iStock_000017762807XSmallI remember Columbine High School. I was on site the following day.

At the time, I was the public information officer for Jefferson County Airport, which sits at the northern end of the county. Columbine sits at the southern end. The next day, all county PIO’s volunteered to go to the public library near Columbine to handle the media circus. I’m pretty sure I contributed next to nothing the entire day, save for reading a press release to some German TV station that called, but it somehow inexplicably connected me forever to the event.

Many people assumed at the time that Columbine was a situation where the bullied kids finally snapped and went after the jocks and the popular kids. However, I knew many of the county officials involved in the incident and there too were many layers of layers to the Klebold/Harris dynamic to simply fit the tragedy into a “revenge-on-the-bullies” scenario. There are some good books on the incident and I encourage you to read them and come to your own conclusions.

I do agree with Thompson, O’Neill Grace, and Cohen when they noted about Columbine: “when two troubled children form an exclusive bond, it can play itself out in extreme pathologies such as the killings at Columbine High School in 1999, but it’s vitally important to remember that this is not the norm.” (76). Regardless, Columbine did bring bullying to the forefront of the national conversation.

Bullying. I think I can speak from an expert perspective here myself – as can many people. I was bullied – mostly it was 7th grade – before that I pretty much got along with everyone. In 7th grade we were all forced to make a choice – get into one of the groups (brains, freaks, jocks, hicks and so forth) or suffer the wrath of all the group – except the brains who didn’t have much muscle but were protected by the other groups as long as they could copy off their homework. I wasn’t very brainy in school and I was undersized for my age at the time, I didn’t do drugs and I didn’t dip or own a filthy baseball cap, so I didn’t fit in anywhere.

I attended Golden Junior High School – aka, Gladiator U. Fights were the norm not the exception. You either fought, ran or got your ass kicked. I experienced all three – repeatedly. The bullying got so bad my parents moved to another town the following year — one where the schools did not tolerate bullying. Yes, schools, faculty, administrators and parents can defeat bullying mentality – even back in 1982 and 83 before all the formal anti-bullying programs were in place. How?

You create an atmosphere where bullying is not okay and is not rewarded by the group.

What I think most faculty and school administrators don’t realize is that bullying doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Groups are responsible for creating a climate in which bullying takes place (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, and Cohen 121).

  • The authors point out that most bullies are not the archetypal type, big guys with their henchman who run the school (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, and Cohen 120), as in Matt Dillion’s character in the movie My Bodyguard, or the other great 80s bully movie, Three O’Clock High starring Casey Siemaszko.
  • Most bullies are temporary and operate with the unspoken support of the nonaggressive majority  (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, and Cohen 120). Bullies even learn that there are those its okay to bully and those that are not. Pick on the wrong kid and the group attacks you.
  • There is a hierarchy in kids – in fact, in society. Boys wrestle as a way to establish dominance – oddly enough so do male chimps. There also a similarity between the way young boys and chimps eat, but I digress. Male chimps who don’t wrestle with peers later have trouble finding a mate (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, and Cohen 122); why do you think the athletic guys always got first pick of the prettiest girls.
  • Tougher, bigger kids may often press their advantage over smaller kids, which sometimes leads to bullying.

Every child wants three things in life: connection, recognition and power (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, and Cohen 139). Bullying can provide all three, unless the bully is not rewarded by the group.

Connection, recognition and power is also something that can be provided by joining a team or a club. Which brings us to hazing.

The problem with hazing  is that our society adults silently tolerate, promote and in some cases even encourage hazing in the military, professional sports teams and other areas of life, while we continue to tell our kids to “do as we say, not as we do” (and reward and celebrate). Navy SEALs initiations are notorious. The Air Force dunks you in a swimming pool when you solo and the Marines slam wings into your chest when you graduate from pilot training. In fact the hazing that goes on against the rookies at the NFL training camps is not only covered in the local news, it’s often celebrated for its innovation and variety.

Where does this hazing come from?

All human beings have a deep need for acceptance by the group and a deep need for a sacred ritual (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, and Cohen 128). Rituals connect us to one another and to our spiritual life – ceremonies like weddings, funerals, christenings, holiday BBQ’s, rituals comfort us in time of anxiety and change, they remind us of what endures and tells us who has rank, seniority, who is worthy and who wields power (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, and Cohen 128). We are a ritualistic people. But when is it a ritual and when is it hazing?

As a member of a college fraternity, I was hazed and I also hazed others (including one of our faculty members) and I enjoyed being accepted into the group once the ritual of the initiation was complete. However, I there is a difference between initiation and hazing.

I did not pursue joining one particular club in college because I thought their hazing rituals were asinine and went beyond reasonable – they were demeaning and disrespectful of the person. I joined another after being assured that while I would be hazed, it wasn’t anything “out of control,” and “everyone’s pretty cool with it.” The other problem with hazing is that once people are through the hazing themselves, they are reluctant to change the rituals. “Hey, if I had to do it, then they have to do it!”

Years later, once I was President of the fraternity, I would be held up to scrutiny when I dropped a lot of the hazing rituals and made it easier for people to join – oddly enough, recruitment dropped by nearly 90%. Suddenly, joining the group wasn’t special anymore – anyone, perceivably, could get in.

The problem with initiation rituals is that someone dumb ass always takes it too far. And with kids, even college students, they like to experiment with everything, including power, so part of this dynamic is seeing how much power one can actually exert  (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, and Cohen 140).

So where is the line? Today, the line of what is hazing has been so strictly defined that in many clubs and groups, virtually any sort of test of loyalty, or demonstration of knowledge can be interpreted as hazing. I like the author’s interpretation of hazing: “hazing involves intentional humiliation of the individual, while initiation never does” (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, and Cohen 129). Maybe we also need to distinguish between “humiliation” and “embarrassment,” here as well.

I think its important to remember that simply excluding someone from a group because they do not meet the expectations of its membership, does not constitute hazing. Children (and adults) have an inherent need to be initiated and to initiate each other – they long to be initiated into the secrets and privileges of older children and adults and seek out situations where they can pass a challenge or test, so they can prove they are worthy of acceptance (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, and Cohen 129).

Which leads us to cliques. Cliques are the natural outcome of all the previously mentioned forces  (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, and Cohen 151), including connection, recognition and power. We gravitate towards people who are like us (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, and Cohen 154), or who are like who we want to be, thus children will silently sort themselves into categories of popular, accepted, rejected and so forth. They will also seek out friends who share their social identity based on race and nationality (sorry, kids don’t do political correctness very well).

Cliques are not inherently bad, but they do have the power to inflict tremendous psychological drama on an individual (Thompson, O’Neill Grace, and Cohen 155). Eliminating cliques is not going to solve the problem as they are a natural fact of life – we all gravitate to groups that reflect our interests, values and beliefs. Teaching our children to understand that being in a clique doesn’t mean others are less valuable or important, or that they are less valuable or important because they aren’t in the “right” clique, should be the goal.

I think the greatest thing to remember about bullying, hazing and cliques is that life goes on and truly, the situation doesn’t last forever. In fact, even by high school the lines between the cliques start to blur.

I remember a few specific bullies of my day, including one who stayed on my mind so much that I still thought about him years later. It got so bad that one day (and after a few Karate classes – wax on wax off), nearly five years later when I found my old bully stacking groceries in our local store, I confronted him and tried goading him into a fight, (this was back in the day when you could just “get into a fist fight,” and not have it result in felony assault charges). The guy said he had no idea who I was. Turns out either his brain was fried from too much weed or he didn’t think about me as much as I’d thought about him.

To a bully, a push, or a lunch money grab, is just that. A single act – not something they sat around contemplating, nor reflected on later. To the bullied however, it can be a lifetime of humiliation – but the power to decide what the event means and your reaction to it, today and tomorrow, is totally within your hands.

Thompson, Michael, Catherine O’Neill Grace, and Lawrence J. Cohen. Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children. New York: Ballantine, 2001. Print.

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