Silence And Inaction on Bullying Are Not an Option

Three years ago last week, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student named Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge on the New Jersey-New York border after being cyber-bullied by his dormitory roommate.

Clementi may have been a young gay man, but bullying does not discriminate. It affects people of all races, ages, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds, as well as sexualities. Just as it pertains to teenagers, consider the results of a new study released by the market research firm Mintel: Among 12 to 17-year olds, nearly 50% of girls and more than one in three boys reported that they have been bullied either face-to-face or online. Countless thousands of students stay home from school each day because they fear bullying.

The impact of bullying is profound. It can lead to a plethora of physical and psychological problems that can be life-long. And far too often it leads to suicide, one of the main causes of death among school-age and college students in the U.S. Studies show that there are more than 1000 college students who kill themselves each year, while 50% of college students report they have thought about suicide at some point in their lives.

Moreover, according to the semi-annual survey on youth risk behavior conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in six high school students has seriously considered suicide, and one in 12 has attempted it. Overall, the suicide rate among teens has climbed in the past few years, from 6.3% in 2009 to 7.8% in 2011. In total, some two million adolescents attempt suicide each year, resulting in 700,000 emergency room visits.

Certainly not all suicide and suicide attempts come about from being bullied, but we are reminded nearly daily in the media of bullying's horrific consequences: a 12-year-old boy in Connecticut killed himself a few weeks ago after being bullied in school; a 12-year-old girl in Florida killed herself soon after, also after continuous school bullying. Just last week, an eight-year-old boy received worldwide attention when he sent a letter to Santa begging for his help in getting kids to stop bullying his sister.

We know first-hand how he -- and so many others -- feel. Both of us were subjected to intense bullying while growing up. One of us, Ronnie, was bullied nearly every day in middle school -- in the cafeteria, in the gym and even walking home. Bullies used to wait around corners each day just waiting for their opportunity to take his lunch, pull his pants down and rough him up. One day, he even had to run three miles straight to escape being abused, and most days he was thinking of excuses to tell his mom so he wouldn't have to go to school at all. Ronnie lived each day in fear, but that was no way to truly live.

In response, and in memory of Tyler Clementi, we founded the Friend Movement -- to turn the tables on bullying by bringing a pro-friend solution to the table. Imagine if we all could be better friends to others around us, not to mention to ourselves. Imagine if we could rise up above fear, and stand up against injustice.

We have just embarked on a nearly 1,000 mile journey -- 921 miles to be exact -- from Chicago to New York over 37 days to raise awareness for increased bullying prevention efforts across the country. Our walk coincides with National Bullying Prevention Month.

Tyler Clementi's life, along with the lives of countless others who have been victimized and committed suicide because of bullying, are being celebrated during the walk, with a purple ribbon being placed after each mile to honor their memories. James Clementi, Tyler's brother, as well as relatives and friends of other victims of bullying, are joining us at various times along the month-long trek, including when we symbolically walk across the George Washington Bridge. The walk includes stops in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We hope that our effort is a call to action to break down walls of ignorance, hate and fear, inspire people to prevent bullying, and encourage and promote friendship.

Ours is not a solitary endeavor -- we cannot change mindsets or transform lives in a vacuum. There are myriad organizations and initiatives that are striving each day to end the bullying scourge through education, empowerment, engagement and the advancement of humanitarian values. For example, the National Bullying Prevention Center operated by PACER - Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights -- uses a host of creative and interactive resources to educate and engage communities nationwide to address bullying. Stomp Out Bullying is a national anti-bullying and anti-cyber-bullying organization for kids and teens that focuses on teaching effective solutions, peer mentoring and educating parents on how to keep their children safe online. Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation was founded to foster a more accepting society and a safe community where individuality is celebrated and differences embraced. And there is a new movement called unite4:good that engages, empowers, and inspires youth and young adult civic mindedness and supports programs that promote kindness, empathy, respect, tolerance and other ideals among these demographic groups.

Of course, on the public health front, we need to do a much better job at recognizing the warning signs and at early intervention. We are greatly encouraged that there are professionals like Dr. Kelly Posner, professor and Principal Investigator of the Columbia University Suicide Risk Assessment Center in New York. One of the world's leading experts on suicide prevention, she has created a ground-breaking risk assessment scale, known as the C-SSRS, that is now being employed by schools, hospitals, correctional facilities, drug and rehabilitation centers, NGOs, the military and others with impressive results.

Still, much more needs to be done. Far too many children, teens and young adults continue to bear the scars, physical and emotional, of bullying, of continuous intimidation, harassment and abuse. Far too many children, teens and young adults believe the only way to stop the terrorization is by taking their own lives. So silence and inaction are just not an option anymore. If we all do our small part, then our communities, schools, homes and offices can become safer places for all of us.