Sadly, it seems that terrible tragedy needs to keep striking in order for bullying to retain its status as worthy of serious efforts to eliminate it. The latest incident involves 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick's leap to her death in response to persistent cyber-bullying, and the subsequent arrest of two juvenile female honor students. While all this attention spotlights the serious consequences of this stubborn issue, schools and parents must be equally persistent in providing constant reminders of the dangerous and damaging impact caused by hurtful words, threats and actions when horrors like this aren't center stage.
A Horrifying Confession
One of my best childhood friends, now 63 years old, recently sent me the following letter:
My story begins when I was around 14 years old. My sister had a friend who she had a falling out with, so [the friend] told her three brothers that I made some anti-Christian comments, and they tracked me down one afternoon and beat me senseless. My parents knew their parents who were also longtime locals and tried to have amends made between us with a meeting in my grandmother's house. They had us all shake hands. The next day they surrounded me at the local hangout and hurled insults. My next several years were spent hiding when I saw them coming or staying inside when I could. There were several more incidents of verbal and physical torment which led to bed-wetting, nervous tics and stuttering. My dad found a rope with a noose in the basement and he saved me at that point, as I was this close to a drastic measure. But it was an omen for my adult plans. With my newfound adult affluence, I hired a private detective who located all three brothers and the sister. My plan was simple -- to have them killed with me present, and I had the doer all lined up. But when my mother got cancer and I visited her one day, she actually sensed the darkness in me and we talked, and I told her all about it. Thankfully, I didn't kill myself or them. But to this day, that entire episode haunts me.
As you might expect, I was blown away to read of this incident and its long-term scarring of a childhood friend. It haunts me to think that there must have been many days we were hanging out while he silently lived with this terror. People like my friend need to be encouraged to tell their stories to the kids in our classrooms. We need to keep the issue front and center so that all can be sensitized to the long-term pain of taunts, threats and trauma -- before the next Rebecca Sedwick takes her life.
Vigilance on the part of parents and educators can help, but that alone cannot defeat bullying. The main solution lies with kids, not adults. They need to be empowered to take action. I just wonder if Rebecca's outcome would have been entirely different if her friends, acquaintances or even just kids with decent hearts who'd read these negative online comments had stepped forward to counter them with positive comments about her. Did anyone express online outrage at the verbal brutality? How many might have wanted to but were themselves afraid of peer ostracism if they did?
I have observed three school-wide anti-bullying initiatives with staying power that emphasize what students can do to tackle this nasty problem.
1. Schoolwide Themes
In collaboration with students, identify anti-bullying themes and then create daily, weekly and/or monthly activities to support these themes. Examples include "performing acts of kindness," "making our school cool for all" and "what to do if you see someone being bullied online." If the latter theme had been identified and supported at Rebecca's school, perhaps an online bystander could have felt encouraged to contact at least six of their online friends so that all could simultaneously counter the horrible comments with a show of support.
2. Support Groups
Encourage students to create anti-bullying support groups. Paradise Williams, a 17-year-old in Rochester, New York was hospitalized following a suicide attempt. She had been bullied about her weight for years and talked to nobody about it, instead hiding her pain until it overwhelmed her. Following her hospital stay, she made a video about bullying with flash cards and posted it on YouTube. Fellow students started approaching her in the halls with hugs instead of put-downs as they relayed their own stories of being bullied. Realizing the need, Paradise formed a support group at her high school where fellow students talk about issues bothering them. Most members come by word of mouth while others are referred by teachers or guidance counselors. It is likely that most schools can successfully emulate Paradise's idea. All it takes is adult guidance in collaboration with an organized student group, like student council, to get things started.
Make anti-bullying part of the curriculum. Defeating bullying will take relentless effort. It takes a daily commitment. It must become a standard part of every school curriculum, visited as regularly as reading and math. Some subjects can more easily integrate content with the topic of bullying. Many of the darkest hours in American history are rooted in bullying. Virtually every ethnic group that settled in America has encountered it. Religious intolerance was a primary factor in colonizing America. Native Americans were forced to leave their homelands by a government more powerful than theirs. African-Americans were at the bottom of the hierarchy, as they could legally be enslaved even to Native Americans. Books such as Robert Lipsyte's One Fat Summer, Ziata Filipovic's Zlata's Diary and Marcella Pixley's Freak are but a few of many literary possibilities. One need only do an Internet search for "novels on bullying" to find texts that integrate well with the issue.
Please add your own ideas and approaches in the comments section below.