As someone who has worked for years in the bullying prevention field, I am deeply troubled by the May 16 Maine Voices column, “Making Bullying a Crime Raises Problems.” I am appalled by the idea that the proposed cure for bullying is verbally abusing young children and teaching them to respond with verbal abuse of their own.

Young children don’t have the cognitive abilities to grasp being verbally abused by their teacher or classmates as being “for their own good.” One understanding that a young child would take away from those encounters is “when someone hurts my feelings I should hurt their feelings.” This is not a good template for developing friendships or having healthy relationships in the future and would actually set the stage for dating and domestic violence. It would also prime the brain for escalating conflict in other situations. The idea that a targeted student will stop the bullying by hurling verbal abuse at an aggressor is misguided at best.

The latest research on peer aggression out of Penn State, a study called the Youth Voice Project (www.youthvoiceproject.com/), asked a large sample of targeted students what actions they take on their own behalf and whether those actions make things better, worse, or bring about no change. The two most successful self-strategies by targeted youth were “told an adult at school” and “told an adult at home.”

These strategies made things better almost twice as often as they made things worse. The three least successful strategies were “hit them or fought them”, “made plans to get back at them” and “told the person to stop.” These strategies made things worse almost twice as often as they made things better.

The most successful actions that helped the targeted students came from peers. There were nine actions that bystander peers could take that made things better for the targeted students more often than they made things worse. The evidence here for building connection and community as a cure for peer abuse is compelling. There is a mountain of research that supports this approach. Having children practice verbal abuse of each other will prevent students from forming healthy peer connections and seeing school as a safe place. Don’t do it!