By Valerie Newman | Photo by Beth Segal
Anti Bullying: Teens confront a world of threats when facing today’s bully.
Actually, many of our teenagers won’t even come face-to-face with their oppressors anymore: bullies can now terrorize through technology. Whether through technology or via traditional methods, bullying today can escalate into deadly violence.
When baby boomers were high school students, there had never been massive shootings at high school and college campuses. Metal detectors or other security measures were unnecessary in yesteryear’s schools. Bullies were almost exclusively male and might have intimidated, threatened or even battered their victims. If an authority figure got wind of the situation, the tormentor, most likely, would have received a detention or a warning.
Unfortunately, the children of baby boomers have grown up with a full dose of deadly shootings, beginning with Columbine High School in Denver, Colorado. Bullying has triggered most of these violent episodes. And now, parents read regular reports of teens falling victim to vicious bullying – some even resorting to bullycide, a new term for a suicide resulting from bullying.
One positive outcome of today’s increased sensitivity to bullying is the development of school bully prevention programs. One school district in Fairfield County, Connecticut, has instituted educational programs throughout the year to address the threat of bullying. School social workers visit classrooms to discuss the topic with students and present prevention videos to the community in the evenings. At Shore Middle School in Mentor, Ohio, Principal Doug Baker adopted the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. “As a result of Olweus training, the adults who interact with the students, including the janitors, bus drivers and lunch staff, are more likely to intervene in a bullying situation. The adults are especially vigilant at the hot spots, like the lunch room, hallways and on the buses,” says Baker.
The impact of the program has been so significant that, six years later, the entire Mentor school district has implemented the Olweus program. Other anti bullying plans are also having some positive impact. According to a national study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, the percentage of children who reported being physically bullied over the last year has dropped from almost 22 percent seven years ago to less than 15 percent in 2009.
Sometimes though, the very programs designed to help students tackle bullying can backfire on the victim, the perpetrator – or both. Michael Barnett, a sophomore at Trumbull High School in Connecticut, with a student population of 2,263, relayed an upsetting incident. “I was a freshman sitting with my friends in the lunchroom. This kid, who wasn’t my friend, started making discriminatory comments towards my Indian friend and me. I am also a minority. One day, this boy overheard me say that my father had died of cancer. He mumbled, ‘Too bad he didn’t die earlier.’ Furious, I lunged toward him, but my friends stopped me. I talked to my guidance counselor and the Dean of Students, who suggested peer mediation. The mediator listened to the bully say that people always make fun of him. Suddenly, the bully became the victim, and the mediator suggested that he sit somewhere else and that I shouldn’t hurt him. How did this help? Peer mediation seemed supportive of the bully but not me, the victim.”
The Connecticut school did have a plan. After a second offense, the offender would receive a one-day suspension. Barnett found this solution inadequate. “How does suspension solve anything? I guess there is so much bullying and violence that the problem is too overwhelming for the school to handle,” Barnett says.
One mother, whose son suffered a concussion from being thrown against a locker, recounted years of bullying. Her son begged her not to report the problem, as he was convinced that this would escalate the torture. Nevertheless, the bullying intensified. After the concussion, the principal suspended the bully and, as her son had feared, the bully came to their house the next day and knocked down their mailbox with a bat. The bullying continued for several years until senior year when the victim, now at six feet and 200 pounds, ran into his nemesis in the hall. The bully went to push him, but “Josh” stopped him. “You will not push me or anyone else around from now on. Do you understand?” That was how the intimidation and violence finally ended.
Another metamorphosis has taken hold in this generation: girls are as likely to bully. Beyond the traditional emotional bullying, girls are often the perpetrators of physical violence, sometimes even involving boys. A high school security guard from Bridgeport, Connecticut, believes that girls have become more aggressive because of reality TV shows that glorify aggressive behavior among girls. “I’ve been a school security guard for 10 years, and during this time, I’ve seen a huge increase in the amount of bullying instigated by girls. The girls are imitating the cutthroat behaviors they see on TV,” he said.
The most worrisome and complicated change in the current bullying phenomenon, though, is the advent of the Internet. Bullies can invent and spread rumors, threaten and harass their targets and even rally support from other potential bullies, all without coming into physical contact with their prey. They can repeatedly tease and intimidate their victims from the immunity of their home.
David Frattare, Lead Investigator from the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, says that bullies are meaner and more aggressive on the Internet because of their sense of anonymity. “Kids feel more powerful when they do not come face-to-face with the victim. Also, teens can create their own victimization. From sharing passwords with today’s BFF to sending a naked photo to a boyfriend who soon becomes an ex-boyfriend, teens unwittingly expose themselves to Internet bullying,” Frattare says.
Experts who speak to high school students admit that teens are not absorbing the message. “I give Internet education presentations to many schools. High school students are the hardest to reach. They feel invincible,” says Special Agent Darren Mott from the FBI Cyber Crime Squad. Both Mott and Frattare hope that adults can convince teens that they should worry about the dangers of the Internet and use common sense. Frattare compares cell phones and computers with a teen driver’s license. “With cars, teens take a written test to receive their permit, followed by driver’s ed, a driver’s test and frequent discussions about rules while driving. When it involves cell phones and computers, we hand over the machine with little or no training,” he says.
What is the school’s role in Internet bullying? The consensus among school guidance counselors is that families should report cyberbullying to their teen’s school. Schools are allowed to intervene, from confronting the cyberbully and his or her family to contacting the local police. Parents are urged to watch for telltale signs that their offspring are the instigators or victims of cyberbullying, harassment or abuse. Experts agree that any noticeable change in your child’s behavior can signal that they need help, including:
- Keeping their online activities secret from parents, which can include minimizing or changing the screen when a parent passes by
- Falling behind on homework
- Not wanting to leave home or go to school
- Behaving in noticeably different ways than in the recent past
Educators agree that parents can help to prevent cyberbullying by keeping computers and laptops in a common area, like the kitchen, learning about parental controls for networking sites and emails and establishing a phone-free, text-free, social-networking-free time zone each night, for instance, from 9 p.m. until the next morning.
Parents can also help prevent their children from becoming bullies or their targets. First, they can provide ample opportunity to build self-esteem. Kids who feel good about themselves are less likely to bully or become a victim. Along this vein, they can try martial arts. Karate, according to instructor Steve Stollman, teaches non-violence. It also teaches self-respect. “When children respect themselves, they are less likely to resort to or become the victims of intimidation. And if someone is bullied, martial arts teaches how to defend one’s self,” he said.
High school psychologists offer more prevention tips:
- Keep open lines of communication with your teen.
- Show respect to all members of your family, so that teens will model healthy social interactions.
- Remain involved and interested in your teens’ lives, even if they seem to want to push you away.
- Set limits on their computer and phone usage and their social life (for example, know where they are going, who they’ll be with and if parents will be home).
Hopefully, parents can help their teens reach adulthood without their becoming aggressors or falling prey to one. However, if they do find themselves in the middle of a bullying fracas, parents and teens now possess tools to help extricate them from the fray.