When police are summoned to intervene in a bullying situation, several steps must be taken. "One, they have to keep the target safe. Two, they need to keep any witnesses safe. Three, they need to deal effectively with the bully," Coloroso says. "And in that order -- even if it means some delayed justice."
If the mistreatment is physical, obviously justice must occur immediately. However, if it's relational, the best approach is to catch the bully in the act. Gather the evidence first, then take action, says Coloroso. "Why do it that way?" she asks. "Because if you would run immediately to the bully, the victim is at greater risk for harm when you are not around. Bullying happens under the radar."
Asking the right questions on scene helps officers get to the heart of a complicated situation.
With the victim, an officer might ask, "Do you have any friends? How do you spend time after school?" These questions help officers ascertain whether or not the victim is a constant target.
Coloroso warns officers not to minimize, rationalize or try to explain the bullying away. To comfort the bullied child and help him or her feel protected, "You need to say to the target, 'I hear you and I'm here for you. I believe you and you are not alone,'" she says.
She also recommends officers stress the harassment was not their fault. "A kid may be weird, dorky or odd, but that doesn't justify bullying," she says. "These kids need to hear that."
On the flip side, officers need to look bullies in the eye and say, "It seems to me you are a good kid, what's going on? What is making you so angry? Talk to me," says Blanco, who stresses bullies must be approached with both curiosity and compassion. "I've seen so many police officers interview bullies and their victims in an attempt to investigate something and my biggest disappointment is their questions are rote and standard," Blanco says. She adds that officers must remember they are dealing with kids. "The more curious you are about what really happened, the more truth you're going to get," Blanco says.
Blanco cautions law enforcement to also be aware of what she calls the "elite tormenters," the mean members of the cool crowd, who often have as big a hold over the adults in the school as they do over other students. "The elite leaders" in the school, meanwhile, are the caring members of the cool crowd. These students can be law enforcement and school administration's greatest ally in shifting the social dynamic at school. This is what occurred in the Phoebe Prince case, where a group of popular kids targeted Phoebe for months. A group of popular and kind teen leaders tried to help, but without adult intervention and support were unable to do so.
Consequences and teaching moments
When bullying rises to a criminal level, Coloroso reminds police they cannot be timid about stepping in. "You can't worry about stepping on toes or interfering with the school, you need to take action," she says. "This requires law enforcement to get up to date on the tools they can use and the legal ramifications that exist. There are laws against this behavior."
Define the steps you'll take well in advance of a criminal situation, Coloroso advises. Work with the district to determine what punishments occur at various levels along the bullying triad and make sure these punishments are consistently meted out. Bullying generally doesn't begin at a physical level, stresses Coloroso, who notes it is typically third in the bullying triad. "There is verbal bullying first, then relational (the shunning, gossiping and exclusion), and finally physical," she says. "If you have a child who is physically bullied, I guarantee they were verbally or relationally bullied first."
"No one can say for certain that had someone stopped Phoebe Prince's tormenters in September, she would not have committed suicide," Coloroso says. "But we can say for certain, that had we done so, the last four months of her life would not have been a living hell, and the kids who did it would not be facing criminal charges."
Proactively dealing with bullying sends a powerful message. Coloroso explains: "It says this behavior is not going to be tolerated. It stops bullying in its tracks before it leads to tragedy."