In December 2009, The Virginian-Pilot published an article about an assault on a family, the Bristols. According to court records one night in 2009 Kevin Webb, then 17 years old, and his older brother Brian went to the house of schoolmate Patrick Bristol and assaulted both he and his 53 year old father, Robert.
The police were called and both Kevin and Brian were charged as adults. Kevin’s charges were malicious wounding, assault and trespassing. In August of 2009, a Circuit Court judge found Kevin Webb guilty of misdemeanor assault and trespassing, and his older brother guilty of misdemeanor assault. In December, just before the article was published, Kevin and his brother were sentenced to community service, fines, and court costs. Brian Webb, was also sentenced to 30 days in jail.
In the original article, The Virginian-Pilot, states: “Patrick Bristol was tired of being bullied last year at Great Bridge High School.” It further goes on describe what Patrick Bristol reports was Kevin Webb’s bullying of him in school prior to the assault as fact although this behavior apparently was not reported to authorities. Kevin Webb, now 19 years old, filed suit against the paper for libel: The newspaper named Kevin Webb as a bully, which he states is inaccurate. On February 11, 2011 a jury awarded him $5 million in damages.
This story is particularly interesting from a conflict resolution perspective, as it exemplifies the problem found in the subjective nature of bullying, harassment, or incidents of violence that cannot be obviously objectively proven. Patrick Bristol and his family told the reporter for The Virginian-Pilot that Kevin Webb had bullied him. Kevin denies he bullied Patrick, and thus was libeled by the paper.
This begs two questions: How does someone “prove” bullying, and how does someone prove they are not a bully?
Regardless of the circumstances, we tend to want to determine the truth of allegations of bullying, harassment, or other forms of violence. However, they cannot always be objectively proved. In addition, as individuals we do not agree as to what constitutes bullying, harassment, or even violence.
Had Patrick reported the bullying incidents when they occurred, it is likely that there would not have been any evidence to support his allegation. In cases of boys being bullied in high school, especially when there is no physical evidence of the interaction, all too often the typical response is akin to “Boys will be boys” or “Shrug it off”. Would reporting the school incidents have changed the outcome of the libel case?
Approaching violence and conflicts from a perspective that there is one clear right and one wrong does little to resolve the problem. Such a perspective tends to aggravate conflict and polarize the sides.
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