An unbearable yet too-common tragedy resulting from bullying is the suicide of its victims. It is a parent’s worst nightmare. A rash of suicides in the 1970s set Dan Olweus on the path to establishing the field of bullying psychology. Suicides have been a major trigger for anti-bullying campaigns and laws.

Despite the proliferation of anti-bullying programs and laws in the past two decades, bullying continues to be considered an epidemic, with the youth suicide rate skyrocketing during this same period.

The latest high-profile suicide tragedy to hit the national news is that of Nate Bronstein, a 15-year-old student at an exclusive Chicago prep school, the Latin School. As reported in the Chicago Tribune, the parents are suing the school for no less than US$100,000,000–yes, one hundred million dollars–for failing to prevent his death.

While we tend to think of bullying as serious physical attacks or threats against victims, the great majority of bullying, including the impetus for most suicides, is not physical but verbal. Any characteristic can become the subject of bullying: intelligence, appearance, race or religion, sexual orientation, and even clothing.

An unusual casualty of the war against Covid-19

Nate may be the first case of a suicide stemming from Covid-19 insults. Students falsely accused him of being unvaccinated. Vaccination against Covid-19 has been a top priority for the administration and the appointed leaders of our public health organizations, who intentionally blamed the unvaccinated for the epidemic and encouraged the rest of us to do the same, with many celebrities and pundits answering this “call to duty”.

It is no wonder that in such a climate, a child would get extremely upset by being called unvaccinated. This is the trap that leads individuals to become the victims of non-stop bullying: they get upset because they want the insults to stop. They don’t realize that getting upset is actually what keeps the insults coming their way.

Why aren’t anti-bullying efforts working?

Why, after decades of anti-bullying efforts, laws, and research, do kids continue to be bullied in school? It’s because the prevalent approach to bullying, developed by Olweus and universally enshrined in school anti-bullying policies and laws, is predicated on the school protecting children from each other. Students and their parents are instructed to inform the school when bullying occurs. It then becomes the school’s responsibility to investigate, determine who the guilty parties are, and punish or rehabilitate them.

However, research and plain experience show that this approach does little to stop bullying, and often makes it worse. Informing the school can only work if the schools have a reliable approach to handling bullying. Usually, they don’t. Instead, they follow mandated policies of investigating, judging, and punishing, which tends to cause hostilities to escalate, for no party wants to be accused of wrongdoing. The accused typically insist on their innocence and blame the informer.

Indeed, the Tribune reports, “In November and October alone, [mom] contacted Latin more than 30 times.” While the school allegedly didn’t punish anyone, we can be sure that the kids being investigated were furious with Nate for constantly trying to get them in trouble, spurring them to call him “a terrible person” and telling him to kill himself.

The school’s denial of guilt

As virtually all schools do in response to a bullying lawsuit, the Latin School denied the accusations. The Tribune reports:

In a statement, the school called the claims unfounded. It said it “deeply grieves” the death of one of its students, but it plans to “vigorously defend itself… The allegations of wrongdoing by the school officials are inaccurate and misplaced… The school’s faculty and staff are compassionate people who put students’ interests first, as they did in this instance.”

And the school is probably right. It did attempt to solve the problem. It’s just that the idea spread by the anti-bullying establishment that bullying occurs because the schools do nothing to stop it has no basis in reality.

If you are not sure about this, try this at home, if you have children of your own. Treat the aggression between them the way anti-bullying laws require schools to do it. Investigate every complaint they bring you, conduct interrogations, and punish the wrongdoer. The likely result is that your kids will be fighting more often than ever. They will come to hate each other, and at least one of them (the one you find guilty) will end up hating you, too. Strangely, the very interventions that cause intense sibling rivalry at home are somehow expected to reduce hostilities among students in school.

There is a better way

The prevalent approach to bullying requires large investments of time and effort–which costs money–and still can result in the school being sued for astronomical sums of money for failing to stop the bullying.

All the money in the world will not put an end to bullying. What’s needed is good psychology. The policies required are not those of protecting and policing children, but teaching them how to handle insults and accusations on their own, so that attacks are nipped in the bud and don’t evolve into ongoing bullying relationships. This knowledge can be obtained essentially for free. Any counsellor or staff member can do the following with a student complaining of being bullied for being unvaccinated or any other false accusation. It involves role-playing, conducted in two stages.

Stage One

(It may go as follows):

Counsellor: Accuse me of being unvaccinated, and don’t let me stop you.

Student: You’re unvaccinated!

Counsellor: No, I’m not!

Student: Yes, you are! You are going to get us all sick and make us die!

Counsellor: That’s not true!

Student: Yes, it is!

Counsellor: No, it’s not! Why are you saying that?

Student: Because your parents are anti-vaxxers!

Counsellor: No, they’re not!

Student: Yes, they are!

Counsellor: No, they’re not!

Student: Yes, they are!

After futilely going back and forth for a while…

Counsellor: I give up. I’m not making you stop, am I?

Student: No.

Counsellor: Who’s winning?

Student: I am.

Counsellor: And aren’t you having fun seeing me get upset?

Student: Yes.

Stage Two

Counsellor: Let’s do it again. Accuse me of being unvaccinated, and don’t let me stop you.

Student: You’re unvaccinated!

Counsellor: Is that what you believe?

Student: Yes!

Counsellor: If you want to believe it, I can’t stop you.

Student: No, you can’t.

Counsellor: That’s right. You can believe anything you want.

At this point, the student probably has nothing more to say. Counsellor continues…

Counsellor: Who’s winning this time?

Student: You are.

Counsellor: You see, the kids aren’t calling you “unvaccinated” because they believe that’s what you are. They do it because when you get upset and defend yourself, you automatically lose, they have a good time, and they continue doing it to you. So, instead of defending yourself, turn the tables on them. Make them defend themselves by asking, “Do you believe it?” If they say, “Yes,” you say, “You can believe it if you wish,” and you win. And if they say, “No,” you win even bigger.

One simple question. No bullying. No suicide. No lawsuit. 

Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that the Latin School of Chicago is not a Catholic school.

Izzy Kalman is the author and creator of the website and a critic of the anti-bully movement.