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There was always something sacred about the smell of a school lunchroom. The aroma of burnt macaroni and cheese, a dash of Lysol, and just a whiff of Aqua Net. In my freshman year of high school, I was a bagger, one of those kids who couldn’t afford the lavish buffet of franks and beans and more beans. So, I brought my own – often, a triple-decker peanut butter and jelly sandwich on Bond bread. And a Tastykake apple pie, back when they filled them with apples, not air.

That first day of high school, I sat with my elementary school friends, looking for the girls with the fluffiest page boys. We thought we were pretty cool. And then Sonny Spinato showed up. He wasted no time. He grabbed my friend Barry’s Coconut Junior and smashed it against the wall. When Barry complained, he pulled him out of his chair and threw him to the floor. The three toughs standing around him all laughed. “That should teach you wimps to give me what I want,” Sonny said.

The bullying would continue for the rest of the year. Barry, Ivan, Johnny and Joe spent more time in the nurse’s office than in the lunchroom. A cut lip here, a black eye there. In the course of it, they gave up their Tastykakes, their allowances, their dignity and their peace of mind.

But, over that voice-changing summer between eighth and ninth grade, a strange thing happened. Barry grew. Shot up like a turnip. Was almost as big as his dad. And certainly bigger than Sonny Spinato. That first day back, like clockwork, Sonny pushed him. But Barry stood up, wiped himself off and pushed back. Spinato hit his head on the cafeteria wall. It started to bleed. “I’m going to kill you,” he yelled, as he headed to the nurse. But he never did. And that was the end of it. Bullying was so much simpler then.

Now, there’s flaming, exclusion, harassment, outing, impersonation, cyberstalking and denigration. And those are just the things done online.

For a number of years now, people have felt that most bullies are cowards, that they do it to make themselves feel strong. And cyber bullies are considered even more cowardly because they hide behind a computer. It’s been thought that bullies are just a small number of kids making it tough on everyone.

Well, this just in: A recent study shows, over the course of a year, on a typical school playground, 77 percent of kids have engaged in bullying either by doing it themselves, or watching and allowing it.

Why do kids do it? The bullies, the study says, believe they will get social mileage out of it. How? Some 85 percent of bullying incidents involve bystanders. Bullying, sadly, can help make you be a very popular child.

So, how do we stop the epidemic? In Jersey, that burden has been put squarely on the shoulders of school teachers and administrators. As if they didn’t have enough to do. With budgets slashed, teachers cut, class sizes bigger, we’re now asking our teachers to be cops.

Jersey teachers recently got the new rules for reporting a bullying incident. Every time one kid calls another kid a fathead, it has to be reported. By the teacher to the supervisor to the principal. Every time. How much time do you think will be left for teaching?

One of the roots of the problem is this: We now have a whole generation of parents who expect other people to raise their kids.

Listen to what some parents said on a Facebook page devoted to bullying:

Kate: “GET BOXING GLOVES!! Send the bully and the victim to the gym and LET THEM DUKE IT OUT!!! No lawsuits or any of that crap!!!

James: “The strong survive and the weak fall by the wayside!!! If they’re weak they need to fall!!! They bring the rest of the survivors down. A dog has a litter and she kills the weak, let them survive on their own or fail!!”

Survive on their own?  Yeah, let’s start teaching 6-year-olds cage fighting. Somebody hand me a Tastykake.

November 2011
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