Monday, April 12, 2010

Bullying

Recently, I read a very touching post on Beth’s blog about bullying, about teaching our children to be tolerant of differences and of setting a good example ourselves so that our children may learn from it. As a mother, it pained me to hear about her son’s agonizing experiences in school when he was growing up. And even of her painful incident as a young adult at the hands of (supposedly) educated individuals who considered themselves “open-minded, tolerant, and progressive”. It made me wonder what kind of children these self-proclaimed ‘open-minded’ adults were raising when they themselves couldn’t behave decently. All it took was a couple of drinks and a likewise crowd for them to drop the political correctness that they hid behind and ridicule another human being.

Then just a couple of days later, I learned about 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, a high school freshman in Massachusetts, who was harassed so mercilessly by fellow students that she took her own life by hanging herself. Nine teenagers, three of them juveniles, have been charged with things like statutory rape, violation of civil rights with bodily injury resulting, criminal harassment, disturbance of a school assembly, stalking and assault with a dangerous weapon. The list of brutal actions from these young offenders is horrifying, but what startled me even more was the fact that reports indicate that the school administration and staff knew about the bullying and abuse that had been going on for months, but did nothing to stop it. Or certainly not enough. The very thought that this tragedy could have been prevented had the school taken action makes my blood boil.


And then there is the heartbreaking story of 11-year-old (11!) Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, also in Massachusetts, who killed himself about a year ago after enduring months of ongoing bullying, including daily taunts of being gay. Apparently, his mother, who found him hanging from an extension cord in the family’s home, pleaded weekly with the school to address the problem and stop the bullying. The schools actions, if any, were certainly not enough.

And the tragic fate of young Jaheem Herrera, a fifth grade student in Georgia, who also hung himself as a result of relentless bullying and teasing from kids at school. Sadly, his lifeless body was discovered by his 10-year-old sister, who will, undoubtedly, be emotionally and mentally scarred for life.

Over on my side of the border:

- 16-year-old Gary Hansen of Roblin, Manitoba hung himself after being persistently teased and picked on for years by classmates at his high school.

- Travis Sleeve, 16, shot himself after 2 ½ months of consistent harassment by fellow students in Canora, Saskatchewan.

- 14-year-old Dawn-Marie Wesley of Mission, B.C., left a suicide note in November 2000 that read “"If I try to get help it will get worse. They are always looking for a new person to beat up and they are the toughest girls. If I ratted they would get suspended and there would be no stopping them. I love you all so much." before taking her own life. Her young brother found her hanging in her bedroom.

- Hamed Nastoh, also 14, jumped to his death off the Pattullo Bridge in British Columbia. He left a five-page suicide note for his family where he wrote that he could no longer endure the bullying and taunts from his ninth grade classmates.

These are only a few cases of many around the world. Sadly, every year the number of children resorting to killing themselves as a way to end their suffering is rising. It is heartbreaking that these tormented young souls that couldn’t cope anymore with the ongoing bullying were convinced that the only way to stop the abuse – and the pain that goes with it - is to stop living.

Whenever we lose a distressed child, we have failed them; as parents, as educators, and as a society. No child should fear going to school where they spend the majority of their day; school should be as much fun as it is educational. No child should be reluctant to seek help, worried that the bullying will intensify if they tell, or frightened that they’ll be labeled a snitch. We should make it clear to these children that it is not their fault they’re being bullied, that it’s important they tell an adult they can trust, and that telling does not make them a snitch. We must help them to understand that what they are experiencing is unacceptable and that they have the right to be safe.


As parents, we should not condone or reward aggressive behaviour; if we suspect that our child is a bully, we should take the necessary steps immediately to remedy the situation. We should not allow our children to control others through verbal or physical threats and/or violence; they do not have the right to hurt someone else. We have the responsibility to teach our children to be respectful and responsible members of their school community, the duty to teach them to be compassionate and considerate of others, and the obligation to hold them accountable for their actions instead of making excuses for their behaviour. After all, do we not want our children to grow up to be kind and courteous adults instead of adult bullies? Or worse, criminals? A study done in a University in B.C says that 60 percent of children who were bullies in grade 6 to 9 have a criminal record by the time they are in their mid twenties. Would you want this for your child?

All members of a school, primarily the administration and teaching staff, have the obligation to keep the children under their care safe, to prevent bullying and to take immediate action to put an end to any form of abuse a child is suffering. They should not turn a blind eye to what goes on in their school or hide behind lawyers and bureaucratic red tape whenever a tragedy strikes; we teach children accountability by being accountable. When parents send their children to school, they are confident that the adults – teachers and administrators – are watching out for them.

And as a society, we should make sure that the schools are a safe and comfortable environment for all children by implementing anti-bully laws in a school’s curriculum and by penalizing those who terrorize fellow students. I’m also in favour of making parents of bullies compensate parents whose children have been physically injured and emotionally traumatized. In addition, bullies that are violent should be arrested and prosecuted.

I’ve often heard people say that “bullying is a rite of passage”, and wonder if these same people would still feel that way if they lost a child to suicide because of this ‘rite of passage’. I get the feeling they’d be singing a different tune.

5 comments:

  1. Amen, Martha, amen. It's sad and terrible. You're right - we're failing these kids.

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  2. What you said. But!

    In most of these cases, it sounds like the problem wasn't that the kids didn't think they could tell an adult, or hadn't told an adult, it's that the administrators / principals / whoever, once told, weren't willing to take the bullying seriously enough to stop it.

    The stereotypical bully is a boy with low self-esteem, a crappy home life, not very good grades, and probably a poorer socio-economic status, who beats up on other kids as a way of feeling powerful. If that's the sort of bully you're dealing with, then great, because everybody will believe that, and do something about it.

    On the other hand, if your bully is a girl, comes from a well-regarded family, gets good grades, is attractive, charming, or well-off, s/he can do pretty much anything to you whether you tell on him/r or not, because s/he doesn't fit everybody's idea of what a bully is supposed to look like. Which seems to have been the case in most of these situations. Everybody dismisses it as "kids will be kids," or "it can't be that bad," and people only notice once there's a body.

    I think most kids understand that if they're being bullied, they should tell an adult. What's missing is parents telling kids that they shouldn't bully other kids, and administrators taking reports of bullying seriously even when the alleged bully is popular and attractive.

    Pandagon covers bullying occasionally; see here and here.

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  3. Hi Liza, thanks. We are failing them in a way, but I do hope things change. People are taking bullying more and more seriously, so perhaps in time we will help all children to feel safe.

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    Mr. S, you are so right. There is a stereotypical definition of what a bully is, or what he/she looks like. I couldn't agree more. Most kids do try to seek help, and even the ones that don't, well, sooner or later you would notice that something is wrong (they're bruised or more withdrawn or fearbul, etc). Surely a teacher or administrator at the school can/will detect/notice what's going on in their schoolyard; I just think that they either turn a blind eye or not take it seriously enough. Or whatever other reasons. And some parents of children who are bullies could care less. In fact, I've no doubt that many of them are proud of their 'tough' children.

    Thanks for the links; I'll check them out.

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  4. Thank you so much for this wonderful post, Martha. It's heartbreaking to read of children that were so tormented that they saw no way out but suicide. And it's infuriating to know that administrators turned a blind eye to the bullying, but it doesn't surprise me. In Benjamin's case, when we reported the bullying, we were often told by teachers, "Well, it's just a part of growing up! He's got to learn how to deal with people like that!" When I'd point out that perhaps as an autistic child, he might need some extra protection, they'd act like I was an overprotective mother. And as Mr. Subjunctive points out, bullies come in many different forms---some are just more subtle than others. But the damage they inflict is lasting.

    Thanks again for this post.

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  5. Oh my goodness, Beth, you don't need to thank me. It upsets me that someone wouldn't step in to help a child that's being abused and tormented, especially a child like your son who needed a little extra compassion. And, no, you were not being overprotective; they were being unreasonable. Had it being their child, they would be singing a different tune. That's always the case.

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