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Defining a bully not as easy as once thought

Published: Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012 9:25 a.m. CDT

Julie Hertzog said it once was thought that defining a bully was simple, and potential bullies were easy to spot. Think of the movie, “A Christmas Story,” she said, and the bully named Farkus.

Hertzog, the director of the Pacer National Bullying Prevention Center, said it’s now evident it’s not that easy. Casting the bully as a physically intimidating outcast isn’t necessarily accurate, she 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.”

The fight against bullying has featured documentaries, songs, skits, books and talks with those who have been tormented.

Their stories are available, documenting in great detail the difficult times they and many others have had to face on a daily basis. But the other side of the story isn’t so easy to find. Hertzog said that’s not surprising, and she said 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 in Geneva for an anti-bullying song she recorded, “Stand for the Silent.”

“That’s a tougher question,” she said, noting there were only a few who would admit 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 points out two specific types of bullying. Aggressive exclusion, she writes, is “the most damaging form of bullying,” which she says is “a deliberate omission of kindness.” Another, she writes, 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.”

“Bullying is not only the mean things that you do, but it’s the nice things you don’t do,” she said.

In DuPage County, the Regional Office of Education and the state’s attorney’s office collaborated on a document, “Best Practices in Bullying Prevention and Intervention,” which studies all aspects of the subject. The document suggests that there are three reasons why students bully:

• Students who bully have strong needs for power and negative dominance.

• Students who bully find satisfaction in causing injury and suffering to other students.

• Students who bully are often rewarded in some way for their behavior with material or psychological rewards.

Julie Nicolai, who wrote a book called “Road Map Through Bullying,” said it can be difficult to identity 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 said she usually can tell whether one is behaving like a bully. She said she has learned to recognize the signs.

Nicolai, 35, said she 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,” she 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. And then it can be a challenge to identify who is taking part.

“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 occurrence.

“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.”

Hertzog said when more popular kids are exhibiting bullying behaviors, it can be beneficial to remind them they are leaders, and they can use those skills in a better way.

Blanco also writes that those who have bullied often will come to her after a presentation and talk about how they can change. And Blanco has personal experience that confirms such roles can change over the years. And now, years after her book was published, it’s still true.

“My closest friends are some of my former bullies from school,” Blanco said.

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