In four minutes, 27 rounds were discharged and 15 bodies lay bleeding on the pavement. The tragedy occurred in March, 1998, in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Two juveniles, Andrew Golden, 11, and his partner in the massacre, Mitchell Johnson, 13, were an unlikely duo, considering their estranged relationship. Johnson was described as a school yard bully. He bullied younger kids at school, made threats to kill those who didn’t like him and carried out the threats when dumped by his girlfriend. The younger of the two, Golden, was one of Johnson’s victims, which begs the question—can a school yard bully wield such power over his victim that he’s willing to conspire in murder of fellow students? If the answer is yes then shouldn’t police officers, particularly school resource officers, assigned to public schools, arm themselves with facts about bullies and their victims? There are, at least, five important facts about bullies and their victims that every school resource officer (SRO) should know to help better ensure the safety of his or her assigned school.
First of all, bullies are adept at controlling their subjects with the power of influence. Recent studies suggest that aggressive bullies can, and do, command ancillary members to assist them in assaulting fellow students. Dr. Vijai Sharma, director of Behavioral Medicine Center, Cleveland, Tennessee, cited a study that was conducted by The Center for Adolescent Studies at Indiana University on five hundred and fifty-eight 6th to 8th graders about schoolyard bullies. The study reported that high scale bullies (the more aggressive, defiant, and domineering bullies) have “lieutenants.” The lieutenants don’t bully others until the main bully is present. These subordinates seek the approval of a parent-figure and are more than willing to carryout the dastardly deeds of the leader. Andrew Golden was willing to conspire with Johnson, his bully, in murder, which illustrates the power an aggressive bully wields over his subordinates.
Moreover, bullies teaming together in a pack present several safety concerns for the SRO. School Resource Officers are charged with the responsibility of ensuring the students’ and staff’s safety while at school. A gang of bullies places life and property in grave danger. A bully gang, as opposed to a lone bully, can cause more mental anguish and bodily injury to a solitary victim. Also, a group of bullies, by virtue of its numbers, has greater potential to damage and destroy school property. Johnson and Golden were only two in number but, as a duo, they inflicted carnage and devastation that shocked and grieved an entire community.
Secondly, and somewhat related to the first, is the fact that bullies have a propensity to form gangs. Information from “Bully B’ware Productions” Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada, stated that bullies have average social popularity up to approximately age 14 or 15. In fact, some children even look up to bullies in some ways because they are powerful and do what they want to, or have to, to get their way with their peers. By senior high school, if the bully is still attending school, his or her peer groups includes other bullies, or more seriously, he or she has developed or is developing gang alliances.
Here again, the SRO is presented a dilemma. Whereas traditional gangs are identified by law enforcement officials because they claim a particular set, display characteristic clothing, or perform predictable acts of violence against rival sets, bully gangs are difficult to profile. Their gang doesn’t bond together because of similar ethnic or cultural backgrounds. They group together as a pack because they have similar personality disorders. In order to identify a bully gang, school social traits, relying solely on that information to accurately identify it for safety purposes.
The third fact of significance centers on the bully’s acts of violence, perpetrated against his victim. His aggression is a learned act of violence. Michael Gurian, a nationally recognized expert on male development, has said that people mistakenly confuse aggression with violence. A child who’s overly aggressive towards others, his energy can be directed towards positive ends, such as athletics or sporting competition. However, a child who is violent and destructive towards his peers, needs the intervention of a professional because violence is a learned behavior. And, in the bully’s case, the violence must be “unlearned.”
Where does a child learn abusive behavior? According to Kathern Jens, a school psychologist from Denver, fifty percent of bullies come from an abusive environment. They simply dish out to others what they personally receive. Not only does the SRO have a duty to protect the victim from his or her bully, but the officer must consider the abuse a bully faces in his or her surroundings. The SRO would need to identify the bully, interview him or her in regards to his or her well being at home and, if necessary, take the appropriate steps to rescue the bully from the abuse. Police officers who work in schools know that good proactive policing is an essential part of a successful school resource officer program. Therefore, most SROs are highly adept at working to prevent crimes and are, therefore, more than willing to intervene in the life of a student, even a bully’s, to protect him from his abuser.
The fourth fact highlights the bully’s victim. A bully’s victim can be emotionally scared for life because of the acts of violence against him or her. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, OJJDP, Juvenile Justice Bulletin, April 1998, current studies on bullies underscore the seriousness of a bully’s acts of violence against his victim. One study in the document stated, “Studies of bullying suggest that there are short-and long-term consequences for both the perpetrators and victims of bullying. Students who are chronic victims of bullying experience more physical and psychological problems than their peers who are not harassed by other children and they tend not to grow out of the role of victim.” The report also stated that chronically victimized students might be, as adults, at “increased risk” for depression, poor self-esteem, and other mental health problems, including schizophrenia. Some victims fear for their personal safety not only at school, but traveling to or from school and miss, on average, one day of school each month.
In order to assure the victim’s safety, it’s imperative to know what makes a victim—a victim. A child predisposed to a bully’s taunts is someone who is extremely shy and withdrawn. He or she is usually quiet and new to the school. Young people who are identified as being highly vulnerable are often singled out as victims. Dr. Sharma’s research stated that victims are often very passive and loners. They aren’t able to dodge a conflict with humor and don’t think very quickly on their feet. Here again, an SRO armed with this information can better assure the safety of the victim. After identifying a potential victim, the SRO could work with a school counselor to assign an older student as a mentor to the potential victim. Taking special interest in the loner student, encouraging him or her to take part in school functions, could be the difference in whether or not the child is victimized by a school bully. Here again, good proactive policing skills are necessary to ensure the child’s well being.
And fifth, most aggressive bullies become active criminals. If bullies don’t learn how to change their behavior through professional help, the violent acts, and deviant behavior often become a habit as the bullies get older. A report in Psychology Today, September 1995, stated that by age 24, up to sixty percent of people who are identified as childhood bullies have at least one criminal conviction. Another study spanning 35 years by psychologist E. Eron at the University of Michigan, found that children who were named by their school mates, at age eight, as bullies of the school were often bullies throughout their lives, requiring more support from government agencies, having more court convictions, more alcoholism, more antisocial personality disorders and used more of the mental health services than other children. The OJJDP, Juvenile Justice Bulletin, May 1998, stated that serious and violent juvenile offenders (SVJ – Juvenile offenders who commit crimes such as homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, and kidnapping) display early warning signs. The early behavior signs include minor aggression acts, such as bullying.
The SRO who works first hand with aggressive bullies is aware of the challenges presented when he or she writes up a bully for assault and battery against another on a police report. Many times the charge or charges are declined or dismissed by the assistant district attorney in juvenile court because they’re considered an “in house” school problem and not criminal. The refusal of an ADA to file the charges can be very frustrating, especially if the SRO is trying to establish a “no tolerance” policy towards violence in the schools. It sends the wrong message when a 14 or 15-year old bully assaults his victim and the only punishment he receives is a few days suspension from school. Therefore, it behooves the SRO, equipped with the research to educate prosecutors about the importance of filing the charges to interrupt the bully’s cycle of violence and convey the message that bully abuse will not be tolerated in school or community.
Therefore, in light of these five facts about bullies and their victims, what can a school resource officer do to reduce bully violence, better ensuring the safety of his or her assigned school from the volatile and aggressive bully? First, recommend that the school adopt a zero tolerance for bullying, just like it has for drugs and guns. Second, use school resources to advertise the no tolerance policy and use every function to educate faculty, PTA, students, and parents about the abusive behavior of bullies. Third, enlist the aid of school counselors to network with community resources, in an all out effort, to address the abnormal behavior of bullies. Some experts advise schools to provide classes for parents in parenting skills. Establish mentor programs. Provide anger management classes for the purpose of behavior modification. The tragic event in Jonesboro, Arkansas was not typical of aggressive bullies, bent on carrying out a threat. It was a rare event and it would be presumptuous to conclude that the incident occurred because of bullying. However, the fact remains—bullying was one of the many ingredients added to the “witch’s brew” that cooked up a bitter porridge, destroying lives and leaving an after taste that won’t be easily washed away.