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Watching the TV documentary, “Bystanders Ending Bullying,” last week probably conjured up unpleasant memories for many viewers.
I was thinking of a situation, but not exactly what the show was about.
When I was 20, I worked in a typing pool churning out lumber confirmations at Boise Cascade. Behind me sat Pat, a plain-looking, single mother of two boys. A pretty co-worker, immaculately dressed and coifed, sorted our forms. She made a habit of walking back to give Pat a hard time for piddling errors. All of us in the typing pool liked Pat and were getting tired of this behavior, but nobody said anything.
One day, without thinking, I jumped out of my chair and chewed out Miss Immaculate. I’m not sure who was more surprised — Pat or her tormentor. I’d seen plenty of that crap in high school without speaking up. Now I was older by a few years. I’d had enough.
My outburst earned me a visit to the manager’s office, where I got a half-hearted speech about bringing problems like that to him. I half-heartedly agreed and went back to my IBM. Miss Immaculate never gave Pat a bad time again. I learned that bullies are, at their core, cowards.
I’m glad we now take school bullying seriously, but why stop there? Bullying isn’t just confined to schools. You can find bullies at work, in social situations, and in law enforcement or other jobs that afford them power over other people. They’re as close as the guy in the muscle truck riding your bumper just because he can.
The film clarifies that bullying isn’t just conflict, it’s physical or verbal abuse inflicted repeatedly with the intent to hurt, and there’s an underlying power imbalance. The message is that 85 percent of us are onlookers, neither bully nor victim, and the onlookers have the power to make bullying unacceptable.
We know the equation. Victims are usually a kid who’s different, although the differences may not be that big. They often don’t tell a parent or teacher because they don’t want to be a snitch or a whiner, so they skip school or feign sickness; one diabetic kid deliberately neglected his health and wound up in the hospital. They never feel safe.
Bullying operates the same way in the workplace. In the typing pool, we didn’t go to the supervisor for the same reasons, and nobody wanted to be seen as a troublemaker. Pat endured the daily sniping because she needed the job, which is why workplace bullying can go on for years. Kids at least graduate.
Bullies in the film were candid: “I wanted to impress my friends,” a boy said. “It made me feel powerful.” another said, “It was an opportunity to become popular. It helped.”
One victimized girl was more hurt by the bystanders’ failure to act. “Kids saw and just stood there. Sometimes they would watch.” They watch because they’re conditioned to watch comedy and drama on TV, say experts and the best lines are the put-downs.
The film teaches four steps for bystanders: Distract, support, balance and report. Take the focus off the target by changing the subject, distracting the bully or entering the conversation. Show the victim that you care about him or her. Say something nice about the person. If the situation is dangerous, report it.
Nowadays we also have cyber-bullying, and the put-downs are more cruel because it’s not face to face, or it’s anonymous. The film reminds kids that taunts over smart phones are out there forever and may be repeated hundreds of times. And a stern FBI agent stated that cyber-bullying is illegal, and you can and will be traced and charged.
We can take back the power we gave up to bullies. Don’t stand by, stand up.