It came to me again this week, as I witnessed a father berating his beautiful young daughter, maybe 14 years old, in one of Durango’s grocery store parking lots. He had said something, and now glared sternly down at her. She stared ahead without emotion. Ahead of them, her mother, too, stared without expression as they walked to their car.
It’s not often you get to see a youngster being humiliated and trained for the life of abuse and bullying. Most “bully” training in America is done behind closed doors where there is a distinct imbalance of power, as I suspect is the case around the world. It is a rare and disquieting occurrence to witness it in public.
As I watched the young girl, I remembered a similarly unsettling incident exactly a year ago after church on a bright, fall morning. I had inched into a parking space in front of a shopping area. There was a loud disturbance in the area behind the stores.
A large woman was shaking a young boy and striking him about the face and shoulders, repeatedly shoving him in and out of the back seat of her car. I shouted for her to stop and cautiously started down metal stairs to the parking area, dialing 911.
Halfway down, she shouted, “Don’t bother coming down. I’m a social worker. And I know what I’m doing.” Adding, “I’m just ‘spanking’ him. I’m calling the police myself.” She knew the drill.
The switchboard operator told me that she was in fact receiving the woman’s call and that an officer was being dispatched. A group had gathered. The operator advised us not to get involved.
The young boy was roughly shoved back into the vehicle, as a police car arrived.
I was told later by phone that the investigation was completed. “She was within the law,” the officer said. “Just ‘spanking’ her son for disobeying her.”
He continued, “The boy admitted to the fact that he had spilled some soda on the back seat even though she had told him not to.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
“That’s all I can do. It’s the law. But,” he said, “We appreciate citizens reporting these incidents.”
I asked for the report number, and was told that it did not warrant a report; he had filed it as an incident.
We live in an abusive, violent world. And we wonder why.
Some years ago, violent screaming at a neighbor’s home prompted a similar call to the sheriff’s department. I carefully approached the house. Through a sliding door, I saw their young daughter, maybe 10, crouched in a corner, sobbing hysterically and pointing down the hall.
I entered and saw the parents with their 14-year-old son spread-eagle on the floor with the mother screaming obscenities at him, her face inches above his, while his father pinned him down. I shouted at them, but they did not notice me, mesmerized by what they were doing.
After completing the investigation, one of the deputies came to our door and said that in the future, it would be better not to interfere in domestic disturbances.
“It was simply a teen problem,” he said.
A teen problem.
In the following months we frequently heard the young boy shouting at and intimidating his younger sister when his parents were absent.
We live in a violent world. And we wonder why.
There is also the level of social discourse today that rises easily to the level of intimidation and bullying. Incivility is strong and well. We even ridicule those who cry out against in uncivil behavior, accusing them of being “politically correct” – a demeaning name we pin on common politeness. We intimidate and badger family members and co-workers. We bully with sarcasm. We do it with threats, put-downs and over-the-top teasing. During political seasons, it’s particularly virulent.
The Internet and social networks are convenient platforms for bullies. How often does our email contain ugly and mean-spirited messages? How often have we ourselves smugly forwarded some clever but demeaning e-mail? How many teens in despair have been pushed to the brink of suicide? How many have actually ended their lives?
Not all “bully” training is done out of sight; some is in parking lots. Not all bullying is done on school grounds and buses; some is online.
Among us are those who piously explain: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” That advice hasn’t worked so far. How much more helpful would it have been if those ancient writers had advised us: “Use the rod and train a bully.”
Recent news reports tell us that New Jersey schools reported more than 12,000 cases of bullying in the 2011-2012 school year. Those were just the ones reported.
In our area, the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) is helping organize a conference this November to explore the issue of bullying in person and on social networks, along with some of the tools to address it.
Kathy Morris, BOCES’ Regional Safe School coordinator, has actively gathered helpful resources. One of them she recommends is www.kidsareworthit.com. Bullying is not just a school issue, but what better place to start?
One thing is perfectly clear: it’s not just a teen problem.
Ralph Blanchard spent more than 25 years in the Navy, after which he helped develop the Military Family Resource Center in support of Department of Defense programs related to child abuse and neglect and quality-of-life issues for military families and young service members. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.