Bullies and their victims are as much iconic figures in school life as rock stars and cowboys. Lately anti-bullying crusaders have spoken out against bullying in all its forms. As laudable as these measures are, I fear denunciation and zero-tolerance policies at schools do not address the difficult truths of bullying.
Casey on Camera
When I watched the video for the first time, it seemed so simple. In a school courtyard, a wiry and quick-fisted 12-year-old boy punches another much stockier, more taciturn youth in the face hard enough to rock his head backwards. With onlookers taunting them from off-camera, the second boy, Casey Heynes, endures the taunts and jabs a few more times before grabbing the smaller boy, lifting him high in the air, and smashing him down onto the concrete floor. Peers “oooh” in synchrony with awe at the intensity of the impact as the thinner boy limps around, clearly disoriented and in great pain.
I have little doubt such altercations happen nearly every day at every school around the world. This one is different only because the victim turned the tables so totally on the attacker and more importantly, the incident was captured on video and posted to Youtube. Within hours, the video went viral and millions of people around the world have viewed this schoolyard brawl in miniature on their computers, tablets and phones.
Not surprisingly, many commenters latched on to the underdog story of a victim dishing out well-deserved punishment against a vicious bully. Websites and Facebook pages sprung up to sing Casey’s praises. The school administrators, for their part, held up the party line and suspended both boys for fighting, drawing boos from those who likened Casey Heynes to the comic book superhero “The Punisher.”
Not So Simple
Once the furor died down, new details emerged that cast doubt on Casey’s role as a righteous avenger. Richard Gale, the boy on the receiving end of Casey’s body slam, stated that he had been bullied repeatedly by Casey prior to the video and he was the actual victim and not the bully in this case. Even with the attack recorded on video for all to see, it becomes nearly impossible to distill all the stories into a coherent picture separating aggressor from victim.
And this revelation is only the first of a series of inconvenient truths that the video brings to light. This fight, which easily could have ended in serious, long-lasting injury to one or both boys, lasted for all of 41 seconds. Nowhere on the video do we see any adults. In a school ranging over several acres, where there are likely upwards of 15 students for every adult on campus, can students realistically rely on their school faculty and staff to protect them from bullying?
Worse yet, plenty of students saw what was going on and as best we can tell from the video, no one went for an adult or tried to break up the fight. Instead, onlookers spurred them on. And whoever was behind the camera seemed more motivated to capture a fight on video than to stop it.
A Way Forward?
When it comes to bullying, simple, moralistic answers to the problem may be satisfying to the adults who need never fear the schoolyard — but they fail to address the scope, underlying causes and motivations for bullying and leaves victims out in the cold. Overt bullying is commonplace. In a 1996 survey of junior high students in the United States, 77 percent reported being victims of bullying, and 88 percent have observed bullying at some point in their school careers. Administrators can declare a “zero tolerance” policy against bullying (and also against victims actively defending themselves against the same), but how will a few days’ suspension compare with the cheers and adulation of peers, the opportunity to settle scores for past offenses real or imagined, the chance for a bully to assert dominance, or the possibility of a victim sending the message that he or she is a hard target? How can we override the machismo culture that asserts “don’t start a fight, but if someone starts a fight with you, you finish it”? And now, given the Casey Heynes story, what kid wouldn’t trade a few days off from school to rise, however briefly, to global renown?
The uncomfortable truth is that bullying isn’t a problem with kids or a problem with schools, but a problem embedded in the human psyche itself. Just as we feel unable to look away from a car crash, we’re drawn to violence, and this attraction sends strong mixed messages to our children. If we can’t or won’t monitor kids fully, then we set up a “survival of the sneakiest” scenario where bullies will treat “zero tolerance” policies as a new challenge to see how much they can get away with and still not get caught. Most importantly, bullying will remain epidemic until we ingrain the conviction that bullying is something that everyone — children, teachers and staff, parents, and adults at large — needs to oppose at every turn. I wish I knew exactly how to get there, but I do know how to recognize success. We’ll have defeated bullying when, given the chance to video-record a fight or to stop one, students consistently choose to put down the camera and intervene.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by