The Hero Myth: Why Expecting Kids To Fight Bullies Is Harmful

In the movies when someone stands up to the bully, we cheer. We cheer Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” as he pummels the school bully, sending the boy running away crying. We applaud for Daniel in “The Karate Kid” when he beats his chief tormenter in the tournament after another boy breaks his leg. We sneer with satisfaction when Marty McFly comes back to the future to find Biff Tannen, his father’s teenage tormenter, is now working for his dad.

What the movies don’t show, however, is what happens all too often after a child stands up to a bully. Does a bully’s behavior really change? Does the person who’s been bullied suddenly feel empowered? Not necessarily, in either case. And one expert says the belief that the way to stop a bully is for the child to stand up for themselves is an insidious form of victim-blaming.

“It implies that the bullying wouldn’t be happening if not for who they are,” said Dr. Stuart Green, the behavioral sciences director at Overlook Medical Center in Summit, New Jersey.

He is one of the founders of the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention, which has promoted anti-bullying efforts in the state since 2000. The expectation that a child can change the dynamic by standing up to a bully ignores the reality of bullying, he says; bullying, at its core, comes down to one thing: an imbalance of power.

The implication that a child could stop the bully by standing up to them “makes them responsible for the assault,” Green said in a recent interview. “That’s a lie, a very harmful lie.

“The cause of bullying is the behavior of adults,” he said, “the way adults address the situation, or fail to properly address it.”

Throughout the year, Patch has been looking at society’s roles and responsibilities in bullying in our series, “The Menace Of Bullies,” in hopes we might offer solutions that save lives.

How the school handled the bullying was the prime issue for Viktoria Dollar. As a freshman at Manchester Township High School in March 2015, she was attacked in the school cafeteria. School district officials downplayed the incident in an interview with Patch after video of the attack circulated on social media and rumors swirled of ongoing incidents. Her family later revealed in a lawsuit that the attack was one in a string of incidents.

In April 2016, Viktoria spoke out on Facebook about the effects of the attack, which resulted in her leaving Manchester High School and enrolling in Donovan Catholic. In an interview days after the post, Viktoria and her parents, Jill and Robert, faulted school officials for failing to address what was happening. That included district officials telling Jill and Rob they could not guarantee Viktoria’s safety if she returned to the school, they said.

In February 2018, Viktoria received a $50,000 settlement from the Manchester Township School District in a lawsuit she and her family filed. The settlement, a copy of which was obtained from the Ocean County Courthouse, does not address any of the allegations in the lawsuit. District officials repeatedly have declined to comment on the Dollars’ allegations, citing Viktoria’s age and privacy laws.

In an interview this summer, Jill and Viktoria Dollar declined to discuss the settlement itself, but Jill said the reason they brought a lawsuit was to hold the adults accountable.

“I promised my kid four years ago she was going to have justice,” Jill Dollar said.

Moving Forward

“I never thought I would get past it.”

Viktoria is sitting at the kitchen table in her home, in the same seat where she sat two years prior to talk about the post she’d made on Facebook about the attack. It is June, and she now is in the midst of preparations for her freshman year at the University of Alabama, where she is considering pursuing a career in child psychology.

The late afternoon sun streams into the room, lighting up her face, and her eyes sparkle with excitement as she talks about attending Alabama and about the future. She holds eye contact as she talks about the changes that she’s seen in herself and her life in the interceding two years. Her shoulders, slumped during the previous interview, are straight. She’s no longer subconsciously closing off her body protectively or twisting her hair nervously.

Most of all, she’s smiling. Continuously. The differences between May 2016 and June 2018 are stark.

It wasn’t an easy path, but “one day I woke up and realized I didn’t want to feel this way any longer,” Viktoria said. She no longer wanted to feel that peril and betrayal lurked around every corner, waiting to pull the rug out from under her world. She was ready to embrace happiness and peace.

The first step had been her post on Facebook a year after the attack in the cafeteria, where another female student punched her and knocked her to the floor while other students watched and took video. According to the lawsuit, no teacher intervened, during or after the attack. Viktoria walked herself to the school’s main office to get help. The video had made the rounds on social media among Manchester students. But in the spring of 2016, when Viktoria was attending Donovan Catholic, it was shared with a student there and began to spread again.

That was the last straw for her. While her parents spoke to school administrators at Donovan Catholic — Jill Dollar said the dean of students addressed it and put a halt to it immediately — Viktoria spoke out. She wrote about what led to the attack, about the beating and video, and about threats and fears that followed.

“I had people saying they were going to show up at my house,” she wrote. “I walk around carrying things to protect myself … no 15-year-old girl should feel this way.”

“I’m posting this for awareness,” she wrote. “Many children get bullied and nothing is done about it. Whether it’s the school or parents not doing anything. I’m posting this for the other people going thru this to give them hope, because you are not alone.”

The most difficult part of the harassment she endured at Manchester was the feeling that she was alone, because the only ones who stood up for her were her parents, sister and boyfriend. For six months, she was reluctant to leave home. Her posts on social media only led to further harassment.

“I kept asking why was this happening,” Viktoria wrote about the attack. It was a question that lingered for months. Speaking out never gave her the answers she sought, but it did change the dynamic with her classmates at Donovan Catholic, most of whom had no idea what she’d faced

“After I made that post, the whole vibe (at Donovan Catholic) was different,” she said. People who had seemed put off by her quietness and shyness “got really nice.” Viktoria found herself able to find some close friendships. She worked hard on her academics and began to focus on the next phase of life: college.

The lack of action by Manchester administrators was what angered Jill and Rob.

“You trust these schools to take care of your child, but if your child isn’t being protected, people need to be held accountable,” Jill said this summer. “People thought it was just a fight, but it was not.”

The lawsuit details multiple incidents, including one in December 2014 where Viktoria was punched in the face as a teacher watched. The lawsuit alleges Viktoria and her parents reported incidents to the school administration on multiple occasions, starting with harassment that occurred in November 2014. The reports — one of which was shared with a student accused of the harassment — merely fueled the harassment.

“This is why giving advice to a child to fight back is not a strategy that works in the real way,” Green, of the NJ Coalition, said. “There has to be a supportive environment from the adults.”

“This was not about hurt feelings,” Jill said of the lawsuit. “It was about the lack of response to what happened.”

“To this day she still has not received an apology,” Jill said.

Close The Book And Burn It

Viktoria says she fell in love with Alabama when she was little. “I was 8 and we were watching football,” she said. Family members were rooting loudly for Penn State and loudly against the Crimson Tide, so she started rooting for Alabama — just because.

Over time, the thought crossed her mind that she might want to go to college there. She has family in the state, and on a vacation visit toured the school. But it wasn’t until she started to attend Donovan Catholic that going to college there became a goal.

In addition to supporting her through the tough days that cropped up from time to time as Viktoria worked to put the harassment at Manchester in the past, the teachers, guidance depoartment and dean Kim Sandomierski all pitched in to help her achieve her goal. Sandomierski, with pen and ink, wrote a letter of recommendation. Her guidance counselor, Elizabeth Behler, advocated for her with the admissions department. Teachers helped Viktoria catch up academically and bring up a GPA that had been left in tatters after her freshman year.

The day the acceptance letter from Alabama arrived, “we were yelling and screaming” for joy, Jill said. And when Viktoria arrived on campus in August to start the fall semester, she posted a simple message on Facebook: “I’M HOME.”

“Can’t believe I went from this closed off person to being so open [and] loving life,” Viktoria wrote on Facebook on graduation day from Donovan Catholic. “[From] freshman to senior year, I’ve changed sooo much both outside & in.”

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“That’s the day I knew she was going to be OK,’ Jill Dollar said.

There were smiles all around that day, and a sense, too, that they didn’t quite believe it was real. Both later admitted there was a bit of a surreal feeling, but one filled with joy.

“At some point you have to get out of that mindset” of being consumed by the pain caused by the bullying, Viktoria said. Graduation was the last page of that chapter, she said. Her parents told her, “The book is finally closed. You can burn it. You can revisit it. Whatever you want to do.”

For the most part, she’s content to leave it closed.

“I used to think if I had the chance, I’d say something” to the girls she had been friends with in Manchester, before the falling out, before the attack. As more time passed, however, Viktoria said she realized one thing: “They’ll never understand.”

New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Law

The state of New Jersey has a law governing how schools respond to cases of bullying. Commonly referred to as the Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying (HIB) law, the Anti-Bullying Rights Act (P.L.2010, CHAPTER 122) spells out procedures for how schools are supposed to handle formal HIB complaints.

Districts across New Jersey have staff members designated to oversee investigations into HIB complaints. There is information they are supposed to provide to students and families after a complaint is filed, including what action the school has taken. The HIB coordinators often also are expected to coordinate training for district staff on the latest concerns about builying, as well as character education efforts to combat the behavior in the first place.

Though the state’s HIB law is touted as one of the strongest in the country, parents across the state have complained about how districts apply its definitions of whether something rises to the level of bullying.

“How you define bullying is critical,” Green said. “It involves an imbalance of power” that can encompass anything: It can be based on race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Disabilities, or other aspects of a child’s appearance can be targeted. Or it can be as simple as being the new kid in a school or a community.

It also involves multiple actions, repeated instances that result in distress that results in the student needing medical assistance. Often, school officials will look for an impact on grades or health.

Even then, however, they sometimes fail to act. In Springfield, a family refused to send their fourth-grader back to school in September 2017 after the girl, Emma Spektor, was bullied the previous school year. As the family fought to try to force a change, more and more stories came out about bullying of other children. The Spektors ended up filing a lawsuit that later was settled; the family ended up pulling their children out of the district.

In the case of Mallory Grossman of Rockaway Township, incessant bullying is blamed by her family for the 12-year-old taking her own life on June 14, 2017. Her family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the school district, accusing them of failing to take action to address the bullying. School officials have denied the allegations in the lawsuit.

Among the claims in the Grossmans’ lawsuit is an allegation similar to that made by the Dollars: that the parents were told by a school official to take Mallory home “because school was an unsafe place for her,” according to the lawsuit.

“Parents and students have to have that expectation of support” from the adults in the schools, Green said.

That’s a sentiment Jill Dollar echoes.

“I want to stop seeing these stories of suicides,” she said. She has given thought to trying to create a nonprofit organization to try to build awareness of bullying and help train teachers and school staffs to address it. She sees another role of such an organization: helping other parents navigate the system and find ways to get schools to address a situation from the start.

“I have a 6-inch file” of documentation on what happened to Viktoria, Jill Dollar said. It’s full of print-outs of screen shots of social media postings, vile comments and accounts of incidents, along with correspondence. “I can point to the moment the school dropped the ball.

“You have to be accountable,” she said. “The tragedy is everyone knowing these things are going on and waiting for someone to stand up.”

Green said that is where the emphasis needs to be, on the adults being accountable. He said programs that focus on school climate and character education are admirable and worthy.

“We talk about upstanders,” he said, referring to the term coined to refer to bystanders who take action to intercede with bullies. It is a word and mindset promoted by the Tyler Clementi Foundation, which promotes anti-bullying efforts in memory of the Rutgers University student who took his own life after he was bullied by his college roommate for being gay.

Ironically, the Manchester schools had held a character education assembly stressing that very topic less than six weeks before the attack on Viktoria Dollar in 2015.

“Even that strategy (of teaching children to be upstanders) can be unfair to those kids” who aren’t always emotionally equipped to take on that role, Green said. It can turn into shaming them for not doing something, when it’s the bully who is wrong and the adults who should be stepping in.

“The proper emphasis is on the the responsibility of adults to address it,” Green said.

For Viktoria, the bullying has changed her in some important ways. She keeps her social circles small, both in real life and on social media.

“When someone wants to follow me I’m like ‘how do you know me, why do you want to follow me?’ I’m very private,” Viktoria said. She has seen a therapist, and in some ways is still healing. But that chapter is mostly behind her.

“It doesn’t define me,” Viktoria said. “This is why I am the way I am, but it doesn’t define who I am.”

It has, however, translated into a willingness to speak up for others. While she was at Donovan Catholic, she saw one of the school’s international students being mocked by another girl. She contronted the girl and told her to stop.

“I just can’t sit there and allow someone to be mean,” she said.

It’s a message she and her parents hope more adults, especially those in schools, will take to heart.


Do you have a story to tell? Are you concerned about how your local schools handle bullies and their victims?

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