THE VIEW FROM HERE-Since October is National Bullying Prevention Month, how appropriate it is to take some time to address this issue. Bullying is perpetrated by people, usually youngsters but frequently adults, whose aim is nothing less than malicious torment of their victims—targets often just a few years old.
I suppose bullying has been around since the beginning of time, but there are so many newer ways than ever before to victimize people—cyber-attacks through Tweets, Facebook, all kinds of social media.
Even the disabled are not off-limits, and it is not just people in a wheel chair but people who are mentally challenged or mentally ill—too many other categories to mention here. It is people whose religious practices (or non-practice) or whose skin color or hair texture is different. It is people who are overweight or underweight, who are fast or slow, who are good students or underachievers. The victims seem to be anyone who stands out from the crowd—for good or for bad.
The problem goes beyond the bully or even the victim—it is a pervasive issue we don’t dare ignore!
Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with a very humble, self-effacing Monica Harmon (a Public Safety Advocate volunteer), who was just recognized by the Los Angeles City Council for her unwavering support of the victims of bullying.
Los Angeles Councilmembers Buscaino, Englander and LaBonge spoke in praise of her, but Felipe Fuentes (who, while an Asssemblymember in the State Legislature, worked on anti-bullying legislation) spent a little extra time in recognizing her as someone who leads by example, who is one tough advocate (for any of her many issues), who is creative and innovative in her pursuit of justice.
She founded the group, Speak Out Against Bullying, Inc., which works with parents, teachers, students, community leaders to teach about this plague on our society. It holds townhalls and school assemblies to demonstrate what bullying really is--in all its manifestations. It also advises about how people can avoid being victims, how they can develop a stronger, more positive self-image, how by-standers can find the inner-strength to stand up for others, and how perpetrators and potential perpetrators can look at the potential consequences of their actions and choose alternate behavior beforehand.
It was Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, himself an openly gay man who knows what it is like to be the object of senseless and unwarranted persecution, who initiated the award Harmon was given.
He provided alarming statistics pertinent to the bullying epidemic. One in seven children are harassed and intimidated every year (that is 7.2 million students per year), leading to feelings of low self-worth, isolation, self-mutilation, and suicide (some 4,400 deaths per year)—the third leading cause of death among young people.
And just last week there was another horrendous example of a suicidal response by a teenager-- this time in Florida [it seems “(t)here is something rotten in the state of -------”]. Twelve year old Rebecca Sedwick was so terrorized by cyber-attacks from two young perpetrators (12 and 14), that she took her young life. And just this week a young man in Nevada killed a teacher, wounded others, and then became a victim of gun violence himself.
For a child, there often seems to be no way out, no way to relieve that agonizing pain. Too many parents and teachers believe that bullying is no more than a rite (right) of passage and that targets should “man” up and learn how to take it and/or give it back. They don’t intercede—they are often insensitive and indifferent--until it is too late. And when parents and teachers do report this kind of activity, they are frequently ignored. Is this the kind of society we want our children to experience?
Sixty per cent of children are afraid of going to school because they know they may be confronted by the threat of bullies (14 per cent of children are the predators or the prey). And LGBT youngsters are 7 times more likely to be victimized.
And what about the gun-toting youngsters who shoot up school mates and theaters and playgrounds and malls? There is evidence through studies of the diminished capacity of such perpetrators, people who themselves have been ignored and isolated and persecuted because of their differences from the rest, because of how they do not neatly fit in with others. Their minds are sick, sometimes because of untreated tumors, sometimes because of physical or mental abuse, sometimes for reasons unknown. They are also victims that need our sympathy, even when they do bad things.
Think of the two teens who slaughtered so many at Columbine High School in Colorado. There were clear signs they were troubled youth, but no one stepped in to help—no school administrators, counsellors, teachers, fellow students, parents. Full of angst, resentment, a sense of futility to their lives, they carried out their obscene plan.
Despite the horrors they committed, I felt a sense of sadness for them too. No crosses with their names on them to commemorate their miserable lives. They were ignored even in death. Perhaps they were victims as well. By not mourning their passing, Society is setting itself up for future assassinations.
Bullying has consequences. If we don’t get to the cause, there will be further explosions from those mercurial souls who believe they have no other outlet than to quench their own pain through such unconscionable acts.
There are many viable alternatives to mere lip service regarding these matters. Monica shared with me what a superb partner the LAPD is—with its many youth programs and intervention networks. Harmon and her partners have been working relentlessly to suppress an adage that has too often been encouraged: Prove yourself! Be a bully! When good programs are introduced when children are very young and when those programs have the backing of parents and teachers, the effect is almost immediate—reduction of intimidating practices.
I’ll never forget experiences with some of my students. One lovely, intelligent, personable ninth grader was so tormented by her “friends” that she transferred from our school a mere semester before her junior high graduation. I tried to do an intervention with her tormentors but to no avail. It seemed that when the group gained a new girl, the uneven number put my student as the odd “man” out. I think of her all the time too. I was heartsick over her leaving, but I hope the change worked out for her.
Another young man who was in my class just before the nutrition break, never wanted to leave. I came to realize that he was trying to think up things to ask me because he did not want to leave the room. I spoke with him about this and he opened up to me: Kids were always waiting for him outside the door to taunt and instill fear in him. We spoke with his parents, the counselors, reported the names of the students—nothing much happened.
Even though I continued to be supportive, I worry about him to this day. Whatever happened to him? Is he finally leading a happy life? I still fear for him. Children like him withdraw into themselves, never think they are good enough; they come to believe that there is something wrong with them instead of with the mean-spirited, children who probably have such a low self-image themselves that acting out is the only way they can feel superior to someone or something else.
Let us teach each other and particularly the young that being fair and compassionate and sticking up for others and being defenders, not aggressors, is not a sign of being weak. It shows the kind of strength that should be developed in each of us.
Let each of us spend some time considering what we can do to make a difference to the bullying nightmare.
(Rosemary Jenkins is a Democratic activist and chair of the Northeast Valley Green Coalition. She also writes for CityWatch.)
Vol 11 Issue 86
Pub: Oct 25, 2013