Bullying was the topic of conversation at the breakfast tables at the Feb. 21 meeting of PeaceAble Cities Evanston Alliance to End Violence. Loyce Spells, chair of the Peaceable Cities board, invited the group – community leaders and representatives of Evanston Township High School, the City of Evanston, Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin’s office and local social service organizations – to share stories of when they had been bullied, acted the bully or witnessed an act of bullying.

Bullying is often the gateway to violence, said Mr. Spells, and often the one who is the bully has been or perhaps still is a victim of that same conduct.

Evanston resident Carrie Goldman, author of “BULLIED: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear,” presented a workshop on bullying – the forms its takes and the toll it takes on bullies and their targets.

Bullying has three components, said Ms. Goldman: It is repetitive, it is unwanted and it involves an imbalance of power.

The imbalance of power can take such forms as having more people on one’s side, more social capital (more “friends” or links in social media) or a higher position in the workplace. She distinguished between taunting – done with malicious intent – and teasing, when both parties are laughing.

One of a bully’s first reactions when confronted is to blame the victim: “You’re just being too sensitive,” for example. Ms. Goldman said a bully can be given one free pass, but the second time, the target can say, “No, you know I don’t like this [and you’re doing it anyway].”

Ms. Goldman said parents should not take bullying as a rite of passage, something all children have to endure.  But they should also be able to distinguish between social conflicts – where it is best to let children work out their own solution – and situations of bullying, where the help of an adult is needed. A social conflict is generally about something external: Two girls like the same boy, for example. But bullying involves an attack on someone’s “internal identity”: “You’re fat” or “You’re stupid.”

Teachers can help children distinguish between being a “tattletale” and a “reporter,” Ms. Goldman said. A tattletale generally wants to get someone in trouble, but a reporter is trying to get someone out of a troublesome situation. The question “Who do you want to help?” often helps a child clarify a situation he or she is explaining to an adult.

Cyber bullying can be sneaky and complex. A bully can post something cruel on social media or even hack into someone’s [the target’s] account and post things that apparently come from the target and make the target look foolish, Ms. Goldman said. In such cases, it is important for the target, or his or her parents, to get a screenshot of the social media post and print it out as evidence, she said.

There are two and sometimes three victims of bullying – the target, witnesses who do nothing and the bully him or herself. Ms. Goldman offered strategies for adults to help the target of a bully – from parental intervention to calling the police. The “social pain” from having been a target of bullying can be long-lasting; victims experience anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress symptoms and difficulty concentrating.

She also said witnesses who are afraid to speak up can later contact the target with offers of support or gather friends to stand with the target.

But simply castigating a bully does not solve the societal problem, said Ms. Goldman.  “Being classified as a bully is predictive of future substance abuse, depression and anxiety,” she said. Thus any bullying intervention program must include help for the bully. … [L]abeling the bully and excluding him or her will do the bully no favors,” she said.

One participant asked about bullying in the workplace. Ms. Goldman said workplace bullying is difficult to address successfully, because of the imbalance of power. Human Resources personnel are “historically bad at responding to workplace bullying. Eighty percent of the time the bullying ends when the target changes positions.” Further, she said, what is perceived by the target – and perhaps others – as bullying is often rewarded in the workplace.

Evonda Thomas-Smith, director of the City’s Health Department, said, “Here we are, trying to teach children behavior that is not going to be supported when they are older.”

Ms. Goldman said, “You may have to acknowledge to children, ‘We are asking you to do things that adults have not been able to do.’”

PeaceAble Cities plans to continue their anti-violence activities with quarterly meetings, ad-hoc work groups and task forces. An immediate project is the creation of a resource book, both in print and online, and with a smart phone application. Modeled after one used in Sacramento, Cal., the resource book would list problems by category and resources available in that category. The table of contents in the Sacramento directory lists the following topics under “housing”: low-income apartments for rent, affordable housing programs, transitional housing, emergency shelters, rental assistance, furniture resources and utility assistance. The database and the website of the resource guide are updated weekly, and there is a mobile app. 

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...