In my first year of middle school, kids taunted me and spit on me in hallways. It didn’t occur to me to tell my parents or teachers. Finally, when a group of 20 kids threatened to beat me up at the carwash the next day, I told my older brother, who in turn informed my parents. My dad looked up my main tormentor’s phone number in the phone book and told her dad to make his daughter stop or he’d contact the police. It worked.

Twenty years later, when my 11-year-old stepson, who I’ll call Josh, came home with a sprained wrist and a head injury as a result of bullying, nothing seemed so simple. A true contemporary family — three parents with radically different parenting styles — we were all busy working and parenting other children, too. Who had the time to slow down, figure out what was happening, research solutions, decide what to do, call the school, and demand action? It was the beginning of Josh’s sixth grade at a new school, so we didn’t know anyone. Every night, as we listened to his stories of getting insulted and roughed up in hallways, we wondered: is this the new normal?

Bully pulpit

Since the days when I was bullied, there have been campaigns, dozens of books, a bumper crop of bullying experts, a presidential initiative, a feature-length documentary, and thousands of heartbreaking stories about kids whose bullying allegedly led to terrible consequences: suicide, mental illness, prison sentences. But the sad fact is that the very definition of bullying remains somewhat in dispute.

“We are all against bullying until we have to define it,” writes bullying expert Deborah Temkin. “The division between ‘normal’ childhood conflict, joking around, and bullying is a very thin, ever-changing line.”

Definitions of bullying vary, but the most commonly cited one comes from Dan Olweus, a Norweigan psychology professor who began studying bullying in the 1970s. He defines bullying as being “exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.” Olweus found that repeated abuse is what really affects kids. But Temkin warns against strict definitions. “[I]n bullying, as in any human rights violation, dismissing a person’s reported trauma based on too strict a threshold can inflict further damage.” In other words, it’s the child’s experience that matters.

Adding abuse to injury

Given my background of facing a leering mob in my middle school hallways, you might think I would have had the clarity of mind to be proactive when it came to Josh. But I hesitated. Josh had been excited to start middle school, so excited that the first Saturday after school started, he was disappointed to stay home. But then he started coming home with injuries from kids hurting him on the basketball court during lunch. Kids insulted him, he said, and after recess he’d find notes on his back saying, “kick me” or “loser.” After being pelted with fruit in the cafeteria, he started eating lunch alone in the hallway. The third week of school, Josh came home with a broken foot. He said he slipped on the stairs, but his mom suspected he’d been pushed. Then Josh told us kids were trying to step on his broken foot or saying, “When that one heals, I’m gonna break the other one.”

Like most of us living in this knowledge-obsessed Internet age, I tried to combat my fear with information. I learned that instead of focusing on punishing the kids who were bullying him, I should figure out how to help Josh and understand what the school could and could not do. I learned that schools can’t disclose how they deal with other kids involved, and we should help Josh get involved in activities where he felt safe and could make new friends.

We tried to follow these directives. Josh’s mom enrolled him in martial arts to build his confidence and teach him self-defense. Once his foot healed, he started playing soccer again. I told Josh about my bullying experiences. At times, he seemed happy to hear he wasn’t alone. But other times he responded that there must be something wrong with him. I could see his confidence wither as abuse fueled his doubts.

According to statistics, approximately 77 percent of students have been physically or verbally bullied. But it was hard to tell if Josh was being targeted, exaggerating, or if this aggressive behavior was normal for sixth grade boys.

Why me?

A sensitive kid who is intelligent, handsome, and has always been a head taller than his classmates, Josh is often timid with other youths. He constantly asked for advice on how to feel. Sometimes he seemed to stick with kids who were mean to him, waiting for acceptance that would never come. I wondered if Josh was too comfortable in the victim role. Part of me was angry at him for being bullied and wondered why he couldn’t just stand up for himself. I survived being bullied, I’d think; and then, I’d feel guilty. Even if only part of what he told us was true, it was awful.

I know now that certain kids are more likely to be bullied. Victims of bullying tend to have high levels of insecurity, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem (all feelings I saw in Josh), but it’s nearly impossible to tell if these feelings are the cause or the effect of bullying. The irony is that kids who bully often experience the same emotions and some 20 percent of kids who are bullied also bully others. Not surprisingly, these aggressor/victims have the highest rates of depression and anxiety.

Just make it stop

Josh’s mother and father called the principal, vice principal, and school counselor repeatedly, but it took weeks to get them on the phone and schedule meetings. Josh’s mom showed up at the counselor’s office unannounced one day to discover that he had just put Josh and the boy who had given Josh a black eye the day before in mediation, asking them both to apologize — a tactic that took a high-minded “nobody’s to blame” approach but left Josh even more demoralized. Josh started eating lunch with a group of eighth graders, doing their homework, and giving them his lunch in exchange for protection.

One afternoon in our kitchen, Josh described lying on the hall floor and being repeatedly kicked while other kids watched. We called the vice-principal, who apologized but said he didn’t have footage of the beating on their video cameras and no other kids would corroborate Josh’s story. According to statistics, more than half of the time, bullying stops if another kid intervenes, but no one stepped in to help Josh.

We weren’t helping either. I was angry with Josh’s dad (my partner) for not doing enough. Since I wasn’t a biological parent, I was legally powerless to call the school. As a stepparent, I also felt I should take a back seat to Josh’s mom and dad. We were all angry with the school, and our frustration seeped into our relationships with each other. Should we threaten these kids, tell Josh to fight, go to the police? At the end of a long day of working and parenting, my partner and I worriedly compared notes, decided who to call and what to ask for. Deep down, we all just wanted it to go away. Also, we felt bad about ourselves as parents. Had we raised Josh badly? Why did he seem to be everyone’s punching bag? Every morning, it felt like we were sending him into a war zone with no protection.

One day, Josh said a boy called Omar knocked him down and started punching and kicking him in the face and body. A crowd of kids gathered and screamed at Omar, aggressively egging him on. “I was scared to fight back and get suspended,” Josh told me. The next day, he told me he had fantasies about stabbing his bullies.

At almost 6 feet tall, Josh was far bigger than these kids. Though I knew it contradicted every piece of expert advice I’d read, I told him to defend himself. I was afraid for him, afraid of him being hurt, but even more afraid of what he was internalizing about himself. Josh would ask me if he was ugly or stupid, and when I said no, he’d ask why all the kids said so. When Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, interviewed adults who had been bullied, she found their experiences were still raw and painful, even years later. I didn’t want Josh to have these memories.

In early March, a kid punched Josh in the face in gym class. The teacher separated the kids and told them to go back to “playing.” Instead, the boy punched Josh again. The school expelled the boy — who had a history of violence and clearly needed support — from Josh’s class. The vice principal and counselor met with Josh, developed safety plans and places for him during lunch, but the verbal and physical abuse continued. Two weeks later, two friends of the expelled boy cornered Josh in a stairwell and attacked him.

I had finally had enough. I sat down and wrote up a timeline of all the abuse Josh had experienced since September and our attempts to get support from the school. I sent the list to Josh’s mom who filled in more detail. Josh’s dad filed an official police report against Josh’s primary tormentor, emailed the timeline to the superintendent of schools, and removed Josh from school citing physical assault. We were finally united as a team with the single goal of protecting Josh. We met with the superintendent, who was shocked by the abuse and lack of response we described, and requested an emergency safety transfer to a new middle school, which was granted.

Lessons learned

Two years later, I’m ashamed of how long it took me to take the abuse seriously, get the police involved, and pull Josh from that school. We learned that every school has a police officer assigned to it, and that those officers exist to help in these sorts of situations. Our fear of authority, concerns that Josh was lying or should toughen up, and lack of knowledge about his school life all contributed to our delay. We waited too long to intervene and allowed our own insecurities, poor communication, and confusion to get in the way.

I know now that Josh’s experience is atypical. These days, many schools have systems and regulations in place that demand they act quickly, especially when bullying is physical. States and local lawmakers have enacted laws, usually through the education code, to protect children. In general, in-person bullying seems to be decreasing although other forms of harassment, such as cyberbullying, may be increasing. Josh’s experience has changed all of us. I try to listen to Josh and his experiences without judgment, and now, with his dad’s blessing, I am empowered to intervene on Josh’s behalf. Josh, now 6’3” and weighing in at 200 pounds, just finished up at his new middle school and is excited for high school next year. Of course, rude, abusive kids haven’t evaporated from Josh’s life. Last week, he told us about a kid taunting him, making obscene remarks about what Josh and a friend liked to do with each other.

Josh’s friend told Josh to “deal with the situation.” Josh told his taunter to shut up, but the kid retaliated physically.

“He was punching me in the stomach, but it didn’t hurt since he’s tiny,” Josh said.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I told him to stop, but when he wouldn’t, I hook punched him in the back of his head with medium force, but he fell on his ass anyway,” Josh said.

“You should never hit someone on the head!” I exclaimed, horrified, realizing that my urging him to defend himself, and that he was taking his cues from a questionable friend, may have led to this.

“You could have killed him! You should have reacted defensively.”

Josh shot me stricken look and stormed out.

Lines of communication

His dad watched him go, then turned to me: “If you react like that, he’s going to stop confiding in us.”

I sought Josh out and found him sitting on his bed.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was really scared when you told me you punched that kid in the back of the head. My mind went to the worst case scenario.”

“Everyone gives me different advice,” Josh responded. “I told him to stop. If I ran away, everyone would have laughed at me because the kid is over a foot shorter than me.”

Josh’s actions made me nervous. The physically aggressive behavior worried me, and I didn’t want Josh to be comfortable resorting to violence. Was this what Josh learned from being bullied? I wanted to control Josh’s school experience: delete the meanness and make it all peaceful and happy. But even I know that isn’t realistic. I could tell Josh to never to raise a hand, but is that truly the right answer for him? I don’t know. And it isn’t my fight. Josh’s life will be full of tough decisions like the one he described.

“It’s so hard to decide what to do on the spot like that. Do you think you made the right choice?”

“I do,” he said.

I took a deep breath … and kept silent. Real parenting is messy and doesn’t follow textbook lines. I don’t want Josh to learn to protect his honor with his fists. But this is his experience, not mine. Isn’t my job to help him weigh his options, make a decision, and handle the consequences for himself?

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Updated: October 28, 2019