“I can’t take it anymore. I cannot take the pressure of being bullied anymore.”
A Decatur boy spoke those words to his mom recently – right after she had stopped his suicide attempt.
Fortunately, she was able to calm him down and get professional help. But the underlying problem of persistent bullying remains as real as ever – for him, and for other young kids at school, at home, and in their neighborhoods.
Bullying has become a buzzword in American culture, particularly in schools. Almost all school districts now train their teachers and students, bring in speakers and mount concerted efforts to identify and stop the kind of systematic bullying that sends kids to the brink of suicide.
Bullying plays a role in as many as half of the 4,400 teenage suicides that occur each year in the U.S. It may have been a factor in the rash of school shootings that began with Columbine High School, near Denver, in April 1999.
Most of the time, it gets no where near that level. But it does push far too many children into a kind of desperate, fly-below-the-radar survival mode, leaving scars that can stay with them well into adulthood.
And it’s everywhere – from big, inner-city schools to the small, rural districts that spread across Wise County.
It can be overcome, but first it must be defined, identified and dealt with.
AN OVERUSED TERM
Psychologists agree that real bullying contains three elements:
- physical or verbal abuse,
- repeated over time, and
- involving a power imbalance.
“It’s about one person with more social status lording it over another person, over and over again, to make him miserable,” said Emily Bazelon, senior editor of Slate and author of “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy,” in a New York Times article last year.
Certainly every clash among students is not bullying. The circumstances surrounding the Decatur boy who attempted suicide do seem to fit the definition, however.
The part about “power” is often hard for adults to grasp – but adults must realize that at a certain age, the perception of power is reality.
“You’re talking about a 13-year-old kid,” the Decatur boy’s mother said. “He doesn’t realize that these people are going to move out of his life. It’s hurting him, and that’s all he feels.”
Bazelon said defining bullying – and distinguishing it from normal teenage behavior – is crucial to helping combat it.
“Bullying is a particular form of harmful aggression, linked to real psychological damage, both short- and long-term,” she wrote. “There are concrete strategies that can succeed in addressing it – and they all begin with shifting the social norm so that bullying moves from being shrugged off to being treated as unacceptable.
“But we can’t do that if we believe, and tell our children, that it’s everywhere.”
The factors of repetition and power are crucial elements in real bullying.
“Most teenagers can identify bullying, but they can also distinguish it from what they often call ‘drama,’” Bazelon wrote. “Researchers have shown that is an accurate and common name for the ordinary skirmishes that mark most children’s lives.”
Drama, she said, is fairly common. Real bullying is far less common, and much more dangerous.
A group of Decatur High School students, interviewed under the condition that they would not be named, recounted incidents that would mostly be defined as drama. But one noted a friend had been systematically singled out because he is different, smart, not athletic – “weird.”
“I didn’t know until I saw him walking out of school one day,” she said. “He was coming out, and these guys who were like a year ahead of us were yelling these derogatory comments at him, cussing at him, saying all these bad things – like how he’s weird.”
She said his response is just to avoid them, even crack jokes.
“When you’re in the situation, it’s hard,” she said. “You don’t really have a voice when you have multiple people telling you these bad things, knocking you down over and over again.”
Like most kids who are bullied, he tries to just fly low, hide his true personality and hang out with different people. As an older student, he is almost out of the culture where the opinion of others matters so much to him.
For younger students, it’s often impossible to see that light at the end of the tunnel – and many do not have the kind of support from adults and friends that can help them through the toughest times.
THE SCHOOL’S RESPONSE
The Decatur boy’s mom (both she and her son were willing to be named, but the Messenger chose not to) looked to school officials for help, and felt the response was inadequate.
“I’ve been sidestepped this whole year,” she said. “Every time I’ve come and talked to them they say we’ll handle it, we’ll deal with it, we’ll let you know the outcome. I’ve never found out an outcome. I’ve called; they’re always in a meeting.
“There’s always something more important going on.”
Her son suffers from attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, is bi-polar and experiences severe mood swings. He also has a defiance disorder, she said, and low self-esteem. The only father he knows is his mom’s boyfriend, who just moved in with them last month.
He has a caseworker at Mental Health/Mental Retardation, a state agency that provides treatment and support services for those with mental illness, intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Being a teenager isn’t easy under the best of circumstances. For this young man and others who seem especially vulnerable, it can be a living hell.
“He came home from school one day and said kids were picking on him,” his mom said. “He’d sleep during class and stuff, because of medications. They would call him a fag and say he’s gay, push him down, knock his book-bag out of his hand – things like that.”
A few weeks ago, he was even stabbed in the hand with a pencil.
She said school officials told her they would talk to her son and handle it.
Decatur ISD policy spells out the steps educators will take to deal with bullying when it is called to their attention. Teachers undergo training and most administrators make it their business to spot these types of situations and intervene before they get out of hand.
Dewayne Tamplen, principal of McCarroll Middle School in Decatur, said in this case, some of the warning signs may have been missed.
“I see this young man every day,” he said. “It just breaks my heart over what has occurred. I don’t know the extent, all the pieces – she didn’t share that with me – but I think the world of this little boy. I’m just not seeing the level of what she’s saying this has risen to.”
Decatur Middle School is split between two campuses, with about 740 kids – 240 at the sixth-grade campus and another 500 at the seventh- and eighth-grade campus. Tamplen has one assistant principal at the sixth-grade campus and himself and another assistant at the seventh- and eighth-grade campus.
“I have students come report bullying, that someone was mad at someone, said something to them, and they report that as bullying,” he said. “It may not truly be the definition of bullying – they just have a problem with someone. But that’s how they report it now.”
Tamplen said his staff takes it seriously.
“We talk to the kids about it, we bring in speakers. We have several different types of things we do throughout the year. Our teachers are also trained, how to identify it and watch for it,” he said.
BRINGING PROBLEMS HOME
So how did this youngster get pushed to the point of a suicide attempt? The apparent trigger was not a school incident, but one that occurred near his home – when a group of kids he thought were his friends started picking on him.
The Friday before the attempt, his mother said he came home from school upset and disturbed, but he and his mom “talked it out.”
The next day, he was playing outside with a group of boys, and they wanted to play a game he didn’t want to play. They started teasing him.
“I don’t think this group of boys meant any harm because they are actually his friends,” she said. “But they were calling him names – and him already being sensitive because of the bullying at school, it came to a head.”
Later that afternoon, her son went into the bathroom, put a belt around his neck and was trying to find a way to harness it up when she walked in.
“I saw what he was doing, and it took every ounce of strength I had to restrain him,” she said. “He told me, ‘Mom, I just want to die. Let me go.’ He fought me, and I held on with everything I had.”
He finally got tired and went to sleep, she said. He slept most of Saturday and into Sunday afternoon. Monday, she called his caseworker, who urged her to get professional help at a nearby mental health facility. After a brief evaluation they decided to keep him. It’s undetermined how long he’ll stay.
“Within the first 10 minutes of a psychologist walking into the room and saying just a few words, she looked at me and said, ‘He is severely depressed.’” the boy’s mother said. “She could see it right off the bat.”
INTERVENING: IT TAKES A NETWORK
Decatur ISD Superintendent Rod Townsend said it’s a mistake to think school personnel don’t care.
“Everyone up here cares, and there’s not one person up here who would intentionally neglect a situation like this,” he said.
But knowing when to let normal “drama” run its course, and when to step in, is a fine line.
Tamplen said he usually tries to keep it low-key to avoid making a situation worse – especially for the kid who may be bullied.
“If a kiddo comes to me and says, hey, they’re having issues… I may grab [the bully] on the side and say hey, I’ve been hearing …” he said. “I never put that kid [the victim] in harm’s way. I’ve been doing this for a long time.”
He said he tries to put potential bullies “on notice.”
“I’ll say, ‘Hey, I saw you in the hallway the other day, you know, bothering this kiddo or whatever.’ That lets them know somebody is watching, keeping an eye on the situation. It lets them know we’re not going to have that anymore.”
He said they also train students on how to react to what they perceive as bullying – who to go to, who to talk to, how to remove themselves from a situation.
“At some point they have to self-advocate,” Townsend said. “We talk to them about that as well. If there’s an issue there, then don’t hang around those people.”
The superintendent said society puts expectations on schools that are sometimes unrealistic.
“We can’t raise their kids 24 hours a day,” he said. “We have them seven hours, and we keep them safe during that time. It’s not just happening here.”
The high school students who talked about bullying all came back around to that support network that includes not only school personnel – teachers, coaches and administrators – but parents, siblings, friends and other adults. Those people can be crucial links in getting a younger child through the difficult times and out the other end as whole, healthy adults.
“People rescued me,” said one girl. “My friend, my sister, my coaches, my teachers. Having people to come to your rescue is important.”
BULLYING AND SUICIDE
There is a strong link between bullying and suicide, as suggested by recent bullying-related suicides in the U.S. and other countries.
Parents, teachers and students need to learn the dangers of bullying and help students who may be at risk of committing suicide.
- Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
- For every suicide among young people, there are at least 100 suicide attempts.
- More than 14 percent of high school students have considered suicide, and almost 7 percent have attempted it.
- Bullying victims are between two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University.
- A study in Britain found that at least half of suicides among young people are related to bullying.
- According to statistics reported by ABC News, nearly 30 percent of students are either bullies or victims of bullying.
- 160,000 kids stay home from school every day because of fear of bullying.
WARNING SIGNS OF SUICIDE
- Showing signs of depression, like ongoing sadness, withdrawal from others, losing interest in favorite activities, or trouble sleeping or eating
- Talking about or showing an interest in death or dying
- Engaging in dangerous or harmful activities, including reckless behavior, substance abuse or self injury
- Giving away favorite possessions and saying goodbye to people
- Saying or expressing that they can’t handle things anymore
- Making comments that things would be better without them