Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bullies and their Victims

In Massachusetts, 15 year old Phoebe Prince killed herself after months of harassment and bullying. It's a heartbreaking tale. And one that repeats itself with alarming regularity.

It's hard to understand what goes on in the minds of kids who prey on others, but I know a little bit how the victim feels. When I was in middle school, I was bullied.

For no reason I ever discovered, two girls I thought were my friends suddenly turned on me. We didn't have the internet back then, so there were no harassing emails or nasty posts on Facebook. But they were inventive note writers and drew cruel caricatures of me (I was an early bloomer and not very happy about the changes in my body anyway.)

My gut churned everytime I found another note on my desk or jammed into my locker. They weren't happy unless they reduced me to tears.

One day, a teacher found a note and turned it over to the principal. The three of us were called to the office and the girls were forced to apologize to me--an exercise in futility. We all knew they didn't mean it.

The notes stopped, but I never learned why they began in the first place. Though my experience was tame compared with the bullying others have suffered, the taunting and shame changed me. I made fewer friends after that. I pulled inward a bit. It was hard to trust other girls. How could I be sure a new friend wouldn't turn on me too?

In my case, I have to give the teacher and principal high marks for dealing quickly and decisively with my bullies. According to news reports, the high school in Hadley MA did nothing to protect Phoebe. Granted, they can't control what kids do on the internet unless they access it from school property, but if there was bullying on campus, something should have been done to make school a safe place for Phoebe Prince.

What do you think? Have you been bullied? Do you think school officials should be held accountable if they know about bullying and do nothing?


Nynke said...

I was bullied as a child, on and off all through primary school and through the equivalent of middle school. Some other children wouldn't play with me, they'd call me names, and once, some kid even spat at me. That time, an older girl walked over to us and saved me :).

The people who bullied me weren't friends to begin with, so I'm glad I never lost my trust in friends like you did, Emily. On the other hand, I was never anyone's best friend during that period; I was always a bit of an outsider. That only changed when I grew more self-confident after buying my first pair of jeans when I was 12 or 13. But all of it did change at that point :).

I think teachers and school officials should definitely act against bullying, and be held accountable. As long as we keep in mind that they can't know everything and aren't superhumans, that is. But they should at least try to do something about it if they know.

Unknown said...

I feel schools should be held accountable for bullying if they know it's happening and do not take action.
Recently my family suffered the loss of my premature son. A girl at my daughter's school taunts her with cruel words everyday. Basically telling her that her brother deserved to die. The school, counselors and officals know this is happening and won't take action. Won't even call the girls parents.
We are taking every precaution to make sure this doesn't affect her in a negative way, even though the school won't.
So sad for the parents of Phoebe.

EmilyBryan said...

Nynke--God bless that older girl who intervened! That's often more effective than adult action.

Teachers can't know everything. (Trust me on this. I used to teach.) But it's definitely something to watch for.

EmilyBryan said...

Amber--I'm so sorry for the loss of your son.

And completely bewildered by the venom that makes a child taunt your daughter over this. It's obvious that child has a disfunctional homelife if they have so little compassion for others. I would think the school would see it as a cry for help. This is how psychopaths grow up.

Anna Carrasco Bowling said...

My heart breaks for Phoebe and her family. I was also bullied in school, and I remember well those notes and drawings and nasty words. (Early bloomer here, too.) Nobody should have to go through that.

I highly recommend Frank Perretti's book No More Bullies, which includes the author's own experience with being bullied and his ideas for educators and parents, as well as wise words for bullies and their targets.

My teachers did...okay. Didn't stop the bullying, but managed it to a degree. They did, however, build me up with encouragement for my writing.

That gave me enough confidence to stand up for myself. In freshman year of high school, one of the ringleaders came up to me after gym and told me I was no fun to pick on anymore because I would no longer take it and we might as well be friends.

Margay Leah Justice said...

This is a very sore spot for me because I was bullied from grade school all the way through high school and my younger daughter was bullied in school. In my case, I don't know if any of the school officials ever knew it was happening because I was extremely shy and introverted and never told anyone in school about it. But in my daughter's case, they knew. And not only did they fail to protect her, they actually made excuses for one of the girls who bullied her. In the end, I pulled her out of the school to homeschool her. So, yes, I think that school officials should be held responsible if something like this happens to our children. After all, we are entrusting our children to their care. If it was a babysitter and we discovered abuse, wouldn't we want to press assault charges on them? How is this different? I think the laws need to be extended to protect these children in school and beyond. Cyber bullying should be a crime - like assault and battery. Bullies have to be stopped.

Lisa Cohen said...

I worry about what kind of culture we are becoming. Look at our most popular media: shows like American Idol that makes public mockery our new national pastime. Though this is by no means new. I was bullied in primary school and in Jr. High. There was little acknowledgment in those days about bullying by girls and the psychological methods of social torture some of them used.

I'm not sure what the answer is, because I think it's less about legislation and programs than it is about changing a culture at a school and in society at large.

EmilyBryan said...

Anna--I'm glad you developed the confidence to stand up for yourself.

Did your bully apologize or just ask you to join her crew?

EmilyBryan said...

Margay--Unfortunately, some teachers do take sides with the agressors. Who knows why? Maybe they were bullied as children and now see an opportunity to join the "cool kids."

I'm glad you decided to homeschool your daughter.

EmilyBryan said...

LJ--Agreed. You can't legislate compassion and empathy. But we can model it.

One of the reasons I despise reality shows is that bad behavior, abusive behavior is so often rewarded. And don't get me started about tribal councils and voting people off the island. That sort of thing happens in classrooms every day.

Lord of the Flies is being lived out in quiet desperation every day. We know humans are capable of terrible cruelty. Psychological torture is no less damaging than physical abuse.

Children see Simon Cowell's snarky brand of abuse glorified. Of course, they're going to emulate it.

Janell said...

I, too, was bullied during middle school. Two older girls followed me home and tormented me. They also threw stuff at me and damaged a coat I was wearing. My parents did talk with the principal and something was said to the girls and it eventually stopped-or it might have just moved on to someone else. I've never known. I feel so sad for this family-it seems that this was almost gang-like from what can be gleaned from the news.

A character in my wip is a high school girl, new to a school, who is about to be bullied-I started writing this as a sub-plot but it may take on a life of it's own. It's kind of eery to be writing this and open the paper/turn on tv and see similar elements affecting young lives so tragically. I plan to continue the subplot but may have the start of a YA book floating around too.

EmilyBryan said...

Janell- sounds like your subplot is very timely and will resonate with lots of kids. We read to know we aren't alone. Give them hope.

When I think about Phoebe Prince's final solution, I realize kids don't have the experience to realize that now is not forever. Their lives will change once they leave school.

Nynke said...

Reading everyone else's bullying-survival stories (and we are the ones who survived!), I'm reminded how mine really wasn't all that bad...

Emily, my guess would be that teachers who make up excuses for bullies were bullies themselves, as kids, rather than victims. Of course, the two aren't mutually exclusive... But it reminds me of what one of my best friends told me a while back. The thought of bullying someone else never crossed my mind, and I was taken aback when my dear friend (not a monster or an idiot!) confessed that she had picked on other kids. I guess some people fight back when they get picked on, and one of the strategies an insecure kid may choose is doing it to other kids.
That's what it was like for her.

You'd hope teachers were beyond that insecurity. Self-justification will go a long way, though.

Lexie said...

Until about the age of 7 and half I had the same group of people surrounding me from birth. we went to daycare together, summer camp, pre-school, sunday school, elementary school...when my mom transferred me to a new school I was completely unprepared for that. To make it worse I went from a strictly military kid school to a public school. I had no idea how to cope in a school where no one cared to know about me or wanted to know me. Worse, my speech problem became more pronounced with my agitation and I was consistently taunted and teased for it.

I finally did something about it when I was 9 and punched out one of the boys harassing me. Split his lip and bloodied his nose. No one really picked on me again. Then in HS, when my friends split away from me to be 'popular' the new set of people who took me in were mentally abusive, verbally abusive and emotionally abusive. I spent the four years of HS being told that because I was booksmart I was a loser. Because I couldn't put on makeup I was a worthless female. That because I didn't go on dates I was unworthy of male attention and should just stop being so pathetic.

Well that's what I can repeat here anyhow. I still have nightmares about what they did senior prom.

Freshmen year of college I was so paranoid and fearful of making friends I refused to talk to anyone, at all and had an anxiety attack any time anyone wanted to talk to me outside of class. Until a friend, who I had treated miserably in HS due to the other people's influence over me, called me up out of the blue to hang out my sophomore year, all I could think about was escape.

So I can understand what Phoebe must have felt like, how much worse it was because she was new to the country as well. I know that school administrators turn a blind eye because they're so worried about lawsuits. How a good teacher who tries to stand up for you can be fired for it and things just get worse. that no matter what you feel as if you try and do something you'll just be punished worse for it.

I'm sorry Phoebe's story ended the way it did, but I hope that this will serve as a much needed wake up call. All that fuss was made a decade ago and more about Columbine, and needing to help children we see being bullied and ostracized...but what was really done? Is it really any sort of 'surprise' that things are still that much worse and more? If things had gone differently and instead of suicide Phoebe had acted out against her aggressors in a violent way she'd be the one being vilified and treated as the 'bad seed'.

EmilyBryan said...

Nynke--I think your friend was courageous to admit what she'd done. We've all done things we're ashamed of. This is a complicated issue.

Bullies may be abused at home and paying it forward is all they know. They may be insecure and want to pick the target instead of being the target. I'm not making excuses, just trying to understand.

People are such a bundle of contradictions.

EmilyBryan said...

Lexie--I'm so glad that person befriended you in college. Sometimes, a single act of kindness can redeem alot and bring closure.

About schools being responsible. I think they should be required to bring the matter to the parent's attention. Then the police and social service authorities should be brought in if the parents do nothing. I've heard of some schools requiring parents to attend class with their kids. If there are lawyers involved, the parents should be liable if they've been made aware of the situation by the school.

Nynke said...

Parents attending class with their kids? How does that work?

EmilyBryan said...

It's sort of an "in school suspension." The parents have to take off work and follow their kid around to make sure they behave. It's a way to make the parent take responsibility as well as being a source of irritation to the kid.

librarypat said...

My heart goes out to Phoebe's family. No one should ever have to deal with such an unnecessary loss.

The only bullying I experienced in HS was from a teacher. He was an equal opportunity bully and picked on everyone. I complained to my parents. My Dad said to suck it up, I was making a big deal out of nothing. However, the next year when my brother had that teacher and was reduced to tears in front of the class, my Dad changed his tune. Nothing was ever done and the man taught until he retired.

Our son had a lot of trouble when we moved to TN. He went to a country school and everyone was related to everyone else or had grown up here. He was there for 4th and 5th grades. He came home at least two or three times a week with something having happened. He was kicked in the face in gym one day, bruising him under one eye. He reported it to the gym teacher who ignored it. He was constantly pushed around and told he didn't belong here. Even a teacher accused him of lying when he commented he'd been to Mt. ST. Helen (he has). He was jumped by two older boys who were choking him and he hit them to get away. Other kids saw this and had run to get the teacher. The principal suspended our son for fighting along with the other 2 boys even though the teacher said he was defending himself and couldn't breath. His teacher recommended we get him into another school (which we were already working on). She had had another boy like ours 10 years earlier. He was picked on the same way for several years and finally hung himself.

We have actually had more trouble with teachers not caring enough to take action (and in our daughter's case, a teacher who was physically abusive to students and was able to get away with it for years because of his connections. It was also hard for parents to believe their children's injuries were more than just accidents until they started comparing notes.) Principals often take the easy way out and don't stop the problem.

I agree whole-heartedly with the comments about society in general being a less civil place. The reality shows seem to reward mean behavior and ridicule.

Nynke said...

Librarypat, what a terrible story!

Emily, now I get it - so it's bullies' parents who have to attend school with them. I guess that would make a great source of irritation - I like the idea :).

EmilyBryan said...

Pat--I attended 3 different grade schools, 2 high schools. I know what it's like to be the new kid. My DH went to school with the same kids from K-12. I can't imagine what that would have been like.

Except for that time in middle school, I was accepted each time I came into a new place. I'm sorry your son faced such ridiculous and unnecessary mistreatment.

Sometimes, teachers are ignored by the administration. One time, I heard a disruption outside my classroom and found one of the school bullies slamming another kid into the lockers.

I escorted him to the office, but because the bully had also targeted one of my daughters in the past, I was considered a biased witness and nothing was done.

I don't know what the answer is. Surely it can't be that hard to treat people with decency and tolerance.

Glynis Peters said...

My daughter was 13 when she was physically beaten. A dreadful story emerged, and the education authority removed her for her saftey within a space of 4 days. She went to another county school and flourished. The girls who bullied were tarnished by what they did, they lost friends and were suspended from school.
I will never forget the look in my daughter's eyes. The police officer saw it as well, she said my daughter would have killed herself if it had continued. I thank God for that woman every day. She contacted all heads of departments she could find, and had the matter resolved immediately.
I never had a clue my child was in so much danger and pain.
I feel for the family of the girl you mention. How sad.

EmilyBryan said...

Glynis--Often the victims don't tell their parents or any other adult in their lives because they are ashamed (even though it's not their fault!) I'm so glad your daughter had someone intervene in her situation and that her bullies lost standing because of what they did.