Psychologist warns against turning bullies into criminals

Sunday, July 27, 2008 (Source:

Bullies are the new group everyone loves to hate, and can hate with
School psychologist Israel “Izzy・Kalman finds this state of
affairs not merely bizarre, but dangerous to children ・really
dangerous, and in several ways.
Throughout his early career, Kalman specialized in healing
interpersonal conflict, especially sibling rivalry. But after the
1999 shootings at Columbine High, he found himself in the awkward
position of advocating for bullies ・not bully ing, mind you, but the
kids labeled and punished as bullies.
In a phone interview, Kalman said, “We only care about the so-
called victims. But every kid thinks he’s the victim. The parents
want the schools scrubbed of aggression. Schools can’t do that. They
promise they will, but they can not deliver.・But they can pretend to
be on top of the problem by bullying the so-called bully.
The unusual thrust of Kalman’s work began in a 1970s college course
in group dynamics, taught by a professor who literally just sat
there. The group discussed the readings, grew heated with
disagreements that they wanted the professor to settle, but had to
find ways of working things out, peer to peer. Kalman said, “I could
see how well people got along when you leave them alone.・
And he began to notice that when kids squabbled, the fight got
worse when the parents got involved. Teachers can’t leave students to
battle it out, but again, teacher intervention always escalated the
fight. And if a kid can get the other kid punished, in essence she
manipulated the parent, the teacher or school into doing her dirty
work for her. Then the punished child wants retribution, and on it
 Kalman says that 90 percent of bullying is name-calling and
insults. Big deal. He wonders whatever happened to “sticks and stones
may break my bones, but names will never hurt me?・The other 10
percent is pushing and shoving that cause no actual hurt. Fighting is
natural. Aggression helps humans survive and achieve. Fighting
between kids teaches them coping skills, the benefits of negotiation,
the limits of force and the natural consequences of hurting one
 Kalman teaches kids to ignore name-calling. “Bullying is only fun
if you get upset. Don’t get upset. It’s impossible to keep picking on
someone if it doesn’t upset them. If you act like a victim, it
invites acceleration.・
 And he teaches adults to ask his “magic questions.・He says, for
example, “If you’re my student and you tell me that `Johnny called me
an idiot,・I ask: `Do you believe it?・Most of the time the kid
quickly answers `no.・Then I say `good,・and the problem is over. You
realize nothing terrible happened, so there’s nothing to get upset
about. If you answer yes, it’s still your problem for believing you’r
e an idiot.
 “But if I reprimand Johnny and call his parents, will that make him
like you? No. He’ll want to get back at both of us. If he gets
suspended, will he like school? No. Plus, you got Johnny punished, so
you now can provoke him and get him in trouble again. Johnny will
look for ways to get back at you, and on it goes endlessly. I’ve
taught both of you that you should get upset by insults, and that how
you feel is someone else’s responsibility. Also, you learn that
neither of you has freedom of speech because you’re going to be
punished if you say something insulting. Freedom of speech is the
cornerstone of our democracy, but kids don’t have freedom of speech.・
 Kalman’s Web site ・ ・is eloquent about the
protection of children’s First Amendment rights.
 So he’s freaked about what he considers to be our culture’s
bloodlust for bullies. “Both the far left and the far right can hate
bullies, because everyone thinks the bully is the other person. But
the bullies are us. How many people do you know who never upset
anyone else?・
 His voice rises, “If I punish Johnny, I teach you [the `victim’]
that a person deserves to be punished even if he didn’t hurt you.
Every little thing that upsets you is a crime. For every little
problem, we have to make the world change ・not ourselves. We want
children to develop self-confidence, but how can they do that if
other people solve their problems for them? So we teach children that
they are entitled to a life where they are never bothered. That’s
impossible. The only way children can go to school without being
bullied is to have a separate school for each kid. The only place
where everyone is always nice is heaven, and you have to die to get
 Kalman admits that many school staff and mental-health
professionals don’t buy it. They complain that bullies have to “be
held accountable・and shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.
Kalman says, “What’s better? That the victim got away with getting
the bully punished? Anti-bullying activists love to say that such-and-
such percent of bullies become criminals. No. We make them become
> He concludes, “I’d been a school psychologist, teaching kids how
not to be bullied, for about 20 years before Columbine. A year later,
on the day of the anniversary, I was at the national convention for
school psychologists. There were 5,000 school psychologists. The
government official who gave a keynote address announced that they
would make bullying a class of harassment. So now we can legally
prosecute kids for being bullies?! Everyone stood up and gave him a
long standing ovation. I thought, my God, what are my colleagues so
happy about? Where is compassion? We’re pleased to take a whole class
of children and treat them like criminals? This is a failure of our
profession. We want the legal system to solve this problem for us.
Now anti-bullying psychology is just law enforcement.・
 Kalman’s conflict-management techniques are simple, logical and
easy to do. His Web site is information-packed. But he’s swimming
upstream. Most people refuse to see the fierce aggression in their
own selves, or in the predatory laws they’re so keen on passing.
 Julia Steiny, a former member of the Providence School Board,
consults for government agencies and schools; she is co-director of
Information Works!, Rhode Island’s school-accountability project. She
can be reached at juliasteiny@… , or c/o EdWatch, The Providence
Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, RI 02902.

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