What should schools, families, communities and the state do with young children who abuse other children? This question, always relevant, has assumed new urgency in the United States after reporters found that Adam Lanza ‒ the gunman who killed 20 students and six staff members at a Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut last December ‒ was bullied while he was a student at the school. Lanza reportedly suffered from a form of autism known as Asperger’s syndrome and was often taunted by his schoolmates. (Bizarrely, his mother seems to have believed that giving her son a terrifying array of weapons might help compensate for his social marginalization.) In the absence of a clear motive for Lanza’s violence, many American commentators have speculated that his killing spree, like that of the Columbine shooters before him, was a belated revenge for his mistreatment at school.
Shortly after details of Lanza’s bullying became public a teenage girl in Nova Scotia, Canada committed suicide because of continued humiliation by four boys who had allegedly photographed themselves sexually assaulting her 18 months earlier and circulated the images online. The case was one of several recent instances in which cyber-bullying ‒ a sinister trend among the social media generation ‒ has resulted in suicide. Public outrage at the fact that the youths had not been prosecuted for the earlier assault even prompted the hacking collective Anonymous to threaten that it would release the attackers’ names if local police failed to bring them to justice.
The idea that children should be closely monitored and appropriately punished for anti-social behaviour is hardly new, but ‘zero tolerance’ approaches often fail to live up to public expectations. In the UK, for example, when the Blair government decided to clamp down on bullying as part of its ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ campaign, it soon became clear that identifying juvenile bullies is far easier than deciding what to do with them.
Following its 1997 white paper ‘No More Excuses: A New Approach to Tackling Youth Crime in England and Wales’, Labour governments adopted an American style approach to schoolyard bullies, and introduced much stronger penalties into the youth justice system. The results were, to say the least, mixed. Five years later the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child complained about the sharp rise in youth custodial sentences in England and Wales, and criticized the ‘high levels of violence, bullying, self-harm and suicide’ inside young offender institutions. Separated from their communities, antisocial and violent children turned on each other, often to a pathological degree.
A different approach has been taken by anti-homophobia advocacy groups many of whom are acting on behalf of the most vulnerable children in the school system. (In Canada, for instance, sexual minorities are three times likelier to be bullied than heterosexual youth.) Instead of trying to isolate bullies, these groups have tried to confront the prejudices that most bullies rely on. Some campaigns have successfully recruited celebrities to speak out against bullying, and to de-stigmatize the terms commonly used to denigrate people who look, dress, or behave differently. One initiative has encouraged children to wear pink and purple clothes to school on specific days, to show their tolerance of different ways of dressing and behaving. Similar ideas have been widely adopted across North America and many appear to have had some success, but in the absence of wider efforts to understand and intervene in bullying, these are unlikely to prove sufficient.
It is hard to stop bullying in schools when it pervades so many aspects of adult life, most notoriously within the subcultures of the disciplined forces, prisons, and sports teams. Rutgers University recently sacked its head basketball coach after video of him emerged hitting players during practice and screaming homophobic slurs at them. The coach made the usual acts of contrition and has been widely condemned but the truth is that many other coaches are given a pass for similar transgressions because they produce winning teams, or because their misbehaviour gets conveniently described as part of a necessary toughening-up process. We should end the hypocrisy of trying to stop bullying in schools while accepting it elsewhere.
In “September 1, 1939”, reflecting on the sense of doom that came at the end of a ‘low dishonest decade’ the poet W H Auden famously observed that “I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn,/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.” Auden had geopolitical fears rather than antisocial children in mind, but the two issues would not have seemed unrelated to him. Many in his circle had firsthand knowledge of the humiliations of the British public school system, a completely Hobbesian subculture in which this vicious cycle of abuse was commonplace. Less well-known than it deserves to be is the remarkable, principled stand that George Orwell took, while still at Eton College ‒ the most illustrious of these schools. Exhausted by the tradition that allowed older boys to routinely mistreat their juniors ‒ who were appointed as ‘fags’, or servants to boys in the upper years ‒ Orwell and some of his contemporaries declined to take advantage of the system when they reached their final years. Even in adolescence Orwell understood the temptations of power, and how easily it could decay into the abuse of vulnerable people. He also recognized that it would only stop when ordinary people decided to change the culture on principle. Anything else might succeed for a while, but human nature being what it is, the old abuses would eventually return.