School bullies are the subject of several assumptions, most of them half-remembered from our own school days. Bullies are thuggish, unpleasant but basically cowardly sorts, who prey on weaker children in the schoolyard, using either verbal or physical abuse to cement their social status in the pecking order. According to a CNN study, however, this may be flawed. School bullies do not just prey on the nerdy kids who are good at science.
A sociologist called Robert Faris partnered with Diane Felmlee and the CNN for the study, and noted that high school students were caught up in “patterns of cruelty and aggression” centred around an attempt to climb a school’s perceived social hierarchy.
In other words, as social status shifted, children with a higher status became more prone to victimisation, while at the same time were found to be more aggressive in their interactions with other students.
The study was conducted at The Wheatley School in Long Island, New York. 700 students were asked four times about their behaviour and the behavior of others in a 28 question survey during the course of a single semester.
The results suggest that bullying is not just the domain of the troubled outsider figure like Nelson “HaHA!” Muntz from the Simpsons. It is in fact those right at the heart of the school’s social life, some of the most popular and well-liked children, who can be indulging in bullying behaviour.
One student interviewed by CNN was Bridget, who said baldly: “No matter what high school you go to, what age you are, what social group you’re in, you’ve been bullied and you are a bully.” Another student openly admitted that he’d considered suicide as a response to his own victimisation.
Although the study has raised some eyebrows due to the affluent nature of the school being featured, co-author Robert Faris claims the results mirror earlier work he had done at rural schools in North Carolina.
The fact that intimidation, victimisation and aggression are rife in schools is unlikely to be news to anyone with the courage to remember their own school days with any honesty, and certainly no surprise to anyone who’s ever worked in a classroom or wider school context. There is a brutal pecking order bubbling away at most educational institutions all over the world, and only a hopeless deluded optimist would claim otherwise.
By bringing these behaviours into the open, however, Faris suggests that there is hope. First, his studies suggested that changes in social status were not really affected by aggression levels – in other words, that bullying doesn’t actually work to improve a student’s place in the pecking order.
Faris also suggested that behaviour may be contagious within school groups. Aggressive behaviour from one person tends to lead to their peers adopting more aggressive behaviour. That sounds awful, but Faris suggests that positive behaviour could be spread in the same way. Either way, he feels that educating students about the lack of effectiveness of bullying and aggression may hold hope for eradicating bullying from the schoolyards of the future.