The concept 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 Farkus, said Julie Hertzog, the director of the Pacer National Bullying Prevention Center.
Today, it’s not quite 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.”
Chris Maier, principal at White Oak Elementary School in Morris, said bullies can be found in any grade-level and in any social group.
“I think anybody, at any instance can display those types of behaviors,” Maier said. “We’ve had instances of physical bullying, verbal, and cyberbullying has become more popular this year.”
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 had to face on a daily basis.
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.”
Sometimes a student in a primary grade may not even know they are acting like a bully, Maier explained.
“They may not even understand that’s what they’re doing,” he continued.
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 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.”
“With our kids, it may be an instance of not knowing how to initiate play with other kids,” Maier explained about the younger grades at White Oak. “We do social groups and teach kids appropriate way.”
Julie Nicolai, 35, author of “Road Map Through Bullying,” said that it can be difficult to identity bullying 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.
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 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.”
The faculty and staff at White Oak uses a positive behavior reinforcement — called Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) — to try to stop bullying before it happens.
“Rather than being reactionary, we are being proactive in our dealing with students and how we talk to them and how students talk to each other,” Maier explained. “We are really reinforcing the good things that are happening rather than focusing on the bad things.”
White Oak has a zero tolerance policy for bullying and every case, no matter the situation, is taken seriously. District policy gives school personnel the leeway to discipline — from detention to suspension — depending on the particular case, Maier said.
He added faculty and staff members are continuously looking out for bullying situations and anyone in the building is available for students to talk to. He has also gotten phone calls from parents who have been told about a situation before school personnel have been informed.
Those situations are followed-up on the very next day.
“We’re looking all over the building and teaching our kids to treat people equitably and fairly,” Maier said.