The concept of a bully used to be simple, and potential bullies were thought to be easy to spot.
Think of the movie, “A Christmas Story,” and the bully named Farkus, said Julie Hertzog, the director of the Pacer National Bullying Prevention Center.
Today, it’s not quite as simple as that. Casting the bully as a physically intimidating outcast isn’t necessarily accurate, Hertzog said.
“There is no particular profile,” she said. “It used to be that people thought that kids who bullied had very low self-esteem, but we’ve found just the opposite to be true. A lot of times they are social leaders.”
The fight against bullying has featured documentaries, songs, skits, books and talks with those who have been tormented. Their stories are available documenting the difficult times they faced on a daily basis.
But the other side of the story isn’t as easy to find. Hertzog said it’s not surprising few would stand up and say they had been bullies.
“It’s a harder thing to acknowledge,” she said. “We are stigmatizing that. … It’s being said that kids who do this are bad, and we have to be careful. People aren’t going to admit that.”
Anti-bully activists will make appearances and ask for a show of hands of those who are bullied, resulting in dozens of hands going up. But when asking whether anyone there had been a bully, very few hands are raised. Stella Katsoudas, the lead singer of the Chicago rock band Sister Soleil, asked the question at a video shoot for an anti-bullying song Katsoudas recorded, “Stand for the Silent.”
“That’s a tougher question,” she said, noting there were only a few who would admit that they had, at times, been bullies.
Jodee Blanco, a Chicago-based author of two prominent anti-bullying books – “Please Stop Laughing at Me” and “Please Stop Laughing at Us” – attempts to define the bully. She identifies the “elite tormentor,” a “mean-spirited popular student who employs subtle, insidious forms of bullying.”
And she points out two specific types of bullying. Aggressive exclusion, she writes, is “the most damaging form of bullying,” which she says is “a deliberate omission of kindness.” Another, she writes, is arbitrary exclusion, “when a best friend or group of friends inexplicably turns on someone and persuades everyone else in the clique to follow suit.”
Julie Nicolai, author of “Road Map Through Bullying,” said that it can be difficult to identify such situations. Nicolai, a fourth-grade teacher at a school in Glen Ellyn, said she tries to look at the faces of her students, and she said she usually can tell whether one is behaving like a bully. She said she has learned to recognize the signs.
Nicolai, 35, said she remembers bullies being easier to identify when she was a student, close to the situation that Hertzog described with Farkus and “A Christmas Story.”
“A lot of times, those were the kids who were segregated,” she said. “They were kids who just didn’t fit in, but they might have been really big and strong.
“Nowadays, [the bullies] might be more along the popular lines. They have formed this group bully idea, where the popular kids will pick on other kids who are maybe popular or maybe not. They’re trying to get ahead in society by picking on others.”
She said it’s not always easy to identify such situations. And then it can be a challenge to identify who is taking part.
“It takes a lot of investigation to find out who is doing what, and how they did it,” Nicolai said.
Hertzog said she doesn’t even like to use the word “bully.” She said there are situations in which people are bullied on the same day they are exhibiting bully behaviors. Katsoudas, who has recorded two anti-bullying songs, understands that as well.
“This isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Katsoudas said. “But a lot of these kids who bully are getting bullied somewhere else. A lot of times, these are kids who are lashing out.”