Sticks and Stones
School Bullying: What Every Parent Must Know
Miguel softly recounts the crude schoolyard taunts: “Fag! Queer! Homo! Faggot!” His voice is barely audible, as he tinkers with his Lego blocks in the backyard of his home in Escondido. Like most 10-year-old boys, he finds it difficult—no, impossible—to sit still for any length of time: 30 seconds, say. He is pure energy in the guise of a child. During a brief interview, he wrestles with Dorian, the family dog, brandishes a small plastic sword, dashes inside for a glass of water, returns to the Lego blocks. And he talks ... about summer vacation, the school band in which he plays percussion—and about the bullies who tormented him at Central Elementary.
“They called me gay and stuff,” he says, his bright blue eyes beaming in the late afternoon sun. “They called me a fag ... a lot.” Miguel settles into a lawn chair with Dorian nestled in his lap. His mother, Jennifer Schumaker, sits by his side. Every now and then, she runs her fingers through his thick, untamed mop of reddish brown hair.
There was a cadre of five or six students who bullied a number of kids in Miguel’s fourth grade class. One in particular targeted Miguel, at one point threatening to “jump him.” So Miguel followed the rule his mother had instilled in him: “Tell the teacher. Tell Mom,” he repeated.
“The teacher was wonderful, very responsive,” says Schumaker, 42. An afterthought brings a smile to her face. “Miguel told me he wasn’t afraid, because the bully’s self-esteem is low and Miguel’s is high. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s been listening. I actually got through to him.’”
Young people often use gay slurs as generally derogatory taunts, not necessarily as references to sexual orientation. “It doesn’t matter whether it applies to a particular student or not,” Schumaker says. “The message they’re sending is that gay must be something really bad.”
The bully was suspended. And Miguel, who identifies himself as gay, remains unscathed. “I just want him to grow up to be the person he is,” Schumaker says. “I want him to know he’s safe to develop as he is.”
The victims of bullying are straight, gay, boys, girls, boisterous, withdrawn, big, small. There is no one description that encompasses them all. And they can become targets for any number of reasons. Consider another case:
“John” tried desperately to keep the lowest of profiles in high school. Yet he stood out despite himself. He was shy, short, slight of build, smart but unsure of himself. And he freely admits that he was ill-equipped to navigate the rough seas of adolescence.
He was assigned a desk directly in front of a boy he describes as “an oversized, aspiring thug.” And John, being considerably smaller, was an alluring target. Outside the classroom, the bully’s torments were blatant: forcing John’s head into the toilet bowl in the boys’ bathroom, spitting in his face, kicking his books and papers out of his arms with such force they scattered down the hallway. In the classroom, with a teacher present, the bullying was far more subtle. He slapped the back of John’s head repeatedly during lectures, flicked his ears, pinched him, poked the sharp point of a pen into the back of his shirt, leaving ink stains that would defy explanation when John returned home, where the type of support Schumaker provides for Miguel was lacking.
Every day it was the same. Every morning, John knew he had to go to school. And every day, the bully would be there, waiting for him, just like yesterday and the day before.
Bullying. It can be as subtle as a sinister sideways glance or as insidious as a threatening note laced with expletives. It can be as physically and psychologically punishing as a brutal beating—a bloodied lip, a blackened eye, a telling bruise—or as amorphous as a vicious rumor coursing through MySpace or Facebook. The pain inflicted is constant, deep, raw.
And bullies, whose relentless attacks and taunts can haunt the otherwise peaceable kingdom of childhood, can command a terrible toll from their victims: sleepless nights and night sweats, repeated absences from school, piercing headaches, severe depression, even suicide.
Fighting a Vicious Epidemic
Bullying is a reality in virtually every school in the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every day an estimated 160,000 children nationwide stay home from school because they’ve been targeted by bullies or are afraid of being bullied. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has identified bullying as a serious public health issue. In 2005, nearly one-third of students between the ages of 12 and 18 reported being bullied in the previous six months—double the figure from four years earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Experts believe the true figure is much higher, since underreporting is chillingly common.
“We’re not talking about innocent childhood pranks,” says Robert DeKoven, a professor at San Diego’s California Western School of Law. “In the most egregious cases, bullying is just another word for battery, for felonious assault.”
Schools across the country have implemented a variety of programs designed to thwart bullying on their campuses, prompted in part by fear of litigation as well as the demands of legislation. Parents have filed scores of lawsuits against schools for failing to protect their children from bullies. A robust industry of anti-bullying programs is flooding schools with brochures and pamphlets touting their approaches to the problem.
Over the past decade, 37 states have enacted laws requiring schools to implement policies designed to stop, or at least discourage, bullying. In California, a 1999 state law banned discrimination and harassment in schools based on sexual orientation. And a statewide measure passed in January gives schools the authority to suspend or expel students who are found guilty of “cyberbullying,” a term coined by educators to describe harassment taking place in the underbelly of the Internet—student-to-student bullying via e-mails, texting, “sexting,” instant messaging, cell phones, Web sites, blogs and Twitter.
“Of course, you can have all the policies and programs in the world, but they don’t really work unless they’re implemented and enforced,” says Earlene Dunbar, manager of elementary school programs for the San Diego Unified School District. “There’s a plethora of programs out there. We use a number of approaches district-wide, each tailored to work with a specific age group.”
The district’s anti-bullying program, which targets students from kindergarten through grade 12, was launched in response to the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and local shootings at Santana High School in 2001. At Columbine, near Littleton, Colorado, two students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, killed 12 students and a teacher and injured 21 others before committing suicide. Repeated bullying has been suggested as a motivation for their rampage. At Santana High School in Santee, then-15-year-old Charles “Andy” Williams shot and killed two people and wounded 13 others. He randomly sprayed bullets from inside a boys’ bathroom. Williams’ father said his son was a victim of frequent bullying.
Mental health experts say the vast majority of those who have been bullied don’t lash out violently, if they act out at all. Instead, they clutch their fear and rage deep inside, in a sort of toxic embrace.
“There is a sense of shame, an internalized emotional pain that can lead to intestinal disorders, headaches and anxiety, clinical depression and thoughts of suicide,” says Dr. Corinna Young Casey, psychologist and contributing editor to Bullying Behavior, a collection of articles focusing on school intervention and bullying prevention programs. “They feel isolated and hopeless,” she says. “Sometimes, the only recourse is for the victim to change schools. Sometimes, there’s no other way.”
And sometimes, they turn to the courts.
Seeking Legal Remedies
In October 2008, a state appeals court ruled in favor of two students who claimed administrators at Poway High School ignored their complaints of name-calling, vandalism and death threats. It was the first time a California court considered a school’s responsibilities under the 1999 state law banning on-campus harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
More recently, and under far different circumstances, a lawsuit filed by a former student at La Jolla Country Day School alleges she was bullied and harassed by administrators and fellow students over an 18-month period at the prestigious private school. In court papers, the student is identified only as Barbara B. The suit names as defendants the school itself; Christopher Schuck, head of Country Day; and school director Roderick Jemison.
In a telephone interview, Schuck declined to comment on any of the specific allegations in the lawsuit, citing issues of student privacy and confidentiality. But he did offer this observation: “We take student behavior and ethical conduct incredibly seriously, and we have in this case, as in others, acted deliberately and thoughtfully to uphold our very well-considered school policies to protect our students and ensure their well-being.”
The school’s handbook spells out a comprehensive policy prohibiting sexual harassment as well as harassment based on sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin and physical disability, among other bases.
Nonetheless, Barbara was subjected to harassment and “religious slurs,” according to the lawsuit. Her car was repeatedly vandalized while parked in the school parking lot and, on one occasion, she discovered a dead rat in her locker, the suit alleges.
Attorney Patricia Ann Lewis, who is representing Barbara and her family, maintains that school administrators failed to follow their own policies in dealing with her client.
“They didn’t abide by their own rules,” Lewis says. “They didn’t address the issue of bullying. They didn’t do anything to stop it, and it went on for a year and a half.”
According to the lawsuit, filed in April, Barbara was subjected to “harassment and bullying” in the wake of a school-sponsored trip to Ecuador in the fall of 2007. While on the trip, a representative of a custom travel group, hired by the school, furnished alcohol to Barbara and other minors. Upon their return to Country Day, three students were expelled, and several, including Barbara, were suspended. The suit further alleges that as a result of the school-sponsored trip to Ecuador, Barbara, unlike the other students, was required to submit to “humiliating drug-and-alcohol testing and unnecessary therapeutic counseling.”
According to the lawsuit, when several students admitted to vandalizing Barbara’s car on three separate occasions in 2008, Barbara was required to attend counseling sessions with those students. “When [school administrators] became aware of what was going on, they joined her in counseling with the students who bullied her,” Lewis said. “To put her in that position is unacceptable.” The lawsuit further alleges that when Barbara’s father called Jemison and asked him why Barbara was required to undergo counseling with the students who vandalized her car, Jemison responded, “Have you thought you’re a Moslem? What are you doing in a Jewish school?” (La Jolla Country Day is nonsectarian but reportedly has a large Jewish enrollment.)
The lawsuit alleges school officials knew of prior bullying aimed at a student identified only as G.S. According to published reports, a 13-year-old female student named Gizelle Studevent was harassed for more than two years before she left La Jolla Country Day and transferred to The Bishop’s School, also in La Jolla. At one point, Studevent, who is of Hispanic decent, returned from a basketball tournament to find an unsigned note addressed to “Senorita.” The note reportedly mocked her skills on the basketball court and suggested she go home to Mexico.
Like Gizelle, Barbara has since left La Jolla Country Day School.
The language in the lawsuit, alleging Barbara was subjected to “bias-motivated harassment, peer bullying, administrator bullying and retaliation,” stands in sharp contrast to La Jolla Country Day’s official motto—“Scientia Pacifica” (peace through knowledge)—and its core ethical values, the so-called Six Pillars of Character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, caring, justice and fairness, and civic virtue and citizenship.
“We focus on the development of character and individual ethics,” Schuck says. “Our goal is always to ensure the safety of our students.”
While school administrators grapple with the hydra that is bullying, some believe the singular emphasis on educators is misplaced.
“Bullying and gay-bashing in our schools is not a school issue; it’s a law enforcement issue,” DeKoven says. “School officials aren’t police officers, nor do they want to be.” In the most extreme cases of bullying, where physical injury has been inflicted, law enforcement should join the fray, he says. “Police should be called on to arrest school bullies and charge them with the crimes they’ve committed,” he adds. Those charges could range from battery and assault to child abuse, according to DeKoven.
Death by Bullying
School bullying was once considered a normal part of growing up, an innocent childhood ritual. But bullying can be deadly. A disturbing increase in the number of bullied children who commit suicide has prompted researchers to coin the term “bullycide,” death by bullying. A sampling of recent published reports reflects a grim litany of young lost souls.
On April 6, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, 11, hung himself at home after being subjected to bullying, including numerous gay slurs, at his Springfield, Massachusetts, school. Carl, who did not identify himself as gay, would have celebrated his 12th birthday on April 17.
Also in April, Eric Mohat, 17, shot himself in his family’s home in Mentor, Ohio, after enduring months of name-calling, shoving, teasing and hitting.
On April 16, 11-year-old Jaheem Herrera came home from school, said hello to his mother and sister and went upstairs to hang himself by his belt in his bedroom closet. His mother said he had been bullied at school for years.
Daniel Mendez, a sophomore at San Clemente High School, drove to a friend’s house shortly after school let out on May 1. According to authorities, he parked nearby, got out of the car and shot himself in the head. A claim filed by the boy’s parents alleges that he had been bullied in school.
And 8-year-old Marie Bentham hung herself in her bedroom with her jump rope because she could no longer face classmates who were bullying her at school.
There are more, so many more. The list is as long as it is heart-wrenching.
“These kids feel so isolated, so hopeless,” Casey says. “They become depressed, anxious. These are the ones who are more likely to take their own lives. They actually feel that they would be better off dead. They just want to disappear.”
Bullying is by no means limited to U.S. schools.
For a look at worldwide experiences of the
phenomenon, see sandiegomagazine.com.
What to Do If...
...Your Child Is Being Bullied
- If your child doesn’t tell you about the bullying and has no visible marks, it can be hard to know for certain what’s going on. But there are warning signs you can look for. If there is a sudden change in a child’s eating and sleeping habits, or if the child avoids certain situations, like taking the bus to school, it may be because of a bully.
- If you suspect bullying is a problem, let your child know that it’s important to talk about it with a grownup, whether it’s you, another adult or a family friend.
- If your child opens up and tells you about a problem bully, commend him or her for being honest and talking about it. Emphasize that you will figure out what to do about it together.
- Contact your school and report the problem. Your first instinct might be to confront the bully’s parents, but in most cases, it’s best to contact teachers or counselors first.
- Give your child sound advice in dealing with a bully: Always tell an adult; stay in a group and avoid the usual target areas, such as locker rooms and bathrooms; and finally, if it feels safe, try to talk calmly to the bully, preferably when you have someone else with you to back you up.
...Your Child Is a Victim of Cyberbullying
- If you can identify the source of the cyberbullying, block any further communication with the offender. If you need assistance, go to WiredSafety.org for tips and links to trained volunteers who can help you track down the source of the harassment.
- Most cyberbullying behavior, whether it’s in the form of threats, harassment or stalking, violates the provider’s terms of service. File a complaint with the service and provide details.
- If the bully attends school with your child, contact a teacher or administrator and tell them about the online bullying behavior.
- If you’ve been able to identify the source of the cyberbullying, send the child’s parents a “cease and desist” letter. Include computer printouts of the bullying behavior, and ask the parents to put a stop to the harassment. By certifying the letter, you can prove that the parents are aware of their child’s behavior.
- In the most severe and persistent cases, call an attorney who can help you file a civil suit against the bullies and their parents for defamation, harassment or other causes.
- If there is evidence that the bully has made physical threats or talked of bringing weapons to school, contact the police. Authorities also should be notified if bullies have posted surreptitious locker-room photos of your child online, in which case they can be charged with disseminating child pornography.
Sources: Kidshealth.org; the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use; and Child Abuse Prevention Services.