Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

Edited 8/1/16

 An earlier version of this article was published in educational Horizons.

According to classmates, both Mitchell Johnson, thirteen, and Andrew Golden, eleven, were school bullies. And their bullying reached a climax on Monday, March 30, 1998 when police say the two boys ambushed students and teachers outside Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Armed with three stolen rifles and four handguns the two youth flushed kids and teachers out of the school by means of a false fire alarm then opened fire on them. When they stopped shooting, four students and a teacher lay dead and 11 others were wounded, one critically.

One classmate, Michael Barnes, 12, is quoted as saying that when the shooting started he immediately thought of the pair. “They’re rough,” Barnes recounted, “and they always said they would, but nobody believed them.” Barnes was referring to signs of the impending ambuscade. Long before the event Johnson reportedly told a fellow student that he wanted to hurt people. He also allegedly pulled a knife on a classmate. Moreover officials report that just before the ambush, Johnson told an acquaintance, “I got a lot of killing to do and I’ll see you tomorrow.” When a girl asked if she was one of those scheduled for killing, Johnson reportedly replied, “You’ll have to wait to find out.”

Were Jonesboro school officials adequately alert to this bullying? Had they been more vigorous in rooting it out could the disaster have been averted? We will never know. But we do know is that entirely too much bullying goes on in US schools. Almost one out of every four students (22%) report being bullied during the school year (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2015). And a meta-analysis of 80 studies investigating bullying others and being bullied for 12-18 year old students reported a mean prevalence rate of 35% for traditional bullying involvement and 15% for cyberbullying involvement (Modecki, Minchin, Harbaugh, Guerra, & Runions, 2014).

Despite its prevalence, bullying is easily overlooked. It usually is covert and both victims and witnesses typically are coerced or shamed into silence. So busy educators often either fantasize that bullying doesn’t exist in their school, or pretend that it doesn’t. As a result, in classroom after classroom, kids sit with knots of fear in their stomach because bullies are making their school lives miserable. Even kids not directly assaulted or threatened are victimized by bullying because they know they might be next.

It should be self-evident that students who have reason to fear for their safety experience a very different learning environment than kids who feel safe. And because of bullying the most vulnerable school kids lead a hellish existence that often scars them for life. Consider John Famalaro, the man convicted of abducting Denise Huber off a California freeway in 1991. A jury found that he sodomized and murdered her then froze her body and kept in a freezer for three years. His older sister testified in court that Famalaro was bullied so much in grade school that she rode the bus to protect him from other children. “He was a weakling,” Marion Thobe, the convicted murderer’s sister, told the court. She added that he dreaded school so much that he would break into nervous fits on Monday mornings. Did relentless bullying contribute to Famalaro’s cruelty? We can’t be certain; but it sure didn’t make him any kinder. Besides, no child should be forced to endure such torture.

Educators who don’t stop this sort of thing are failing in their most fundamental obligation: to protect those in their charge. Plus bullying not only ruins individual lives and retards learning, it sows the seeds of general school disorder and rebellion. Why? Just as it is foolish to maintain allegiance to a government that fails to protect you, so it is senseless for students to cooperate with educators who permit their victimization by bullies. 

Lamentably there is a melancholy similarity between schools where bullies rule and out-of-control prisons. Savage victimization takes over in jails when warden and guards look the other way or lack the resources to prevent it. And victimization also takes over in schools when educators fail to exercise due diligence or lack the will to act. Thus innocents are sentenced to daily fear and misery because they have the misfortune of attending a bully dominated school.

Sometimes methods used to control bullying actually promote it. I still recall a November 1988 Readers Digest, for instance, in which former Secretary of Education William Bennett praised a principal who took over a troubled inner-city Washington, D. C. school. The very first day of school this “educational leader” assembled the student body and, as Bennett put it, “… with practiced eye chose 20 potential troublemakers to help enforce her tough new standard of discipline.” Can you imagine? The school is out of control and the principal’s solution is to put the bullies in charge! Even a Secretary of Education should be able to see how extraordinarily stupid such a policy is.

So is putting the bullies in charge the very bottom of the school practices septic tank? Unhappily, no. The most unscrupulous practice of all is when school authorities abandon kids to bullying; then, if they happen to muster enough courage to defend themselves, punishes them for “fighting.” This diablolical system spares administrators the burden of finding out why a “fight,” which could easily have been self defense, took place. It also pays public obeisance to popular simple-minded hand wringing against school “violence.” But it puts the victims of bullying in an impossible position. The school is a jungle; but if you protect yourself rather than meekly submit, both you and the bully are suspended. Imagine a criminal justice system first failing to maintain law and order, then punishing self-defense. Thiis is the worst possible combination — a stew of immorality seasoned with stupidity. Yet this is exactly what school officials are doing when they administer blanket suspensions for ”fighting”. And to make matters worse, bullies often enjoy the suspension. It’s just time off from school for them. 

Kids in bully dominated schools sometimes are reduced to more deperate measures. I know of a situation in a Philadelphia public school where a frail and studious Vietnamese-American lad was subjected to relentlessly bullying by a gang of African-American toughs. Many teachers knew about the bullying, but did nothing. After all, it wasn’t happening in their class. Administrators must have known too, though they might have been too busy filling out central office paperwork to notice what was going on under their noses. The bullied youngster coped by playing hooky. But school authorities threatened his non-English speaking parents with fines. Thus he returned to be victimized once again. When the youngster finally couldn’t take the bullying any longer he brought a knife to school. And when a young thug started to give him the usual treatment, he slashed at him. The bully was only superficially damaged, but his victim ended up in very serious trouble with the law. Was the Vietnamese-American kid the only person responsible for the crime? You decide.

Sure, bullying can be tough to spot; and even the most diligent educators aren’t able to stop it completely. But that is all the more reason for them to develop policies and procedures that aid early detection and insure swift, certain and stern punishment. That at least discourages bullying while simultaneously encouraging victims and witnesses to break the silence that fosters it.

Were Jonesboro school officials sufficiently vigilant regarding school bullies? Could they have prevented the tragedy had they taken greater care? Maybe yes, maybe no; but the tragedy certainly should remind us that school bullying must never be ignored or winked at. Educators have a non-negotiable obligation to keep their charges safe. Children whom we compel to go to school, must never be turned over to bullies once they get there.