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Bullies caught on tape: Aggressors, or victims?

Billy Wolfe, an Arkansas high school sophomore, dreaded going to school each day. A regular punching bag for his classmates, all Billy wanted was someone on his side. But when even a videotape of kids bullying him doesn't convince his school he's a victim, Billy's family decides to sue.

There is a certain high school, in a small city in the heart of America, where a question that started in crowded hallways grew to principals' offices, a school district, a police department, and mushroomed to the whole town: What's the deal with Billy Wolfe?  How did he get so bruised and battered? Sixteen, a sophomore, and a marked man. Or, so says his mother, Penney.  And she's kept score.  

Penney Wolfe: Everyday that something new happens, it opens like a new wound for me. But it's a wound I will get healed.  And I will heal it for my child.

When we first met this lanky, very soft-spoken Arkansas teen in March, he said the prospect of going to school each morning gave him stomach aches. 

Billy: People have tried to push me down the stairs in the school.  So every- every time I go down stairs, I glance behind me.

Well, perhaps you can't blame him.  Just getting to school has invited trouble. And unlike most kids, he's got the video to prove it.  A cell phone camera was rolling when a schoolmate stormed toward Billy  and sucker-punched him.

Now watch closely as a security camera shows Billy moving toward a seat on his school bus.  Suddenly, no apparent pretext, a couple of guys yank him down.  Billy tries to fight back, but is no match for their pummeling.   Afterwards, says Billy, the kids jeered him.

Billy: "Ha, ha, you got your *** kicked."

Keith Morrison: "You got your *** kicked."

Billy: They were saying that, yeah.

What is it about Billy? Something different, vulnerable? He was born in Arizona, playful, shy, liked being outside. 

Keith Morrison: What kind of kids did he gravitate to?

Penney Wolfe: I think anybody that would actually pay attention to him.

In the 4th grade, Billy and his family moved here to Fayetteville, Arkansas, a growing city popular for its good schools.

Billy was a bright kid, but he had trouble reading or concentrating. He was distractible, zoned out sometimes. There was no hint in his records of any behavioral problems, though sometimes, said a teacher, he didn't seem to pick up on social clues very well. Playable is the way his father Curt put it; ripe for teasing.

Curt Wolfe: His natural defenses - make him a little easier to - to get a response out of.  It's easy to play him.

Keith Morrison: To get a reaction from him?

Curt Wolfe: You bet.

Billy says the teasing first began on the playground - when kids would unaccountably kick him. 

Keith Morrison: And you don't know why they would do such a thing?

Billy: No.

Keith Morrison: If they kicked you would you, what, run after them and try to kick them back?

Billy: Yeah. But then they, like, have a group of friends.

It was 2004, he was in the 7th grade, when the trouble burst into view. At least, for Billy's parents.

Penney Wolfe: It was a phone call. A childish sort of prank. A classmate called and offered, graphically, to sell Billy a sex toy.

Keith Morrison: What kind of a sexual toy?

Penney Wolfe: I don't wanna say it on camera.

Penney had to make a decision so many parents have had to make - to get involved or not. She called the boy's mother.

Penney Wolfe: A lot of people might critique me and say, "Well, he was just pullin' off a prank.  Why did you-- why'd you call his mom?"  Well, there are things in life that I believe are appropriate, and things that are not.  And that was not appropriate for my child.

Keith Morrison: What did Billy think about it?

Penney Wolfe: He was mortified.  He was like, "Mom."  You know-

Keith Morrison: Leave it alone?

Penney Wolfe: Yeah. (laughter) I was like, "No. This is not right and he's not going to do this again.

Penney's telephone call would be the beginning of a campaign she felt she had to wage.

Keith Morrison: What happened next? 

Billy: School, the next day, he came to me with a list of 20 kids that said they were gonna beat me up.  Or help him beat me up.

Keith Morrison: So what did you think?

Billy: I told my mom when I came home.  And she told the principal.

Penney Wolfe:  And I kept tellin' 'im, you got opportunity to stop this.  You can stop this from happening if you call these kids, and he said he saw the list.  He knew the kids that were on that list.

But Penney says no calls were made and a few days later, Billy says he got cornered in the school restroom. That's when the same boy connected to the sex toy incident, along with some others, peeked over into Billy's stall to poke fun at him.  Billy told him to stop, and says when he came out to wash his hands:

Billy:   I just got hit in the face.

Keith Morrison: Just like that?  Whack?

Billy: Yeah.

Things didn't let up. Later that year, amidst the routine teasing, there was that beating incident on the school bus. Even though the tape shows Billy being assaulted, students told the principal that Billy was the one who'd started the fight.  And when Billy denied this-

Penney Wolfe: The principal said, "Well, Billy, I've interviewed three of my prized students-- " Those were his very words.  And he said, "They never lie to me, Billy."  He said, "You did this.  And I'm suspending you."

Billy: And I told him that if he'd just watch the video, he'd see.

Keith Morrison: So right away they went and got the tape and looked at it?

Billy: No. Not right away. After I served my suspension, they went and looked at it.  And found out that the kids were lying.

A police report was filed, but, the Wolfes say, at least one of the assailants remained in school, unpunished.

Billy:  They let the kids roam the halls and just make fun of me.

In the 8th grade, things spilled over outside school jurisdiction.  In the spring of 2006, some teens Billy knew pretended they wanted to play basketball with him in the park.  Instead, they made mince-meat out of the boy who was easy to play, and took his money. A police report was filed and the attackers were punished.  Still, it seemed never ending.

Apparently it didn't matter what Billy said or did.  In 9th grade, some schoolmates crafted his reputation for him by launching a Web page with a cruel name - "Everyone that hates Billy Wolfe" -and Billy's image superimposed on a peter pan cut-out.  A word, "homosexual," meant to further debase him was splayed across it.  Billy's girlfriend at the time called him with the news.

Keith Morrison: I can't imagine what that must be like, to open up Facebook and see a page like that. Humiliating.

Billy: Humiliating.  Yeah. Very, very embarrassing.

Penney Wolfe: When my son saw that Web site, he was crushed.

Once again, Penney said she went to a school administrator - this time asking for help in reining in the cyber-bullies.

Penney Wolfe: I said, "They're callin' him a homosexual."  And - and he said, "Well, is he?"  Like it would be okay that- the demeanor that these children had if he was.

No one from the school district would agree to be interviewed on camera.  But according to a spokesman, the principal did notify the parents of the students who were part of the Web site, and that the page was ultimately taken down. Still, the character bashing persisted.

Keith Morrison: Anything else?

Billy: Yeah, I've heard that I tip, I - pushed Dylan out of his wheelchair.  I didn't.  But, that's what I heard.

Keith Morrison: Can you give me a kind of a laundry list of the rumors you've heard?

Billy: Okay. I'm a gay Nazi who likes to kill retarded kids-- kids' cats.

Worse still, says Billy, kids continued to pick fights with him. But now the Wolfes were done. They're also considering a lawsuit against the Fayetteville school district.

In March, Billy's parents sued one of the alleged bullies, and other as-of-yet unnamed conspirators for unspecified damages - charging them with assaulting and battering Billy.

Penney Wolfe: These children just need a good lesson.  They need to be stopped.  They don't understand the impact that they're having on people's lives.

But of course, you must have known it couldn't be as uncomplicated as that. Surely there must be something more to this. Is Billy truly an innocent victim?  And why is the whole town talking?

Will: I'd say a good 90, 95 percent of the stuff that has happened to him, he deserved, like getting hit in the face.  Getting the stitches.  And he deserved that. 

Keith Morrison: Rough justice in the law of the jungle, huh?

Will:(laughter) It's high school.  You get a helmet.

Keith Morrison: Did you ever tease anyone?

Billy: Well, I tease my friends.

Keith Morrison: Smack somebody on the way through the hall?

Billy: Uh-uh.

Keith Morrison: Shoved them?

Billy: Uh-uh.

Keith Morrison: Never participated in a fight?

Billy: No, sir.

Keith Morrison: And if somebody pushed you, you pushed back?

Billy: Yeah, but I wouldn't start it.

Shouldn't a parent intervene? It's not an idle question. These incidents do happen, and lately they've been showing up on the Internet, like the beating by girls of one of their own.  Dreadful stuff.

So, in the Wolfes’ case, were they right to file a lawsuit against some of the kids they say were parties to the bullying?

Were they right to take it national - to the New York Times, and then our own TODAY show?

Sixteen-year-old Billy Wolfe admits he's not perfect, but says he's been relentlessly bullied over the past 4 years: half a dozen severe beatings, some captured on camera. Some others painful in a different way. Shouldn't a parent intervene?

In the Wolfes’ case, were they right to file a lawsuit against some of the kids they say were parties to the bullying?

But if the Wolfes hoped for some kind of respite, that hope was in vain.  A Web site with chatter about Billy's case linked itself to another site that offered "Everybody hates Billy" T-shirts. A friend, worried about more trouble, walked him to the school bus stop every morning. The school assigned an adult to tail Billy through the halls, which were now buzzing with rumors.

Male student: They say he tries to pick fights with people, but I don't know him. I don't know if he does.

That national attention struck a nerve here in Fayetteville wasn't necessarily appreciated. The local newspaper raised the possibility that Billy was not an innocent victim - but a problem student who was sometimes the aggressor.  Penney read the article and broke down.

Penney Wolfe: They want to make my son out to be the bully.  This is wrong.

But in situations like this, there often so much innuendo, miscommunication and speculation that poisons the air - often making it difficult to prove who's right or wrong.

Here's one of the kids who claims Billy is the real bully.  He'd eventually be named in the Wolfes’ lawsuit: 9th grader Will Starks.

Will: He will antagonize people until they decided they're fed up with it.  And then he'll make them hit him first.

Keith Morrison: How does he antagonize people?

Will: He'll call names every now and then.  Or he'll just give you the most God awful stare you'll ever see.

Will told us he was in a school hallway one day last year, just minding his own business, when Billy started an altercation.

Will: There was rumor goin' around that I was sayin' stuff about his mom.  Which, I don't do that.  It's wrong.  And he came up to me in the hallway and pushed me and said, "What are you sayin' about my mom, punk?" And I said, "Dude, I didn't say nothin'.  Go away."

But that just wasn't true.  And when pressed, Will came clean about his badmouthing - at least to me.

Keith Morrison: You did though.

Will: Yeah.

Keith Morrison: but you weren't about to admit it?

Will: It wasn't no big thing.

Keith Morrison: But a big thing to him though, wasn't it?

Will: I guess.

And judging by a note Will posted one day before their hallway blowout, Will was already prepared to go toe to toe with Billy -- just not with his own toe.  

"Haha, who said I was gonna touch him?" he writes. "Haha, nah, I got people that are gonna do it 4 me."

Might one of those special friends be Ian Teeters?  Ian says he happened on Will and Billy arguing in the hall and rushed in to intervene.

Ian: I didn't want my friend to get in trouble.  And Billy kept pushing me.  And I just kinda lost my temper and punched him.

Too bad a video camera wasn't running.  At the time, Ian belonged to a Facebook site called "I love watching fights at school" which encouraged members to capture them on camera - not so uncommon these days. Even so, Ian says he's not one to start them - though his punch that floored Billy apparently earned him a reputation as a chivalrous tough guy. 

Ian: I kind of enjoyed it for the first week or two, 'cause people were so like, "Hey, you beat up Billy."

It also earned him a mention in the Wolfes’ lawsuit. For the record, both Ian and Will Starks deny all of the allegations or claims in the lawsuit.

Will: If you had someone not leave you alone and you couldn't get away from 'em, what would you do?

Keith Morrison: I'm trying to think? Would I hit 'em in the face? Do you think I should?

Will: It'd be up to you.

Will's musings about Billy were something of an education for his mother.

Will's mom: I'm not on the computer so I'm not a computer person, so I don't know what's goin' on.

And that of course is not uncommon. How many parents know how their kids behave on the Internet?  Mrs. Starks listened as I read what will posted just hours after Ian decked Billy.

Keith Morrison (reading to Will and his mother): "And then my friend just clocks this little ***** right in his jaw, and ends up bustin' out one or two of his teeth.  And this little ho out drops to the floor and passes the **** out, or just starts ballin’.  But it was funny as ****.  I'm a little mad I didn't get a punch in because a teacher was like right around the corner.  Ah, damn.  Wish I could have."

Keith Morrison: You're mad at this kid, huh? Kid s-- starts comin' up and shovin' you for sayin' nothing, I mean--

Will's mom: He was pushing you?

Will: Yeah, he was shoving me--

Will's mom: If he is instigating all these fights, does he think he can instigate it and upset people and get away with it?

Keith Morrison: So this isn't a story about the victim of bullying--

Will's mom: Well, as a mother, there's always two sides to everything.  You wanna know--  No mother ever wants to know that their son's the bad guy.

Perhaps the one Billy's most mad at is his neighbor and former best friend. Billy and Dylan Gray, who has cerebral palsy, were practically inseparable once. And then, sometime in middle school, their friendship suddenly turned quite sour.

Dylan:  I think once the students and him got into it more, then I-- then he started picking on me too.

Keith Morrison: Once he and the students started getting into it, he began to pick on you?

Dylan: Yeah.

Keith Morrison: What was he doing?

Dylan: At first, there was a simple smirk when I would pass him in the hallway.

Keith Morrison: A smirk?

Dylan: Yes.  And- he- got to the point where he started calling me names, like stupid, retarded. 

In fact, it turns out that the infamous "every one that hates Billy Wolfe" Web page originated out of Dylan's house - though Dylan claims it was his friends who created it.

Keith: Do you ever think to yourself that maybe he's been used as a punching bag a bit too much?

Dylan: I don't know all- every incident that happened with him- but in my opinion, he deserved it.

Penney Wolfe: It's so wrong what those boys are saying.

Billy: Mom, don't worry about it.  They can say what they want...

Penney Wolfe: There've been times where he said, "Mom, just stop.  It'll be all right.  Just stop.  It'll go away."  It doesn't go away.

Keith Morrison: Do you ever wish that nothing had ever been done about this.  That you'd just sort of put your head down, and--

Billy: No.  It would still be going on now.

Billy, for whatever reason, is bullied, resented, belittled. Fights back in court, and resentment spreads. In the lessons of suspicion and dislike, straight “A”s all around. Respect? Well, sadly, not so much. There are no winners in this, of course.