This is my experience with a child who was labeled a bully and I hope it helps someone understand that bullying is a lot more complex than just mean kids who deserve punishment.
Last March a new student enrolled in my school. He immediately made his presence known. He was the office almost daily because of frequent disruptions. He could be heard and seen walking the halls. He was a giant and loud and I'll just say it... obnoxious. He was branded a bully right away. He told kids to shut up, called them names, and threatened violence. When he walked in the lunchroom the kids would part like the red sea. No one wanted to be near him and suffer from his torment.
You may have already predicted that this kid ended up in my class this fall. Most of the groundwork was already done to get him moved to a school with a unit for students with behavior disorders. My job was to continue documenting how awful he was so we would have cause to get rid of him. But there was a problem.
He wasn't really that awful. He was loud for sure, the kid couldn't keep his mouth shut for more than a couple of minutes. But none of what came out of his mouth was mean or inappropriate. The timing was inappropriate, but what he had to say was insightful, intelligent and often funny.
My first job to let to him know I wanted to hear everything he had to say, but he had to learn when it was time to say it. You should have seen the look on his face. It was a mix of thrilled and baffled. The more I got to know him the more clear it was that no adults had ever shown him he had something valuable to offer. The more I watched him with classmates it was clear the same was true of the kids.
It became very apparent that I had to do something about his interactions with the rest of the class. I had to get the other kids to stop treating him like crap. This is where the perspective of a teacher is very different than the perspective of a parent. I know he bothered the other students. I know they came home and complained about his treatment of them. What the other kids didn't realize is that they were awful to him. When he spoke the kids would look away or roll their eyes. If he walked up to someone they would turn and go the other way. He was a pariah and he knew it. He didn't have a reason to try to make class nice for anyone because no one did anything to make him feel like he was part of the class. I'm not blaming the other kids. We could play the "who started it?" game. But none of that matters. The bottom line is that the rest of the class needed to start showing him some compassion. Whether or not he would reciprocate didn't really matter. Everyone should be treated with respect, even the people we don't like. That's what communities should be like.
So I worked on that. We spent the first few weeks of school focusing on becoming a community and getting to know each other. (I do this anyway, I didn't change my routine for this kid.) And something started to happen. The other kids started being nice to him. That's when he finally had a reason to want to behave. I remember the first time a student chose him to be a partner. When I said they could choose their own partners he just deflated. I am sure he had never been chosen by anyone for anything. So when he was one of the first kids picked it was a thrill. He was still loud and impulsive. But he was also apologetic and kind.
This kids had been in countless school with countless teachers and his record was clear- he was troubled. He had been punished over and over and it did nothing to improve his behavior. The one thing that helped him was his classmates. An adult couldn't give him what they did.
Well, sadly my friend just moved away. And guess what my class's reaction was? The kids who would have cheered to get rid of him when school started were very upset, some in tears, because they got to know him. As soon as they gave him a chance the problem was fixed. Fixing the "bully" wasn't the issue. It was fixing the community and thinking hard about how we treat people we don't like. It's not that all kids liked him in the end. He was still got on their nerves sometimes. But they knew him and they respected him. He was one of us, part of the class.
This isn't an isolated thing. I've seen it over and over. Kids who get labeled as bullies are treated terribly by other kids and the problems just snowballs. We are raising a while generation of kids to believe the second someone is mean to them they have been damaged. Kids can't have a bad day or a personality conflict with a classmate without being labeled a bully. Schools are expected to rescue kids from hurt feeling rather than give them time to work out issues.
I've said it before and I will say it again. The current anti-bullying programs are oversimplifying the problem and making it worse. We are telling kids they are victims when it's not a black and white issue. We are taking their power away by drilling into them they need to get help when people are mean.