Monday, April 7, 2008

The Internet and School Bullying: Billy Wolfe Again

The Billy Wolfe school bullying story keeps unfolding in our local media. Yesterday’s statewide daily the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette carried an article by Evie Blad entitled “Networking Web Sites Enable New Generations of Bullies” (see NW Arkansas Democrat-Gazette copy entitled “School Bullies Move Online; Rules Tricky to Write, Enforce” (

The article notes something I stressed in my 1 April posting about this story, “School Bullying: We Have Met the Bully; He Is Us.” This is the use of the internet as a new extension of school bullying, one that both mobilizes those targeting an individual, and allows the bullying to move beyond the boundaries of the school.

The Evie Blad article also illustrates several other new uses of the internet in school bullying incidents such as the Billy Wolfe story: this is the development of online groups to publicize the story of someone bullied and to muster support for the victim of bullying, as well as the gathering of online support groups that purport to tell the “whole story” when a classmate is bullied. As Blad notes, two such groups have formed in the wake of the New York Times article that first broke the Billy Wolfe story.

One of these, “The Whole Story,” is at This group was formed the day after the New York Times article. Its homepage indicates that it was formed with 96 members immediately joining, which suggests to me that this is a well-organized effort. The group info section of the homepage contains a statement by group organizer William Michael Sharp which provides the following rationale for the formation of this facebook group: “We wish to share the whole story about the Billy Wolfe ordeal and to do so we would like those who have had alteracations [sic] with Billy to come forth and share their side of the story, which with their permission will be used for a documentary filmed by John [Erwin], Skyler [Gambert] and myself.”

Clicking on the friends’ list of group organizer William Michael Sharp, I note that Benny Burk, one of the young men suspended for having assaulted Billy Wolfe, is a friend of Sharp. Gambert’s friends’ list includes both Benny Burk and another young man supsended for assault, Ian Teeters. The "Whole Story" homepage notes that anyone seeking to contact Mr. Sharp may do so at his office at the Mancave in Fayetteville.

The second group, another facebook group called “Not Cool, Billy Wolfe Haters,” was spearheaded by Crystal Yeakley, and is at Yeakley’s statement of intent provides the following reason for her group: “This is a group, just for everyone who likes Billy and doesn't think it's fair just because he's different he gets picked on. ): I'm one of the only girls in the group of guys who hangs and chills with Billy and all you Billy haters are just plain wrong. I've decided to create this group out of anger and a mess of other emotions.”

Both Sharp and Yeakley are students at Fayetteville High East, which is also Billy Wolfe’s campus. Yeakley’s group lists Billy Wolfe as one of the three “officers” of the group.

The “Not Cool, Billy Wolfe Haters” has no discussion threads at present. It has two links to videos, one of the bus stop attack on Billy Wolfe, the other of a CNN video regarding his story. The “Whole Story” site has several discussion threads, most of which purport to try to get at the “real” story about Billy Wolfe’s experience of bullying.

At this point, as an outsider, though one with a strong professed commitment to combat school bullying—and, in particular, bullying of youth tagged as gender-inappropriate—I would be precipitous if I came to any solid conclusions on the basis of the “evidence” offered in these two websites. What the public has to go with in deciding how to assess the Billy Wolfe bullying story is 1) the fact (never denied, to my knowledge) that some of his tormentors set up a website encouraging his bullying and identifying him as a “little bitch” and “a homosexual that no one likes”; pictures of a boy with bruises and black eyes; a video of this boy being assaulted by fellow students.

Given that evidence, it is disconcerting—disturbing, in fact—to read some of the tired old justifications for bullying on the “Whole Story” website. The “testimony” of many students that Billy Wolfe has threatened them with knives, has killed a cat, has applauded the death of a mother, has whispered dire threats to all and sundry, strains credulity. A youth who has engaged in all the vile deeds recounted on this website would have long ago been in juvenile custody, and/or expelled from school, I feel certain.

Please understand me: I am not denying the possibility that Billy Wolfe, or any boy in his situation, may well lash out. I am not suggesting that Billy Wolfe may not have fought back against his tormentors, or that he may be full of anger, or that he may speak out of the rage someone would justifiably feel when he has been tormented for years. There is clear, undeniable evidence that the bullying of Billy Wolfe has been going on for some years now. There is also evidence to suggest that school officials have not done nearly enough to counter this bullying, or to stop it.

In addition to the blame-the-victim tactic of many contributing to the “Whole Story” threads—a reprehensible tactic, since it trades in rumors that will inflame an already tense situation—there is a very clear concern to engage in impression management on this thread. A comment by one of the three website managers, Skyler Gambert, on the day the site was set up, suggests this intent. On 25 March, Mr. Gambert begins a thread entitled “Bias” with the following plea to group members: “Please write The NY times and let them know how biased the story published was. Its ridiculous the way that they portrayed Fayetteville, its schools, and the students and faculty. This whole thing will have a serious impact on the way the school is run, so let your voice be heard.”

A Fayetteville high graduate who is now at the University of Arkansas, Jonathan Cox, states on the same thread and same day that students who have joined the website are engaged in “damage control”—something he does not decry, but applauds. Cox is interviewed by Evie Blad, who quotes him to say, “What struck me is that I never really felt that air of bullying in Fayetteville.”

What strikes me as I read that comment—and the threads seeking to give the “whole story” re: Billy Wolfe’s bullying—is that not a single comment I find on the threads adverts to the history of bullying of youth tagged as gay in the Fayetteville school system. There is not (not that I have located) a single reference in any of these threads to the story of Willi Wagner, which I have recounted in previous postings about the Billy Wolfe story.

Given what happened to Willi Wagner in Fayetteville only a decade ago, how can any Fayetteville student seriously say that he/she has not encountered an “air of bullying” in the Fayetteville schools? Willi Wagner’s case led to a ground-breaking decision in which the federal Office of Civil Rights reached a “Commitment to Resolve” with the Fayetteville school district, with the district promising to prevent any future harassment of students identified as gay. Wagner’s was the first such complaint filed under Title IX on behalf of a harassed gay student.”

There is every reason to think that bullying of students tagged as gender-inappropriate is possible in the Fayetteville school system—as it is possible in school systems all around the nation. There is also every reason for supporters of the Fayetteville schools to stop damage-control campaigns and deal with problems continuing to trouble their community and its schools.

Given the evidence that Billy Wolfe has been assaulted, the problems with which Fayetteville needs to deal clearly include school bullying premised on claims that a student is “a little bitch” and “a homosexual that no one likes." There is no way around the ugly intrusion of homophobia into repeated stories of school bullying in Fayetteville.

This is the problem students who want to tell the whole story need to be getting at. This is the problem about which they are conspicuously silent in their postings about the whole story. Some of those postings seem to assume that a student who behaves as Billy does, who is non-conformist and sassy, deserves his lumps. Running through some of the postings on this discussion board, there is a troubling, reprehensible assumption that real boys don’t merit the kind of pummeling Billy has received.

The fact that this assumption is apparently unconscious in the thinking of many of the Fayetteville students posting on the threads makes it all the more troubling. Unconscious assumptions feeding prejudice that issues in violence have to be brought into consciousness and examined in the light of day, if such social violence is to be eliminated.

At least one poster on the “Whole Story” thread suggests that there is, indeed, another side to the Billy Wolfe story—a side different from the rebellious-boy-deserving-lumps narrative that runs through other students’ accounts. In a thread called “Expieriences” [sic] on 26 March, Lily Allder states that she was in school with Billy Wolfe from 7th through 10th grade. Allder states, “I had heard A LOT about him in 8th grade, it was always negative. I couldn't understand why he was targeted more than any other person in that school.

What I have always remembered was in 9th grade, one day in U.S. History class, I was sitting in my usual seat in the very back and I was watching the whole class...and some of the boys in my class were all pretty much harassing Billy. It was very immature, and I can't stand immaturity, and I can't stand bullying. So, I told them to shut up and leave him alone. They quit that day..but it never ended. In about the middle of 9th grade, he got transfered into my 7th period math class because of other people probably harassing him in other classes.

I don't think Billy is a bully. HE NEVER said anything rude to me. I mean he was never super nice to me, but no one really is SUPER nice. I know about 10 boys I could name right now who bully everyone. Bullies are people who say mean things to everyone, and harass innocent people because they're not the same as everyone else. I've had many of my close friends be bullied.

I always felt sorry for Billy because I knew his personality wouldn't allow him to just ignore everyone and forget about it. So, what do bullies do when they get a rise out of their victim? They KEEP DOING IT.”

Allder blames the school for not trying to address this long-standing problem of bullying until the hate group formed on facebook. In her view, “Honestly, everyone knew it [the ongoing bullying of Billie Wolfe] happened." Another student posting the same day on the same thread, Megan Thompson, substantiates Ms. Allder’s account.

They quit that day..but it never ended: if Allder is telling the truth (and I have no reason to doubt her—it is an act of courage to speak out when so many others are telling a different story) the bullying of Billy Wolfe has been consistent through middle school into high school, and has gone substantially unchallenged by the school system.

Why keep probing this story now that it has gotten dragged down into the mire of he-said, she-said rumor mongering? Because we have to tell these stories. We have to do so if we want to claim humanity.

We have to understand the dynamics that keep making them unfold. To some of us, those dynamics are now as clear as the dynamics of a Greek tragedy, in which the audience watches characters blinded by hubris follow the well-worn path to lamentable ends, without being able to interfere with the unfolding of the tragic events. To some of us who have watched this tragedy over and over—often first in our own experience, and then by paying careful attention to the unfolding of the same tragedy in other lives—it is perplexing that society continues to remain willfully blind to this particular form of social violence. A form of violence easy to address and eradicate, if we will only stop thinking it is inevitable, that the object of the violence deserves to be knocked into submission, and that macho males are lords of the universe . . . .

I cannot help thinking, as I continue pondering what is going on in Fayetteville these days, of Bette Greene’s book The Drowning of Stephan Jones. Greene was raised in east Arkansas outside Memphis. This novel is set near Fayetteville. It involves another of those Greek-tragedy stories in which we see a gay couple move into a small town in north Arkansas which they have reason to believe will be tolerant. With horrifying certainty, as one begins the novel, one knows the inevitable dénoument: gay bashing that leads to the violent death of one of the characters, gay bashing fueled by deeply ingrained prejudices justified by religion.

Greene gave an interview about this novel in 1994 to Lynne Alvine, an associate professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The interview has been published as an article entitled “Understanding Adolescent Homophobia,” The Alan Review 21,2 (winter 1994). This text is online at

In the interview, Greene notes that she did abundant research as she composed this novel. She wanted to understand the roots of homophobia, and why violence premised on homophobia is still acceptable in the state in which she grew up, as in other places. Greene finds that the object of adolescent bullying is often "society's designated victim"—“a type of young boy who is sensitive, shy, slender and, often, studious.”

Greene’s research led her to the conclusion that, though not all bullies of boys tagged as gender-inappropriate are overtly religious, religious justifications play a key role in almost all gay-bashings: “I tried to isolate it as much as I could. I tried to find out where does the hate come from? Not all the boys were religious, but they all had been affected by religion. They knew it was OK to do violence to gay people because they thought it said so in the Bible.

Greene concludes that the churches are in significant respects responsible for justifying gay-bashing: “Homophobia is endemic in America. The air we breathe is filled with homophobia. A great amount of it is coming from fundamental Christianity.”

Greene is not optimistic about the willingness of most students (or their parents, or the churches) to speak out when such violence occurs. Her research in writing The Drowning of Stephan Jones led her to conclude that 10 to 20% of young male students tagged as gender-inappropriate because they do not engage in macho activities (some of whom are gay, some of whom are straight) are persecuted in our schools by an equal number of boys “who want to show how virile they all are.” The bullies are bolstered by other students whom Greene identifies as “the eggers-on.” Finally, in Greene’s analysis, the majority of students form a silent majority who stand by, unwilling to challenge what is going on, watching to see the outcome—which is inevitably unfortunate when one boy is singled out from the group and set upon by other boys who are unchecked in their violence.

Fayetteville, are you listening? You need wise women like Bette Greene to advise you and your school system now. You need to be addressing the problem of homophobia head-on, overtly, in your educational networks. You need to call your churches to accountability for covering over this unacceptable kind of social violence—indeed, for fostering it.

As someone who grew up in a small Arkansas town (as well as in Little Rock, which is a small town masquerading as a city), I know all the old tried and true mechanisms of social control, particularly when someone tries to tell us a truth or ask a question we don’t want to hear: we freeze the person out; we circulate ugly rumors about him or her; we insinuate it’s all about money or sex; we collaborate to shun and exclude.

These social mechanisms keep us backward and unenlightened. They also do not address social problems which will, inevitably, find their way to the attention of wider and wider audiences—as Billy Wolfe’s story has done. We have work to do, and that work has to get to the roots of the problem, not try to cover the problem over with impression management techniques that implicitly justify the behavior of the worst among us.


colkoch said...

The interview with Bette Green was excellent. Thanks for the link.

Your coverage of the Billy Wolfe story has spanned the exact time my daughter's theatre company did a production called Dog Sees God which is based on the 'Peanuts' gang where Charlie Brown and company face their senior year in highschool. The main thread of the play deals with the bullying Beethoven has experieced at the hands of Pig Pen and his jock followers. In the end Beethoven commits suicide, both in spite of, and because of, the amorous attentions of Charlie himself. Pig Pen's hate for Beethoven is portrayed as a direct result of his own conflicted emotions over Charlie Brown. I watched people leave this small Montana theatre in tears. The use of the Peanuts gang gave this play an unusual power and made an incredible statement about how innocence is lost in the search for self truth. If you ever get a chance to see this, it's well worth the time. It could have been based on Bette Green's interview.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, I appreciate the positive feedback. It is good news to hear that there are young folks like your daughter who are willing to probe the question of school bullying and to challenge it. Art is one of the most effective ways of reaching people's hidden assumptions, it seems to me.

I'm still following the two discussion groups that have formed on Facebook to deal with the "whole story," and finding them fascinating. The group that says it wants to engage in damage control is attracting members from as far away as Alberta, Canada--though a persistent claim on threads in that group is that only students in the Fayetteville school know the true story!

I'm beginning to get the impression, too, that there are church groups resistant to discussions of homosexuality and homophobia jumping into these threads through some of the thread members. It looks to me as if battle lines are being drawn, and will center on the gay issue, though Billy Wolfe is not gay himself.