A conference on school bullying that was planned months ago took on an unexpected poignancy Friday, five days after Williamsville North freshman Jamey Rodemeyer, 14, killed himself after prolonged and severe bullying.
Amanda Nickerson, director of the new Jean M. Alberti Center for the Prevention of Bullying at the University at Buffalo, said experts are still searching for a long-term, effective solution to bullying.
"If we knew what we had to do to prevent bullying, we'd already be doing it," Nickerson told the crowd of about 100 school psychologists, other staffers and college students, many of whom nodded their heads in agreement.
Rodemeyer was never mentioned during the discussion of bullying prevention and intervention, which was sponsored by the Western New York School Psychologists Association and Chapter C of the New York Association of School Psychologists. But many of the specific types of bullying Nickerson outlined had been documented by Rodemeyer in his anguished YouTube videos and in the abusive comments posted online to and about him.
Bullying, Nickerson told the group, is very different from simple teasing or conflict between two students or groups of students of equal power. While teasing is good-natured and is halted when the target expresses hurt, bullying is an intentional, usually repeated act of verbal, physical or written aggression done by a stronger person to hurt the victim or damage his or her standing or reputation.
Nickerson's studies have shown that students who bully others lack empathy and enjoy the suffering of their targets, sometimes even claiming that the victim "deserved it."
But, Nickerson told the crowd, bullies are also often depressed and sometimes suffer harsh corporal punishment at home. Her studies have shown that bullies do not, as many believe, have low self-esteem, and sometimes they have high self-esteem and high social status. "They may be the popular kids," she said, but students who bully seem to be more likely to engage in other risky and illegal behavior later on, including drug and alcohol use, and crime.
Youngsters who are bullied also suffer from depression, avoid school, have low self-esteem and "in some cases -- luckily, not very many -- may respond with extreme violence," she said. A minority of bullying victims go out of their way to irritate or annoy their peers, then "fight back, but not effectively," she said. These "provocative victims," she said, "tend to have the worst outcomes."
Any perceived difference can cause bullying, but students are often bullied because of their real or perceived race, ethnic background, economic status, weight, disability or sexual orientation.
"Kids who report being called 'gay' say that this is more devastating to them than any other form of bullying, whether or not they are gay," Nickerson said. "Kids seem to know this is something that can really get to someone else."
She said that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students "are much more likely to be victimized by bullying."
Zero-tolerance policies against bullying can actually backfire, because an out-of-proportion punitive response can prevent youngsters from reporting incidents of bullying, she warned.
Also, one-day assemblies are ineffective, she said, and the culture of silence that exists in schools prevents students from telling adults about bullying they observe.
"Nobody wants to be a snitch," she said. And even some victims keep bullying quiet. "Why won't they tell? They're afraid it might make it worse," she said. "And even we, as adults, can't say that's not true. It might make it worse."
What does seem to reduce bullying is a change in school culture that emphasizes structure and support, with expectations for behavior made clear to everybody and enforced even-handedly. Also beneficial, she said, is a warm, positive involvement by every adult in the school setting, and an appreciation of people's differences.
During the question-and-answer session that followed Nickerson's talk, James Sipior, school psychologist at Winchester Elementary School in West Seneca, said the school has seen success with its comprehensive program based on the book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People."
Every day, every student is greeted at the door with a handshake, he said. Each student is asked to achieve three goals: "We care, we learn and we lead," he said. "The culture changes, and we take a proactive stance to prevent problems, rather than a reactive stance" after an incident happens.
After the session, Nickerson said she was interested in the input provided by those who attended.
"Everybody has a different take as to where we should go with this," she said, "and we need all the input we can get."