Original post published by Sync written by Allison Carter 

Taking a look at a big problem facing our schools and society

Missy Jenkins Smith was only 15 years old when a victim of bullying changed her life.

She says she remembers going to prayer circle that chilly Monday morning after Thanksgiving break. Her twin sister went, too. They went every day.

She says she remembers hearing the first shots. They sounded like firecrackers, not like how shots sound on TV.

She says she remembers the girl next to her falling to the ground. She heard three more slow pops before seeing the spray of bullets coming at her.

To the sophomore, it didn’t seem real.

“I guess I was in shock,” Smith says. “I kept thinking that this whole thing was a joke. I kept thinking she was going to get back up, and she was going to be fine.”

Michael Carneal was 14 years old when he sneaked a shotgun, rifle and .22-caliber pistol into Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky.

Shortly before 8 a.m. Dec. 1, 1997, the freshman fired eight rounds at the prayer circle. Five students were injured. Three were killed.

“When I was hit, I didn’t even feel the bullet hit me — I just went numb,” Smith says. “The first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t feel my stomach. I didn’t even notice that I couldn’t feel my legs. I don’t know why.”

Carneal had shot Smith in her left shoulder. The bullet traveled through her body, hitting her lung and spinal cord, paralyzing her from the chest down.

Doctors found the bullet stuck in her shirt.

As Smith recovered from her wounds, a disturbing picture of the teen shooter emerged.

According to reports, when asked by police why he shot his classmates, Carneal replied it was in part because he was tired of being bullied.

“He was funny,” Smith says of Carneal. “He was what you might call a class clown. But I saw him get bullied. What I think happened is he was tired of being made fun of.”

Smith says Carneal was teased daily. She saw him get spit on. He was called names like “Stupid” and “Crack Baby,” and his sexual orientation was questioned and ridiculed.

As a former counselor, Smith says, she can now see the impact the persistent bullying had on the teen.

“He held it all in and never asked for help when he was hurting from the bullying,” she says. “He essentially exploded. It drove him to the point that if he brought a gun to school, people would fear him and respect him, then leave him alone.”

October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and parents, teachers and students are pushing harder than ever to bring awareness to the sometimes detrimental effects bullying can have on young people.

According to the PACER Center, which began the initiative in 2006, bullying can affect school attendance, self-esteem and anxiety levels, and can cause depression and also lead to retaliatory bullying and self-harm.

The initiative promotes events throughout the month and encourages young people to take an active role in bullying prevention.

“Most people can say they have had experience with bullying — that they have been bullied,” Smith says. “And it affects them, even as adults. Kids don’t understand the power of their words.”


Paul Nail says bullying is a social event, and as a social psychologist, he finds it fascinating.

“Bullying is when there is aggression from one or more children to another,” explains Nail, professor of psychology at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. “The aggression is intended to hurt the person and can be physical or emotional. There’s a power differential between the bully and the victim. And it is repeated over time.”

Nail and co-workers associate professor Joan Simon and professor Elson Bihm are completing more than two years of research on the attributes of middle-school bullies, victims and defenders of victims.

Nail and Simon recently co-edited a book on the subject, Bullying: A Social Influence Perspective.

In January 2014, the National Institutes of Health awarded a grant to Nail, Simon and Bihm to study social relations in middle-school children. The research was conducted in conjunction with the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

“We picked middle school because bullying tends to come out in transitional periods,” Nail says. “We studied a middle school where sixth-graders had been in three separate elementary schools before joining in the middle school and establishing status. Bullying and aggression have a lot to do with

establishing status, establishing a pecking order so to speak, so this middle school was ideal for our research.”

The researchers were studying the relationship between bullying and defensive egotism, a personality trait that predisposes one to take offense easily and to overreact to perceived threats, he says.

After two pilot studies, Nail, Simon and Bihm asked 355 sixth-grade students to identify the degree to which each of their classmates “always wants to be the center of attention, thinks too much of himself or herself and can’t take criticism,” prior to telling them why they were asking, Nail says.

The researchers also measured teacher-reported self-esteem and aggression, and self-reported self-esteem and empathy in conjunction with peer-reported self-esteem and social status.

The students were then asked to identify the degree to which each classmate “bullies others, starts bullying, always finds new ways of harassing the victim, urges others to harass the victim and/or makes suggestions about bullying someone,” Nail says.

The researchers found that there was a high correlation between defensive egotism and bullying, which Nail says was not surprising.

“Our research is based upon a theory that bullying is a form of compensation to make up for one’s own perceived weaknesses and inadequacies,” he says. “What we found was a positive .65 correlation between bullying and defensive egotism, which is high and what we expected.”

The .65 correlation was determined using the Pearson product-moment correlation, which measures the relationship between two variables, Nail explains. A correlation of a positive 1 means that there is a perfect relationship between two variables.

The result, he says, is about a 48 percent overlap of the ratings of bullying and defensive egotism.

“In research, anytime we find a single variable accounting for 48 percent of the differences in another variable, we know we’re most likely onto something,” he says. “So we see bullying as a psychological, behavioral defense against this defensive tendency in personality.”

Students were placed into four groups: controls, pure victims, pure bullies and bully-victims, bullies that had been victims themselves. Bullies, much to Nail’s surprise, ranked highest in status among their peers. Bully-victims ranked lowest.

The research also found that boys were more likely to engage in physical aggression than girls, and both sexes equally participated in social aggression, including exclusion, rumors and gossip.

“The picture of bullying that emerges in the middle school we studied is not a pretty one,” Nail says. “Pure bullies, who are high in both self-esteem and social status but low in empathy, rule the roost, apparently dominating and intimidating weaker classmates. Bullies’ self-esteem and social status may be maintained, at least in part, by their bullying.

Nail says the results were not entirely negative.

“Not all high-self-esteem and high-status children bully, and it is these children who are most likely to defend the victims of bullying,” he says.

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