It was just one incident. There was this kid – huge kid – who sat the next row over from me in sixth-period English class. Not very friendly. Early on in the school year, he looked me square in the eye, unsmiling, and asked, “Hey – does your face hurt?”
I was confused. “No,” I said.
He didn’t flinch. “Well, it’s sure hurting me.”
Yikes. I didn’t say anything back to him. Ever.
I didn’t find out how his life turned out until several years later – I’ll tell that story in a bit – but I realized how lucky I was that things didn’t escalate. If it turned into a pattern of behavior, this kid about twice my size could have made my young life miserable.
So it makes my heart hurt to fathom the final days of poor Rebecca Ann Sedwick.
You might have heard about the 12-year-old girl in Lakeland, Fla., who jumped to her death Sept. 10 in a suicide that authorities are saying might have been spurred by months of bullying from other kids. Hair-pulling. Name-calling. Threats.
To distance her from her tormenters, Rebecca’s mother withdrew her from school and home-schooled her before placing her in another middle school. That might have worked, too, if Rebecca’s bullies hadn’t followed her into cyberspace, as police allege.
“Go kill yourself,” one Internet comment read. “Why haven’t you already died?” read another.
Bullies aren’t just intimidators. They’re thieves – and now they’re online, stealing kids’ happiness, their innocence, their security, their self-esteem. You might not get some of those things back.
Rebecca’s family and other people who genuinely love her are looking for answers and justice, and I pray they receive both in abundance.
These tragedies strike locally, too. The CSRA has seen at least two suicides in the past year triggered by bullying, according to Eric Lewkowiez, a psychiatrist at the Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Regents University Augusta. He’s also president of the Georgia Council on Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
“It seems like electronic access has made things worse,” Dr. Lewkowiez said. “You can’t get away. It used to be you went home and your family could shelter you, but now with Facebook and cell phones and texting, it’s hard to get away.”
Many of us have traded barbs with acquaintances through social media. But when you engage in harassing behavior over and over, and you want to hurt someone over and over, and you get a sick thrill from thinking you’re exerting power over someone weaker than you? That’s bullying.
Who could become a bully? A kid with a bad attitude or poor self-control, or someone who’s a bit too accepting of violence. It could be a kid with overly punitive parents. A kid with problems making friends.
Problems making friends can produce potential victims, too. So can a kid’s poor self-esteem, or an overly passive demeanor.
How can you combat bullying? Particularly for the new strain of cyberbullying, one good strategy is simply to unplug. There is such a thing as being too connected to social media. “You need a break sometimes,” Dr. Lewkowiez said.
But the big goal in stopping bullying is to prevent it before it starts. That means better adult supervision and better cooperation among those supervisors, at home and at school. Every U.S. state except Montana has anti-bullying laws on the books now. Georgia was the first to do that, in 1999, and the state strengthened its law in 2010, to more clearly spell out penalties for bullies and how schools need to set up anti-bullying programs.
An important first step is for children to just tell someone. Or parents have to ask, if they spot certain signs – if a child is withdrawn or depressed, or doesn’t seem to be performing well in school. It’s often easier for elementary-age victims to tell someone about bullying; it’s tougher to extract that information out of middle-schoolers or high-schoolers.
“It’s important for the parents to talk to their children and ask them what’s going on,” Dr. Lewkowiez said. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be only parents, either. It could be a grandparent, a teacher, a counselor – most any trustworthy adult.
Oh – I promised I’d tell you what happened to that classmate of mine.
It was maybe six or eight years after we graduated high school. I was toiling as a reporter and editor at my hometown paper, where each Monday we would run a front-page feature profiling an interesting local person. On one particular Monday, the story was about Georgia’s wildflower initiative, a new program that directed Department of Transportation employees to plant assorted seeds in grassy medians to help beautify state highways.
The story profiled the local DOT worker whose job it was to scatter these seeds. In the photo accompanying the story, there he was – that bullying middle-schooler, now a burly adult, smiling as he sat in a blooming bed of cute, multicolored flowers. It radiated a juxtaposition that amused only me, and for a reason only I knew.
It was a photo of a man who appeared to have found his peace – maybe among the wildflowers, maybe not. But it was enough to give you hope that hardened hearts can discover healing.
Sadly, too many bullies – and too many of their victims – aren’t so fortunate.