Tragedy in Ohio: When the Bullied Strike Back

Bullying is not, as some allege, some mandatory rite of passage that young people must endure on their journey to adulthood. This is not "kids just being kids." This is a murderous game that young people are playing all across this country.
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It was only a month ago that I wrote about Kevin Jacobsen, a despondent father who took his life on the eve of the one-year anniversary of his son's bullying-related suicide. Today, we read about more tragic deaths, this time in Ohio, where on Monday, a 17-year-old boy -- reportedly the victim of bullying -- unloaded a gun on his classmates in the school cafeteria, killing three and wounding many others.

Bullying is not, as some allege, some mandatory rite of passage that young people must endure on their journey to adulthood. This is not "kids just being kids." This is a murderous game that young people are playing all across this country, and without immediate intervention by adults -- parents, teachers, community leaders -- we will continue to see more and more deaths, and the slow and painful obliteration of a generation.

It is tempting to call the horrid news from Ohio a wake-up call, but that is both disingenuous and naive. We've had far too many wake-up calls already.

Wasn't it a wake-up call when a 15-year-old girl took her life by throwing herself in front of a bus after being bullied relentlessly at school -- and then, shockingly, the bullying continues on her Facebook page as she lay dying in the hospital?

Wasn't it a wake-up call when nine children committed suicide in a single Minnesota school district known for its "extreme anti-gay climate" -- a rash of serial suicides so alarming that state health officials labeled the district a "suicide contagion area?"

If we are not awake by now, something is seriously wrong.

And yet, those charged with turning this crisis around -- from parents to policy-makers -- urge us to step back and examine the problem. This isn't a case of "there are two sides to every argument." There's only one side to this conflict, and we all know who starts it. And we all know how it too often ends.

And who needs to listen to any explanations or justifications, when all you really want to do is beat up on the bullies yourself?

And then I read about a Mom from Quebec named Chantal Larose. Only days after her 15-year-old daughter hanged herself in the family garage -- in a final fatal act to escape the bullying -- Larose held a press conference condemning the public fury being unleashed on her daughter's tormentor, whom she referred to as "the young girl we are beating up on these days."

"This goes against the battle that I am fighting," Larose said bravely. "The battle that we are [all] fighting is against intimidation."

Coming from a mother who lost her daughter to the scourge of bullying, these words land hard. Larose has moved beyond casting blame and is asking us to look to all of our children to find a solution.

"A victim of bullying is at high risk for becoming a bully," Julie Hertzog of Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center told me. We decided to explore this further by talking to the bullies themselves to try to understand the different reasons that bullies bully. Here is a sample of what some of them said:

"In elementary school, kids put you down so they can be popular. It's all about 'Who You Are.' I had trouble pronouncing some words and my teeth were not straight, so kids called me 'horse' or 'donkey.' I got angrier and angrier. And so I started bullying. One girl ended up getting home-schooled and moving away." -- Kaylie, 15

"Yes, I have been a bully. I bullied a girl on the school bus every day in sixth grade because that was my way of dealing with problems I had at home. Just a few weeks ago, I saw her Facebook status, saying how she wanted to kill herself. And I felt awful knowing that I was one of the causes of her considering suicide. So I messaged her and apologized for everything I've done. She didn't commit suicide and I am so thankful." -- Tabitha, 15

"In elementary school, I was pretty ruthless, always jockeying for position. After this one girl had been in a car accident, I drew a picture of a dog and wrote: 'This is YOU!' My intent was not to be a bully or hurt someone deeply. I was just trying to get a laugh. I didn't realize it could have a long-term impact on her. I was just a loudmouth trying to be cool, wanting to be part of a group." --Noel, 12

When we asked kids, both the bullies and the bullied, "Where were your parents or teachers or other adults when all of this was happening?" many of them said the same type of thing:"I try to look like I'm happy for my parents" or "This school stuff is just a stupid drama." Researchers tell us that this nonchalance is a protective mechanism for kids -- an attempt to "diminish the importance of what is happening to them." Researchers also say that parents and teachers are often so distracted by other problems -- at home, in the classroom -- that they don't recognize the signs of bullying.

Obviously, the system isn't working. The kids who are in the thick of today's bullying epidemic -- victims, bullies and bystanders alike -- are lost, and they urgently need adult guidance. Most kids believe that there is nothing they can do to stop it; whether they are being bullied or standing by, watching, they are helpless.

An important first step to untangling this dilemma, says Herzog, is changing how we treat the bullies. "We need to take the anger out of our response," she says. "Making villains of kids who bully does not create a positive environment. We need to teach all kids empathy and bring them together, inclusively."

Among those trying to do exactly this is Kevin Epling, co-director of Bully Police USA, who became an "accidental activist" for bullying-prevention legislation after his son Matt committed suicide. "Kids are our best tool for turning this around," Kevin says, and he calls on parents and educators to seize control of the problem by creating programs that bring together students, teachers, principals, parents and the community to tackle bullying head-on.

I recently watched videos for two of these initiatives -- Hero in the Hallway and Team Urban -- and, for the first time in a long time, felt a glimmer of hope. Here are kids who are not fighting, not name-calling, not spreading hate, but instead banding together -- even dancing -- to celebrate their childhood, not fear it.

It is time for us to dedicate ourselves to listening carefully to all of our children -- victims, bystanders and bullies -- and stop abandoning them to face this problem alone. Nothing short of their lives is at stake.

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Helpful resources:

Stop Bullying Now
Present practical research-based strategies for reducing bullying in schools

Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center
"The End of Bullying Begins With You'' and

Hero in the Hallway

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