It was a Hollywood classic and, to this day, one particular scene from the ‘80s hit movie Back to the Future still makes me chuckle. It’s the chase scene where the film’s antagonistic bully, Biff Tannen, is driving a car with his buddies and chasing Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) on his skateboard. McFly makes a deft escape move at the last instant and Tannen winds up smashing the car into a parked trailer loaded with manure which then tips the unsavory contents all over Tannen and his shell-shocked passengers.
The reason that scene is so memorable and still makes us laugh is because nobody likes a bully. It’s fun to see him or her get a taste of their own medicine. This was Hollywood fiction. Bullying, however, is a very real and serious problem.
Although definitions of bullying vary, the National Bullying Prevention defines bullying this way:
- The behavior hurts or harms another person physically or emotionally. Bullying can be very overt, such as fighting, hitting or name calling, or it can be covert, such as gossiping or leaving someone out on purpose.
- It is intentional, meaning the act is done willfully, knowingly and with deliberation.
- The targets have difficulty stopping the behavior directed at them and struggle to defend themselves.
Bullying includes many behaviors including teasing, talking about hurting someone, or spreading rumors. But bullying doesn’t always happen in person. Cyberbullying happens online or through text messages and emails. It also includes crude posts on sites like Facebok, sharing embarrassing photos or videos and making fake profiles or websites.
All of these activities are reprehensible, leaving the victim feeling powerless, different, unpopular and alone.
The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have stated that bullying may also be considered harassment when it is based on a student’s race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion. Harassing behaviors may include:
- Unwelcome conduct such as: Verbal abuse, such as name-calling, epithets, slurs
- Graphic or written statements
- Physical assault
- Other conduct that may be physically threatening, harmful, or humiliating
We’re seeing more and more bullying activity in the news involving middle school and high school kids, too. For instance, there was the recent case in Michigan involving a teenage girl named Whitney Kropp. Her peers thought it would be fun to nominate her for the homecoming court as a prank.
Kids can be so cruel and have total disregard for how their actions can impact other people. In Ms. Kropp’s case, she became suicidal and said she felt “like trash.” Fortunately, she had the strength to turn the tables on her tormentors, saying, “I can just prove all these kids wrong. I’m not the joke everyone thinks I am.” She stayed on the homecoming court and a Facebook page created for her generated more than 96,000 “likes.” Whitney Kropp became a national feel-good story.
Being the father of a young child, my reaction to Ms. Kropp’s story was to think about how it must feel for a parent to see their child subjected to that kind of cruelty. Fortunately, her story has a silver lining and I was very impressed that things worked out for her and that she took the positive road, turning something upsetting into what now appears to be a very bright spot in her life.
Yet, her story also shows how harmful kids’ actions can be, especially when they use social media to intimidate and spew venom. Their message doesn’t just go to 10 people. It can go to 10,000 people and lives can be negatively influenced in an instant.
As parents, we need to impress upon our kids that bullying is a serious issue. If your child is caught in this kind of behavior, they can certainly be sanctioned in school with a suspension or an expulsion. If the behavior is so malicious or disturbing that law enforcement gets involved, at a minimum we’re talking about disorderly conduct or far worse, depending on the offense. A court could find the perpetrator criminally liable, for example, if the bullying is found to have contributed to causing bodily harm.
We also need to hold our kids accountable for their actions. I remember the time as a youngster that I wasn’t very nice to another kid on a school bus. The next thing I knew, I found myself on the phone apologizing to him and his parents. I can assure you, I never did that type of thing again.
Be proactive. Nobody wants to have their child bullied and nobody wants a bully for a child. If your child is being bullied in school, get involved. Stay calm and contact the school’s administration. Work with your child and thank him or her for telling you about the situation. Find out the specifics. Who is doing the bullying? Was it verbal, physical or cyberbullying? When and where did it take place? Keep records of this information, too.
Meet with your child’s teacher and principal to discuss what is happening to your child using information your child gave you. Ask what can be done so your child feels safe at school.
If the bullying behavior is very serious and threatening to your child, don’t be afraid to get law enforcement involved as well.
About Attorney Mark Powers
Attorney Mark Powers is a partner at the criminal defense law firm of Huppertz & Powers, S.C. in Waukesha. Previously, Powers served as an Assistant District Attorney with the Waukesha County District Attorney's office as well as a municipal judge in North Prairie. He currently focuses in the area of criminal defense, and has handled many cases involving operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, domestic disputes, and drug offenses.
Powers attended Valparaiso University School of Law, where he received his Juris Doctorate. Prior to law school, Mark attended the University of Wisconsin, Lacrosse where he received his bachelor of science in Political Science.