Flags flew half-staff at an elementary school in suburban Philadelphia this Monday as yet another elementary school mourned the death of an innocent student. Instead of a gun, this death was the result of approximately five brutal blows from the hands of a known and stronger bully. A criminal investigation continues.
According to his grieving mother, Jina Risoldi, target Bailey O’Neill was challenged to a fight by a taller boy during recess. Like many targets who say they are worried that they too will be suspended for defending themselves against physical violence (adults, imagine if you were assaulted at work, you defended yourself, and then were suspended or terminated for “fighting”?) Risoldi said her son didn’t fight back and instead absorbed the physical assault that broke his nose and gave him a lingering and fatal concussion.
According to news reports, Bailey spent the rest of the day at school, but throughout the following days complained of severe headaches and dizziness, began sleeping too much, and was irritable and confused. "He had no problems before the fight," Risoldi said last month. "He was always extremely healthy, rarely got sick." Doctors put him into a induced coma but were unable to save him. He was taken off life support on Sunday--one day after turning 12.
Bailey was an honor roll student who served on the student council. "He was always polite, the kindest little boy you would ever want to know," neighbor Joyce Neroni told MyFoxPhilly.com.
Another innocent lost to this intentional form of abuse, disdain and contempt that has nothing to do with “conflict,” “misunderstanding,” and related myths, has our nation scratching its head once again. For so many years we have naively and cruelly told our children to “just ignore” such behavior--advice and admonishment that few if any adults would follow.
In the prophetic words of Martin Luther King who spoke against a similar form of cruelty and abuse, we’ve “learned to tolerate the intolerable.” As the founder and president of one of the only faith-based and values-based anti-bullying programs in the nation, I’m glad to say that King’s words are becoming less true.
Enter Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice who came out publicly in support of O’Neill’s family right away. Athletes and coaches are key in not tolerating the intolerable, so on Rice’s Facebook page he uses his celebrity for good to speak against bullying. No athletes should follow his example.
The Real World of Bullies
There a roughly two kinds of bullies: acute and chronic. Acute bullies intentionally abuse others with superior power over time and for no good reason. Though they are responsible for their behavior, they are often not fully aware of what they are really doing to the target. When the light of truth is shone upon their behavior, they adjust to the light and eventually stop. Some even apologize, aided by sufficient humility. Compassion and understanding can transform such a person, unlike this other kind of bully.
By contrast, when chronic bullies have the light of truth shone upon them-- they adjust the light. They will tell you that black is really white, that abuse and harm are really “no big deal,” and blame the target for being overly “sensitive,” “weak,” and so on. Studies show that many are headed for prison because they possess a criminal mind, and it shows itself even in elementary school. Compassion and understanding are often lost on such bullies. They listen (though not always) to clear and immediate consequences. As most people are willing to listen to pleas of peace, love and understanding, these children listen to: “What’s in it for me to change?”
Why are they so foolish and dangerous? We may never fully know. The criminal mind has perplexed reflective people for centuries. Reforming it has been even more maddening. We do know that chronic bullies lack sufficient empathy in order to be pro-social, decent or non-abusive.
Compounding the problem is their propensity toward inordinate self- esteem. Your average bully loves herself just fine. It is often self-love, not self-hate, that drives them to do what they do. We know that “love is blind.” But what we do not know when it comes to bullies is that self-love is blinding as well. They do not see how they overestimate their own value and under estimate the value of others.
More so, the disdain and contempt that such bullies create and feel is the result of superiority. They believe they are more valuable and important than others. Studies reveal that they often think they are the smartest person in the classroom when test scores show otherwise. This condition helps us understand why they are so audacious and brazen: If others are inferior, then they must deserve such demeaning behavior. Can you think of dictators throughout recent history who thought and acted the same? How did policies of appeasement work out?
Arrogance and pride deplete sympathy and empathy. That’s why we recommend that chronic bullies have life experiences that cultivate humility. They need to serve people who are in need, and at the same time receive help from the people they serve. Ideally there should be a language barrier that makes this exchange more difficult though not impossible. This exchange fosters a cycle of humility that most serial bullies desperately need and rarely ever receive.
Here’s what we often refuse to acknowledge about both types of bullies: They enjoy it. Another person’s pain is their pleasure, which is part of the definition of sadism.
I have devoted much of my life to diminishing bullying in both faith-based and values-based groups throughout the world. And yet I also bullied. I enjoyed it as well. I bullied through sarcasm, and like most bullies I targeted people who I was pretty sure couldn’t or wouldn’t fight back. Like most bullies I was not looking for a fight: my goal was to overwhelm, so I carefully chose targets I could best. But like most people, my conscience got the better of me. To speak in biblical terms, there is fun in sin for a season, and eventually I turned from my wicked ways. I repented.
What Your Community Can Do
Refuse to hire known bullies, like a township in England is doing. If you are identified by the school system as a bully--you won’t get a job here. That’s not cruel or mean--that’s smart business. That’s the strong line of cause and affect that might get a bully’s attention. Bullies are liabilities not just on O’Neill’s playground, but throughout the world. So nations like Korea are refusing to let chronic bullies into college where they are also a liability to education and personal safety.
Authoritative communities must return the stigma that once accompanied such premeditated and systematic abuse toward the weakest among us. At The Protectors, we’ve created posters that visually link bullying to incarceration, supremacy and even sadism. This is not being “mean,” to bullies--it’s speaking the truth in love and is fulfilling the biblical mandate to act justly and love mercy [Micah 6:8], corresponding with and formed upon the mercy and justice of God [Psalms 101:1 among many other passages].
What Parents of Targets Can Do
Parents of targets: Stop trying to understand the inner-mind of a bully, which is often a waste of precious energy and time since you most likely lack the needed power to create the forces necessary for change in that child’s life. Instead, think in terms of protection.
We are coming upon summer camp time, a moment in life that is so wonderful for some--and terrorizing for targets. Here are some effective steps you can take right now to help your child be bully free:
The number-one line of defense against bullying is to surround your child with friends: at least one but ideally three and even more. Encourage the buddy system where they pledge to defend one another with assertive but non-violent behavior.
Be selective as to where you send your child. Does the camp have an anti- bullying policy and procedure? Are counselors trained in spotting and ending bullying? How many bullies have been sent home in the last five years? What is their refund policy if you pull your child due to bullying?
And when it comes to Christian summer camps, beware of a few things. If you hear from camp leaders that they work really hard to build the self- esteem of bullies--realize that this camp does not understand the real world of bullying. Most chronic bullies do not care about the Golden Rule. They care about themselves and the pain they can create. Find another camp immediately.