Bullying: Every School's Problem and Opportunity to Shine and Grow

Guest article by Paul Coughlin, The Protectors

Though bullying, the superior use of power that intends to harm another student repeatedly and for no justifiable reason, is a cultural problem, not a “school problem,” schools across the country are expected to combat it on their own.

It's unfair, but like other unfair situations, it's also an opportunity to differentiate your school from other educational options within your community. To do so, school leaders must overcome a common but overblown fear.

Studies confirm that this unique form of abuse, which is usually verbal, but can also be physical, social and economic in nature, occurs wherever youth gather--summer camp, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Awana and even Sunday School. No gathering is immune wherever 14 or more youth come together. So if or when your school decides to take bullying head on, you aren't admitting that your school has a "bullying problem." What you're really doing is showing your community that you understand the complex dynamics that comprise youth culture, and you are mustering the moral courage and strength to combat it.

Having worked with thousands of students, faculty and parents in both public and private Christian schools for more than a decade, and as a ministry partner with Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), I know that when it comes to combatting, Christian schools have an obvious advantage in curbing this prevalent behavioral problem.

That's because bullying stems from profound spiritual ailments, namely arrogance, pride, contempt and disdain. Bullies aren’t any more “broken inside” than their peers. And they don't suffer from low self-esteem any more than their peers either. In fact, as Dr. Roy Baumeister wrote for Scientific American, It's "self-love, not self-hate," that motivates most adolescent bullies. America's growing love affair with narcissism is making matters worse. David Brooks in The Road to Character reports that indicators of narcissism have risen 30% within the last two decades.

Bullies treat others as inferior, as children of a lesser god. But Christian schools, unlike public schools, are able to administer deeper, soul-level antidotes—the only kind that can truly change the soul of a serial bully. Christian schools are free to explain how God is watching and is "opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Proverbs 3:34). He requires humility from His children, as well as acts of justice and righteousness (Micah 6:8). And targets of serial bullying, most of whom do not tell their teacher or even their parents, are part of that class of people that the Bible calls “wounded in spirit” and oppressed. Jesus came for them when he said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18 ESV).

Some students bully because it helps them gain and maintain social status. A study from UCLA (Feb 2013) confirms how being unkind, mean and even cruel can help a student become more popular. Researchers went to more than 1,200 middle schools, and asked students to identify both bullies and the most popular students. Their lists were nearly identical. Cruelty is currency in youth culture, especially during the middle school years. This is a cultural problem, and requires a community to transform. That’s why we say that of the three presentations we provide to diminish bullying (student presentations, staff training and parent presentation) the parent night or community night is the most important. We will never move the needle on bullying until we move the needle on parenting.

Bullying is a forbidden currency in the eyes of God. Though God hates no one, He hates certain behaviors, and opposes those who engage in them. Of the seven behaviors that God says He hates (Proverbs 6:16-19), six apply to bullying:

·      Haughty eyes (Believing you’re superior to others.)

·      A lying tongue (Slandering others on purpose.)

·      Hands that shed innocent blood (Among the most bullied in any youth gathering are physically and mentally challenged children.)

·      A heart that devises wicked plans (Many bullies profile and plan their attacks ahead of time, often setting up their targets.)

·      Feet that make haste to run to evil (Bystanders are more likely to support the bully [40-60%] than defend the target [about 13%].)

·      A false witness that breathes lies, and sows discord (Bullies purposely exclude others, gang up on others, and deliberately destroy reputations unfairly)

The Better Approach

Though there are multiple strategies that will help your school diminish bullying, whatever you do, make it comprehensive, not just extra-curricular. And don’t focus too much on transforming the bully directly through faculty intervention. Like the teacher in Charlie Brown cartoons, all they tend to hear is Blah, Blah, Blah, instead of the instruction you intend. Serial bullies don’t listento peace, love and understanding the way we wish they would (neither do many of their parents). But studies show they do listen to a force as powerful as gravity: positive peer pressure. They care deeply about what their peers think and feel, even when they pretend they don’t. It’s their “love language,” so help your students speak it early and often.  

But you’re in for a challenge when it comes to transforming conflicted, fearful and sinful bystanders into “alongside standers,” or what we call “Protectors.” That challenge isn’t found in what your students think and feel about bullying. Studies show that most kids know bullying is wrong and feel sympathy and empathy for the target. What’s missing—and what is your school’s secret weapon against bullying that public schools do not have—is the bolstering of moral and spiritual courage among your student body.

Bolster Courage

When we know an act is wrong, and we feel something is wrong and it’s within our power to act and we don’t, most of the time it’s the lack of courage, or the sin of cowardice (Rev. 21:8), that’s behind our inability to be kind, compassionate and loving toward another in need.

In the New Testament, strength is often associated with our capacity for courage, as found in the greatest of all commandments--to love God with all of our heart, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor through these three capacities as well (Mark 12: 29-31). To drive this point home visually, I show a picture of The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy, the Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tinman. They represent three fundamental human capacities that we all possess, and are commanded to employ.

The word courage appears in the Bible about 25 times. We’re told to not “throw away your courage, which carries a great reward” (Hebrews 10:35). That reward is to multifaceted to list here. But atop the list is greater faith, greater boldness, and greater virtue since courage is the virtue that underpins all others. Strong students are courageous students.

Still, courage is in short supply. A helpful way to grow it is illustrated by powerful Greek Proverb: Only the gods are courageous in isolation. A person standing on their own usually lacks courage, or the ability to remain courageous over time. When we have someone standing by our side, our capacity for spiritual and moral courage skyrockets. It’s probably one reason why Jesus sent his disciples out in twos.

When I first met Alex Gonzalez and Brannon Walls, they were small and quiet 4th graders at Silverdale Baptist Academy in Chattanooga, TN. They were two of 12 graduates of The Protectors program, who took part in a national news organization’s feature story. As graduates of our program, they took The Power of Two Challenge. This is where students vow to protect each other from bullying. But here’s the powerful and Christian aspect: When they witnessed another student being bullied, they vowed to help him or her as well.

Their classmate had a slight speech impediment and was socially awkward. They noticed that a group of 3-5 boys enjoyed bullying him, usually during lunchtime. This student was showing signs of depression, his grades plummeted, and he was going to leave the school. But that’s before righteousness showed up in the form of two committed 4th graders. Gonzalez and Walls used assertive but non-violent words in his defense. Sometimes they just walked up and invited the target to come with them.

They changed his life, and in the process, their own. “It gave me a lot of confidence,” says Walls, who now averages more than 20 points a game as a junior basketball standout. “I know it was great seeing a smile on his face, but it also made me feel better about myself.” 

“I saw the pain in his eyes before, and the joy on his face afterwards,” says Gonzalez, who is now his school’s starting quarterback. “It honestly was the only time I experienced something like that. It renewed my energy in my walk with Christ. I saw how Christ used us.”

One study shows that even if one student stands up and using assertive but non-violent words, such as “Stop,” “That’s wrong,” that the incident of bullying can end 58% of the time and within 6-8 seconds. And the student doesn’t have to be popular or large in size. Their words, bolstered by courage, empower them.

In Mark 14:6, when one of the disciples was bullying Mary (most commentators believe it was Judas, surprised?) Jesus did not remain a passive bystander. He said, “Leave her alone. Why do you cause trouble for her?” These three powerful, strong and non-violent words can be said by any student, changing the life of not just a target but themselves. They may even save a life given how bullying is associated with teen suicide, and how nearly 85% of school shootings have revenge against bullying as their primary motive. But your students need a comprehensive approach that over time radiates love and life to make it happen.

Imagine your students standing up to bullying without becoming bullies themselves? Students like Alex, Brannon, and many more are doing that right now across the country. Your Christian school can be a beacon of hope that will do more than diminish bullying. It will provide courage, character and faith for life. And in the process attract even more students and families to your school as your reputation for tackling bullying head-on grows. 


Paul Coughlin is the Founder of The Protectors, a freedom-from-bullying organization that works with both faith-based and values-based schools to diminish bullying. He is the author of numerous books, including the newly released No More Christian Nice Guy Revisited, and Raising Bully Proof Kids. He writes for FoxNews Headquarters about bullying, and combats bullying in the workplace as well, including within the NFL through the Baltimore Ravens. He’s a former boys varsity soccer coach and former school board member of a private Christian school. He and his family live in Bend, OR. www.theprotectors.org paul@theprotectors.org