Bully Today, Criminal Tomorrow

(Editor’s Note: The following piece was written by Dr. Laura Finley, who sits on the Humanity Project Board of Directors. She is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Barry University. Dr. Finley wrote this article for the Humanity Project.)

Jeffrey Dahmer. Ted Bundy. John Wayne Gacy. What do these three notorious men have in common? Obviously, all three were horrific serial killers. Also important, however, is that all three were bullied in school.

No doubt there are numerous compelling reasons why families, communities and schools should be committed to ending bullying. Among these is the fact that bullying in youth is a risk factor for later delinquency and criminal activity. It is not just the bullies who are at greater risk, though. Victims of bullying are also more likely to be involved in some type of criminal activity later in life.

The Humanity Project’s Anti-bullying Through The Arts program offers an effective tool to combat school bullying

Numerous studies conducted across the globe have demonstrated the connection between bullying and crime. One Swedish study found that 55% of school bullies were later convicted of one or more crimes, and 36% had been convicted of at least three crimes. A U.S study found that approximately 60% of boys who were considered bullies as 6th through 9th graders were convicted of at least one crime by the age of 24. Some 40% of the boys had three or more criminal convictions. In particular, male bullies who have mental health or psychiatric problems have been found to be far more likely to commit violent crimes as adults.

Victims, too, are at greater risk for later criminal activity. Studies have shown victims may act out later in life as a way to feel powerful. Many victims become the aggressor in later altercations in an attempt to preempt presumed aggression by the other party. After the Columbine massacre in 1999, the U.S. Secret Service reviewed 37 school shootings and found bullying had been a factor in two-thirds of them. Both bullies and victims are more likely than other students to carry weapons to school, increasing the likelihood of criminal activity on school grounds.

Both bullies and victims are more likely to get involved in intimate relationships that are abusive. Both are also more likely to use illegal substances. And both are at far greater risk to commit suicide than the general population.

So, what can we do? We cannot ignore bullying, chalking it up to “kids being kids” or telling victims that enduring this kind of abuse only “makes them stronger.” Adults must be responsible for teaching young people how to interact with others in peaceful, nonviolent ways. We can do this, first and foremost, by modeling such behavior ourselves. We can engage young people in critical conversations about bullying. We can involve them in activities that help transform their schools and communities to places of peace, not violence. It is to everyone’s advantage to ensure that no child becomes a bully or a victim.