ACSI — Vol 17.3
Change Language:
Combatting the Great Taboo: BULLYING
Paul Coughlin

When combatting what may be our nation’s leading form of child abuse, there are no quick fixes, magic formulas, or technological patches that rid schools of its harmful influences—a harm that will likely worsen in the coming years but improve within pockets of resistance.

Christian schools should lead this resistance for both moral and economic reasons. Combatting bullying is a moral battle, because God’s heart is with the targets of serial bullying, targets who are part of that pitied class the Bible calls the poor and wounded in spirit. These beleaguered students are “more sinn’d against than sinning,” as Shakespeare put it (in King Lear), since bullying is victimization without provocation. God’s will is for justice, fairness, and compassion to reign, especially within institutions that bear His name.

Less important, but important still, antibullying efforts provide a veiled economic advantage. A Harris Interactive poll revealed that this misunderstood form of intentional abuse is the leading concern of both students and parents, surpassing illicit sexual activity, drug usage, and gang activity (2011).

Some Christian schools complain that they “don’t have the budget” for bullying prevention programs, yet such programs not only pay for themselves by retaining students but they draw prospective students. Far from expensive, it’s savvy marketing.

Start with Parents
Is there a more misunderstood word than bullying today? Nearly every emotional “owie” receives this mislabel, stretching and sometimes breaking a school’s investigative and disciplinary resources. Until we agree upon a better word (assaulting is among the best), educate parents before students about bullying’s real meaning and harm because parents—not teachers or students—are the first line of defense against a behavior so dangerous that it can actually alter a target’s DNA, mutating the gene responsible for mood regulation (Dye 2012).

Explain throughout the year how bullying is not about conflict, misunderstanding, or “drama,” a term some girls tend to favor. It’s the superior deployment of power—relational, physical, economic, or verbal—to intentionally harm another over time. It’s victimization without provocation that often includes isolation, humiliation, premeditation, and threat of further abuse. It’s a form of hatred that stems from a conceited orientation toward others that is rooted far more in disdain and contempt than anger, making it especially pernicious.

This practical definition contains another truth worth heralding. Tell parents that given bullying’s predatory and premeditated nature, as well as a stubborn code of silence on behalf of most bystanders, there is only so much any school can do, without creating a police state to collect irrefutable evidence. And this wouldn’t begin to make an impact on cyberbullying, a growing culprit.

A school’s real culture is defined by what happens when teachers’ backs are turned. Students, far more than faculty, define this culture where unkindness, meanness, and cruelty can be currency. Students, more than teachers, have the most power to change this false and unbiblical economy, and parents, more than teachers, are the guiding hand upon such students. So explain how all students—not just targets—are harmed by bullying. Studies show that bystanders avoid school and suffer psychologically as well, especially with feelings of shame, regret, and self-recrimination.

Enlisting bullies and their parents can be tricky but beneficial. Though studies show that many serial bullies (and their parents) do not heed pleas of peace, love, and understanding, they do listen to power, and they want to hear “What’s in it for me to change?” This is their “love language,” so speak it. Explain how “approximately 60 percent of boys who were characterized as bullies in grades 6–9 had at least one criminal conviction by the age of 24.” Even worse, “as much as 35–40 percent of the former bullies had three or more convictions by this age” (Olweus 1993, 36).

Finally, tell parents that just as police need citizens to report crime, you need them and their children to break a sinful code of silence in youth culture and report (not “tattle”) bullying.

Bolster Positive Peer Pressure and Moral Courage
The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) “identified 10 strategies that represent ‘best practices’ in bullying prevention and intervention” (Kowalski, Limber, and Agatston 2008, 36). At the top of this landmark list is changing the school’s environment. “It must become ‘uncool’ to bully, ‘cool’ to help out students who are bullied, and normative for staff and students to notice when a child is bullied or left out” (Health Resources and Services Administration 2006).

It’s a challenge to change the school’s environment, but it is doable since studies show that school-aged children are bystanders of about 85 percent of bullying incidents (Atlas and Pepler 1998; Craig and Pepler 1997; Hawkins, Pepler, and Craig 2001; Pepler and Craig 2000); they feel empathy for targets, but they don’t act on what they know and feel (Hawkins, Pepler, and Craig 2001; O’Connell, Pepler, and Craig 1999; Pepler and Craig 2000; Pepler et al. 1997). Bystanders help the target in need less than 20 percent of the time (Hawkins, Pepler, and Craig 2001; O’Connell, Pepler, and Craig 1999; Pepler and Craig 2000), and the vast majority are female (O’Connell, Pepler, and Craig 1999). My fellow boys coaches, what does this say about us as well as them?

When we know and feel something is wrong and it’s within our power to act but don’t, it’s usually because of a lack of courage. Though not all acts of passivity are wrong or harmful, some are, so much so that the Bible actually lists cowardice as a sin (Revelation 21:8). To transform passive, conflicted, and sometimes sinful bystanders into righteous and heroic “alongside standers”—students who assertively but nonviolently intervene—grow your student body’s capacity for moral courage, the virtue that many like C. S. Lewis argued underpins all others.

Schools are experts at grooming physical courage through sports. It’s well past time to muster the same passion (and budget) for moral courage, which is superior. Which of these brings God more glory and ourselves greater spiritual growth: pointing toward heaven after a big play or defending the weak and poor in spirit?

Strength and moral courage are tethered throughout the Bible and across cultures. Sign language for courage is two clenched fists, a symbol nearly synonymous with strength. Jesus told us that fulfilling the greatest of all commandments includes our capacity for courageous strength as well: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” (Mark 12:30–31, NIV, emphasis mine). Here, we find our triune-God-made human capacities: think, feel, and act rightly. Christian schools, much like Christian churches, have hyperfocused on the first two but hardly the third. Your school’s antibullying efforts (as well as spiritual and character development) will falter until we handle this third capacity with greater respect and skill.

Implement the “Power of Two”
One study reveals that when bystanders use assertive but nonviolent words such as “Stop” or “That’s wrong,” bullying can end more than 50 percent of the time and in less than 10 seconds (Hawkins, Pepler, and Craig 2001). Take this amazing dynamic even further by implementing a profound Greek proverb: “Only the gods are courageous in isolation.” Jesus showed this kind of muscular courage in Gethsemane, but He was divine. We mortals need others to bolster our courage, which may be one reason why Jesus sent His disciples in tandem.

Challenge your students to make an agreement with another student in which they defend each other. Now the school-changing part: When both students witness bullying of another, they will intervene with assertive but nonviolent behavior.

This “power of two” is being implemented across the country. The 700 Club interviewed 12 graduates of an antibullying program at a Christian school in Tennessee. Two boys explained how they used the power of two to protect a fellow student who has Asperger’s. He considered leaving and his grades dipped, but that was before the righteous and courageous behavior of those two boys.Now he’s staying put, and his grades have improved.

“I’ve been in Christian education for more than 20 years,” a Christian school teacher turned counselor said recently. “We’re seeing problems we didn’t see before, including bullying.” Instead of denying this reality, she said that Christian schools should meet this challenge by bringing a greater portion of God’s compassion and justice to it.

Put a special emphasis on moral courage, and you’ll not only diminish bullying, but you’ll bolster profound character growth and spiritual formation as well. “Do not lose your courage,” the Bible tells us, “because it brings with it a great reward” (Hebrews 10:35, GNT).

Paul Coughlin is an expert witness regarding bullying and the law and a Fox News contributor and analyst. He is a former newspaper editor and is the author of numerous books, including Raising Bully-Proof Kids and No More Christian Nice Guy. His worldwide organization, The Protectors: Freedom From Bullying—Courage, Character & Leadership for Life (, provides both a faith-based and values-based solution to adolescent bullying in public and private schools, summer camps, Sunday schools, and other places where bullying can be prevalent. He is also a school board member of a private school and is a boys varsity soccer coach.