I am not a bullying expert, but I have taught teenagers for thirty-five years, so I've had the opportunity to observe it in the field. And much of what we try to do with the goal of stopping it seems counterproductive, even as we engage in behavior that actually re-enforces bullying as an okay Thing.
Bullying is frequently not what it says it's about. Even though we associate bullying with things like "picking on a kid because he has blue hair," I've never seen a "blamed" trait like that present in only bullied kids. Attempting to address bullying by traits rarely works; I'm thinking here of all the schools that post-Columbine watched out for their own school's version of the trenchcoat mafia and tried to deal with the potential bullying problems by making those kids stop acting different.
What seems more common, at least in my part of the universe, is a person is targeted, and then some feature of the individual is used as a hook to hang the bullying on. In other words, first comes "we'll bully that guy" and second comes "we'll pick on him about his hair color."
This is a tricky dynamic because weirdness or oddness can signal weakness or a lack of confidence, and those traits do make a student a potential bullying target. (This is particularly true if the blue hair etc is an affectation, and of course how many teens adopt one affectation or another in their search for their own special voice.)
The critical question for me is this: what makes bullying okay to the bully? I believe most people work things out in their heads so that they feel they are doing the right thing. So what does a bully tell him- or her-self that makes bullying okay.
The answer, I believe, is "He deserves it."
A bully never says he's bullying somebody. He's straightening him out. He's teaching him a lesson. He needs to be taken down a peg. The target deserves it. Bad things should happen to that person; I am just being an instrument of divine and universal judgment.
The reason the target supposedly deserves to be straightened out is also a pointless distraction. Getting in a big argument about whether Chris or Pat deserves to be pushed, punched, humiliated, or frozen out-- this is a huge side discussion that actually makes things worse. Because when we get in an argument whether or not Pat and Chris deserve to be abused, we are accepting the premise that some people do. Any time you tell students, "Chris does not deserve to be bullied," you are also sending the message "But some people DO deserve to be bullied."
And as long as you accept that in this world there are people who deserve to be treated as less-than-human, as others, as whipping posts, then there will always be bullying. You cannot stamp out bullying by trying to make the argument that bullying is only bad when you bully the wrong people.
If you want to stamp out bullying in your classroom, the policy is simple. It is not okay to treat people poorly, to treat them as less-than-human, to try to hurt them in any way on purpose, ever. Ever.
This doesn't mean everyone must hold hands and hug. There are lots of contexts in which people can disagree with each other, dislike each other, and recognize that they have no desire to spend a second more around each other than is absolutely necessary. But all of that can be done in a context that recognizes that everyone in the game is a real, live human being, and it is not okay to treat them like anything less.
It's not always an easy rule to live with; heaven knows I find it a challenge at times. But it is absolutely the best bullying antidote I know. Or as Kurt Vonnegut put it,
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold
in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies,
you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of,
babies-God damn it, you've got to be kind.