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Bullying: ‘Alive and Well’ at Penn State and Other College Campuses

by on October 14, 2010 6:27 AM

The recent suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi has reignited discussion about bullying. Clementi’s roommate and another Rutgers student used hidden cameras not only to humiliate Tyler, but also to share that humiliation with the rest of the World Wide Web. This young man’s torment and his family’s indescribable loss may serve to bring about changes in how our culture looks at bullying.

In addition to the focus on cyberbullying, Clementi’s suicide demonstrates that bullying is not just a function of middle school or high school. Bullying is alive and well on college campuses.

As a university faculty member and a parent, I have seen it myself. Students using Facebook to denigrate their peers. Use of websites, such as the now-defunct, to identify who are the “sluts” of each sorority or which fraternity brothers might be gay. A personal e-mail or text message that’s forwarded to a student’s social group to embarrass and humiliate.

These are not 12-year-olds on a playground, picking on the nerdy kid during a kickball game. These are educated, young adults at a major university who are acting out their own insecurities through the Internet.

Bullying as a potentially lethal phenomenon came into the national limelight in the '90s after school shootings at high schools like Columbine and Paducah, Ky., revealed that the perpetrators had been bullied prior to the incidents. Bullying has been extensively researched since we began to understand that kids who experience repeated mocking and physical aggression from others may demonstrate extreme behaviors, but will always be harmed by these acts. It has largely been assumed that bullying decreases as kids develop and mature. We assumed they “grow out of it.”  

Bullying at college has historically been defined by “hazing”—specific behaviors that have to do with seeking membership in groups such as Greek organizations, sports teams and secret societies and in military-related programs (such as ROTC).

Then came the Internet.

In 2004, a major study on college bullying asked college students about bullying. A questionnaire designed by Dan Olweus, a Norwegian expert on bullying, asked students if they had witnessed, participated in or had been a victim of bullying at college. Olweus defines bullying behaviors as having three characteristics: aggressive or intentional harm, occurring repeatedly and over time, and in a relationship where there is an imbalance of power. The results suggested that a significant number of students had witnessed bullying behaviors, including some bullying by teachers. Sixty percent of the students surveyed witnessed bullying by peers and five percent reported being victimized by fellow students on a regular basis. This research challenges the notion that bullying decreases as kids get older. In fact, bullying at college is a growing concern.

What makes young adults bully? What motivates a college-aged woman to sit at her computer and blast another girl on Facebook? What motivates a male student to go on the Internet and rate a girl he may or may not even know as a “whore”? What motivates a student to videotape his roommate in a compromising position and then broadcast that videotape to the rest of the world? 

The experts at identify causes of bullying. Boredom and ignorance can be a factor. A student with some downtime posts something online that he or she thinks is funny without thinking of the consequences. A university community the size of Penn State can imply anonymity; anonymity can bring out the worst in us. 

Other students bully in defense of a peer or friend who he or she believes has been wronged or even bullied by someone else. The communal living and “group dynamics” of roommates, dorm floors, apartments and other college housing can feed the groupthink effect. I was just doing it to defend my friend.

Most of the time, however, bullying takes place because the bully feels powerless and insecure. Sadly, the “power bully” usually needs an audience to feel more important. The Internet meets that need perfectly. It’s not always the “fat kid” or “the gay kid” or the “nerd” who is the victim of bullying. Sometimes it’s the popular kid. With adolescents, particularly females, there is often the urge to try to bring down the peer who is seen as confident, as a way of feeling powerful. 

The developmental issues of early adulthood and the immediate access and gratification of the Internet can be a bad combination. The victims of college bullying experience the same harmful effects as an elementary student bullied on the school bus. Fear that no one will listen to the complaint. Fear that telling will aggravate the aggression. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Fear of loss of friendship or status—particularly if that person is a fraternity brother or roommate. Add on the additional pressures of managing the transition from high school to college, embarrassment and the pressure to handle the situation as an independent "adult," and it becomes overwhelming.

At Penn State, the Code of Conduct clearly identifies bullying behaviors as cause for disciplinary action, including expulsion. Our job as faculty and as parents is to enforce the code. I have not reported the students I have seen engaging in bullying behaviors in the past either because I wasn’t thinking “bullying can happen at college” or because the student being bullied asked me not to. It’s difficult to regulate because of fears of stepping on free-speech rights. Sometimes the bullying behavior is insidious, such as a post with hidden meaning on Facebook. We need to do a better job. Everyone deserves the right to earn an education in a safe and healthy environment.

My sympathies and prayers go out to the family and friends of Tyler Clementi. May this tragedy be a wake-up call for all of us.

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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