crystal Lake Ave., Crystal Lake. Information: Principal Ron Ludwig, 815-477-5897.

• Film screenings of "Finding Kind," 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 14, Cary Grove High School auditorium, 2208 Three Oaks Road, Cary. Information: www.caryarealibrary.info or 847-639-4210.

• Don’t Kick Penguins, all-day anti-bullying seminar for teens, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, McHenry County College, 8900 Route 14, Crystal Lake. Information: 815-236-2511.

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