Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Zeroing in on Bullying

Waiting in the Dallas Fort Worth airport, I caught part of a story on Headline News: a girl had received a text message from bullies suggesting she kill herself. Police were considering filing criminal charges.

I thought about eighteen-year-old Breanna, whom I recently wrote about in the booklet, Words Can Work: When Talking about Bullying.

In Breanna’s story, she describes her experience with horrendous cyber bullying.

When she was in 8th grade, another girl wanted to go out with Breanna’s boyfriend Joe. So she told him Breanna had cheated on him.

Joe believed the lie and broke up with Breanna. He and his friends started picking on her and calling her horrible names.

Their harassment included an “I Hate Breanna” Web site and a note in her locker that warned she’d be killed if she went on the school ski trip.

Someone sent an instant message telling Breanna she should just kill herself, that she had no reason to live.

Breanna became so depressed that she talked of suicide.

“I’d take her to work with me,” Breanna’s mother Debbie says. “I couldn’t leave her alone. I was afraid she’d be dead when I got home.”

A month ago, five years after the bullying began, Breanna left for college. She is relieved no one from her hometown is attending the same college. The sight of her bullies still upsets her.

Breanna’s mom had tried hard to stop the bullying. She called the boys’ parents. They said their children would never do something like that. “You know how boys are,” they said. “It’s just a joke.”

Debbie called the school, too. She says they told her that because it was happening on the Internet they had no jurisdiction. Then Breanna found a threatening note in her locker. The principal told her that her response to it was “dramatic.”

Breanna and Debbie say parents and the school administrators allowed the boys to torment Breanna for two years. Finally, she transferred to a new school.

Adults too often turn a blind eye when they don’t want to deal with something or don’t know what to do. But when they ignore bullying, they are allowing a troubled young person to exert power over another person and inflict harm that can have a lifelong impact.

So many adults have told me of being bullied as kids. They remember clearly the cutting and cruel comments. They say it still hurts to think about it.

Dr. Gene Beresin, Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Residency Training Program, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, contributed to Words Can Work: When Talking about Bullying. “When I teach medical students,” he says, “I ask if they’ve been bullied. At least 25 percent say yes. To this day, the bullying haunts them. In adolescence, you’re self-conscious and trying out different roles and ways of relating to people. When you get hit below the belt, it leaves a lasting mark.”

Many schools have zero-tolerance for bullying. But far too many school administrators and parents fail to take bullying seriously. There are bullies in every school, and adults need to be proactive in stopping them. A young person’s physical and emotional well-being may be at stake.

As Dr. Beresin says, “When schools have clear zero-tolerance bullying policies, two things happen: boys and girls that might bully are less likely to do so; and those who observe bullying or are the targets of bullies feel much safer speaking up about it.”

When parents fail to investigate accusations of bullying, and simply assume their kids are innocent, they’re complicit in the harm. Allowing a child to get away with bullying does him or her no favors. Bullying kids can grow into bullying adults. And their victims are left without protection or help.

Resources
Boys on Bullying
Coming Soon: Words Can Work: When Talking About Bullying - Booklet

Related Issues and Answers columns
One boy's experience
One girl's experience
Power and the powerless

Related columns for young people

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