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When is Bullying a Hate Crime?

EducationWorld is pleased to feature this guest column by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of NURTURESHOCK: New Thinking About Children.

In spring 2011, an astonishingly violent camera-phone video from Sydney, Australia, went viral on YouTube, “Bullied Teen Fights Back.” Skinny 12-year-old Ritchard Gale, egged on by his friends, repeatedly punches the much bigger but defenseless 16-year-old Casey Heynes. Finally Casey snaps, tossing his tormentor upside down and body-slamming him into the concrete. In that single moment of defiance, Casey became a folk hero. The 41-second clip has been watched by millions.

Casey told Australian television that he’d been called “big fatty” for months by Ritchard. Would we call it mere bullying if Casey Heynes was black? Or gay? According to Dr. Stephen Russell at the University of Arizona, fully 75% of all incidents that we call “bullying” employ hate speech and bias—racial bias, sexual orientation bias, gender bias, body-type bias and religious bias. The truth is, calling it “bullying” gives kids cover. Bullying, bad as the connotation might be, is something kids do. Hate crimes and assault are something grownups do. No anti-bullying program can succeed unless it confronts these underlying prejudices. Only when such intolerances are reduced will bullying go down.

For decades, a myth has been perpetuated that bullies are outcasts who use aggression because they lack social savviness and empathy. In the last 10 years, science has discovered the reverse: most bullies aren’t outcasts; they’re popular, with a posse of friends. And Ritchard Gale didn’t lack the ability to intuit how he made Casey Heynes feel. He knew exactly how much it hurt. That’s why he did it.

Ritchard has also said he knew what to do to Casey because it had been done to him, earlier in his life – and this is entirely believable. For every three bullies in the world, there are two more, like Ritchard, who became bullies after first being victims. Ritchard didn’t seem like the ringleader here, rather it seemed almost that he’d been put up to it by his mates, having been told that only violence will earn the pack’s respect.

Not all the bit players in this clip were Ritchard’s mates. For the first 15 seconds, two girls were there, watching intently. Only after the second punch, when the violence got too close to them, did they step out of the shot. One second later, a taller girl arrived on the scene—a girl big enough to intervene—but she, too, just stood there to watch.

The science of bullying has shown that bullies feed off of bystanders’ reactions. While we might wish bystanders intervened, in fact all they have to do is turn their backs and stop rewarding the bully with their attention, because it’s attention that bullies seek. The worst thing bystanders can do is be a rapt audience, but that’s exactly what happened here.

Casey Heynes’ revenge against the bullies has been celebrated all around the world. Never mind that usually the victims are not twice the size of the bully, and can’t “Incredible Hulk” their way out of trouble. The danger is, the video’s popularity might give more victims the mistaken impression that all they have to do is finally, for once, fight back. Unfortunately, this is the number-one response teachers and parents tell children: “Just hit back and it’ll stop.” That myth always works in movies, but in real life, it rarely works. Bullies have backup. Even if a bully gets suspended, his friends will get even. People wonder where the grownups were in Casey Heynes’ life, but the truth is, grownups so often give wrong advice. Children who tell an adult are three times more likely to still be bullied a year later.

Everyone gets picked on as they grow up. The relevant question is, what predicts whether a child gets picked on once or twice, versus a boy like Casey Heynes, who gets picked on his whole life? UCLA researcher Jaana Juvonen has found there's only one thing that predicts that change. And that's if the victimized kid thinks, “It’s my fault, because of who I am.” That way of thinking dramatically increased the likelihood of a temporary victim becoming a permanent victim.

The Chifley school in Australia where this happened has claimed that it has an anti-bullying program and a zero-tolerance policy, and that the school is safe. But children have come forward to say fights are routine here, and videotaping the bouts is routine, too. After watching this video, nobody feels that any child is safe.

By that zero-tolerance policy, both boys were automatically suspended. Ritchard and his friends don’t need mandatory suspension, a free week off school—what they need is mandatory counseling.

Related resources

Editor’s Note: In October 2010 the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance to support educators in combating bullying in schools by clarifying when student bullying may violate federal education anti-discrimination laws. The guidance, which comes in the form of a "Dear Colleague" letter sent to schools, colleges and universities, explains educators’ legal obligations to protect students from student-on-student racial and national origin harassment, sexual and gender-based harassment, and disability harassment. The letter provides examples of harassment and illustrates how a school should respond in each case.

The Best Bullying Prevention Schools Aren’t Doing
Stan Davis: Ask Bullied Kids What Helps Them
Student Engager: How Can Students Help a Bullied Peer?

About the authors

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman are the authors of NURTURESHOCK: New Thinking About Children. The central premise of this New York Times bestseller is that many of modern society’s strategies for nurturing children are backfiring because key twists in the science have been overlooked. NurtureShock has been featured on Good Morning America, Nightline, All Things Considered, Fresh Air, and in Newsweek. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s New York magazine articles on the science of parenting won the journalism award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Mensa Award, and a Clarion Award. Their articles for Time won the award for outstanding journalism from the Council on Contemporary Families. Prior to collaborating, Bronson authored five books, including the number-one New York Times bestseller What Should I Do With My Life? Merryman’s journalism has appeared in The Washington Post and The National Catholic Reporter.


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