Bullying in America: A National Crisis

Although I have lived in New York City for 32 years, I have never been to Staten Island. It has been said, however, that this southernmost of New York's five boroughs is also its most neighborly. With tree-lined streets and a vibrant mix of white- and blue-collar families, it is even, some say, evocative of Middle America.

Tragically, last month Staten Island took a giant step closer to becoming like the rest of the nation. On December 27, a 15-year-old high school sophomore named Amanda Cummings walked onto the main boulevard in her neighborhood and, according to witnesses, threw herself into the path of an onrushing bus. She died from her injuries six days later. Police say that at the time of the accident, she was carrying a suicide note in her pocket.

Amanda's back-story is all too familiar: She'd been bullied relentlessly at her school, mostly by other girls. She'd suffered a failed romance that had brought her into conflict with a female classmate. She'd reportedly sunken into a fog of drugs and alcohol. And most sickeningly, even as she lay dying in the hospital, the bullying continued on her Facebook page.

To make matters worse, police investigators have yet to rule the suicide a result of bullying, citing lack of evidence. Family members say this is because Amanda did not want to inflame her anguish by forcing a public confrontation. The investigation is still open.

That this wrenchingly painful story is now considered a textbook example of today's teen suicide scenarios speaks both to the depth of the crisis and our failed efforts to curb it.

This is a problem without a solution.

According to the Children's Defense Fund, one child or teen in America commits suicide every five hours. Additionally, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for every suicide among young people, there are at least 100 attempts. And a study by Yale University reveals that victims of bullying are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims.

I first read about Amanda's death just minutes before my two girls barreled in the front door from school. Bridgette, 16, looked at me and asked why I had tears in my eyes. I showed her the story, and as she read it, she grew enraged.

"It's not going to get better!" she bellowed, paraphrasing the name of the popular national organization that wages war on bullying. "Not unless somebody does something. At this point, Lady Gaga is the only one who is making a difference."

I instantly understood what Bridgette meant. Unlike the It Gets Better and Trevor Projects--both landmark and admirable organizations--Lady Gaga has stealthily used her pop star prowess and signature otherness to get into the heads of youths. Even the title of her anti-bullying foundation, Born This Way (taken from the title of her hit song), sends a potent and uplifting message to kids, signifying that it's okay to feel different.

And yet, even as Lady Gaga continues these noble efforts, we continue to lose children. This is why Amanda's mother felt compelled, even at the depths of her grieving, to speak out on national television, urging parents everywhere to monitor their kids' lives more closely.

"If (the bullies) are doing this to one person," she warned, "they're doing it to others."

This is a problem without a solution.

The more I thought about the story from Staten Island, the more I began to channel Bridgette's fury. In recent months, I, like many Americans, have been absorbed in the presidential debates, listening carefully to see if any of the candidates were addressing issues that spoke to my family, my kids, my life. And now I wonder: Who is leading the charge against the deadly epidemic of teen bullying--a scourge that continues to lurk in the playgrounds and hallways of all of our kids lives? Who is speaking out on the issue with the same urgency we routinely give to teen pregnancy, or childhood obesity, or even standardized testing?

Granted, our system of political debate can't possibly accommodate every issue facing our nation; and yet how many more deaths must we witness before bullying is elevated to the level of national emergency? How many more broken hearts must parents and families endure?

Last fall, I participated in an online campaign against bullying that was launched by my friend, Marlo Thomas, on her Huffington Post blog. At one point, Marlo and I conducted a telephone interview with a New Yorker named Kevin Jacobsen, who had lost his 14-year-old son, Kameron, to a bullying-related suicide. Marlo asked most of the questions as I listened in--like any father would--aching.

"Bullying is not the same old issue it used to be," Kevin cautioned. "With social networking and computers and cellphones, it's become an around-the-clock problem. It's now a health issue."

Not long before the interview, Kevin had created an anti-bullying website in memory of his son. He called it Kindness Above Malice, and vowed to devote the rest of his life to ensuring that no parent experience the same crushing loss he and his wife had suffered.

Then came last week's shocking e-mail: On January 7, as the one-year anniversary of Kameron's death approached, Kevin took his own life. He has now joined his son. And Amanda. And far, far too many children in this country.

This is a column without a solution. Does anybody have one?

* * *

This essay by Bruce Kluger originally appeared in USA Today, on January 25, 2012.