School Bullies Are Popular, Study Says

School Bullies Are Popular, Study Says

Experts Explore Effects of Aggression on Classmates

Bullies are among the most popular boys in school from the fourth through sixth grade, according to a recent survey of teachers, classmates and bullies themselves.

The report by Duke University psychologists explores the effect of unchecked bullying of classmates, which is often undetected or unpunished by school staff, on victims and innocent bystanders.

Some experts worry that the double whammy of being excluded from the popular crowd and being bullied by some of its members could lead emotionally disturbed students to retaliate violently.

“Our study looked at elementary kids, but I think that the popular, aggressive kids would have been the Columbine victims. The two shooters would not have been the tough kids. They weren’t popular,” said Duke University psychologist Philip Rodkin, lead author of the study that was published in the January issue of Developmental Psychology.

Researchers surveyed teachers and male students in 59 classrooms from rural, suburban and inner-city schools in Chicago and North Carolina.

Experts disagree on killers’ status

Randy Fisher, president of the School Social Work Association of America, said Columbine High School seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had a grudge against “popular” classmates and football players. The two gunned down 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves last April.

“They felt treated poorly by them, and [Klebold and Harris] felt the school hadn’t done anything to recognize, help or protect them,” Fisher said. “That’s from their point of view, and there’s obvious problems with their point of view,” he added.

Fisher’s opinion is not universally accepted. Columbine Principal Frank DeAngelis, for one, has said the killers were not on the school’s fringe. He noted that Klebold was involved in the production of student plays and was photographed in a tuxedo at the school prom just three days before he went on the murderous rampage.

DeAngelis also has said that he doesn’t buy the killers’ complaints, recorded on videotapes, about being mercilessly picked on and taunted at the school. Given the havoc the killers wrought, DeAngelis said, “maybe they were the bullies.”

Nonetheless, the effect that “popular bullies” have on their peers is a concern raised by the study, said Rene Thomas Folse, a California-based psychologist and lawyer who is an advocate for troubled children in the school system. Another concern is whether these children are being passed over for counseling and behavior programs because their popularity overshadows their negative behavior.

Behavior ‘works’ for some

Rodkin and other psychologists worry that popular bullies may be less likely to change their behavior than unpopular bullies because it works so well for them.

“These boys may internalize the idea that aggression, popularity and control naturally go together, and they may not hesitate to use physical aggression as a social strategy because it has always worked,” Rodkin said. “But there will come a point in these boys’ lives when this turns from an adaptive and fun to a lonely and potentially dangerous characteristic.”

Parents may also unwittingly contribute to the problem by accepting or even encouraging aggressive behavior as long as their children are popular, Fisher said.

Sports culture can contribute

Sports culture — the back-slapping camaraderie and initiation rites for new team members — can contribute to the division between popular bullies and class underdogs, said Dr. Jay Carter, a licensed psychologist in private practice in West Reading, Pa.

“Kids on a football team have a way of letting out their hostilities when they’re playing. Without any outlet off-season, some tend to get in more fights, and to be more defiant,” Carter said.

Carter, who wrote a best-selling book on bullies titled Nasty People, noted that by high school, bullies tend to tone down their aggressiveness. But students who were bullied in earlier grades may continue to feel like victims.

Crime or success stories?

But for some bullies, aggressiveness may lead to a life of crime, Folse said.

On the other hand, Rodkin said, aggression that’s played out in bullying behavior in adolescence sometimes is tamed into the kind of verbal aggression that serves politicians and businessmen well.

“Society effectively said that some kinds of aggression and rebelliousness are legitimate to express and are culturally rewarded,” said Rodkin. “And some anti-social boys in our study may go this route. They may not be loved, but they are powerful and have status, prestige and social and professional connections.”

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