Confronting the Bullies
In her book Reconstructing Amelia, Kimberly McCreight brings to the forefront the compelling issue of bullying. Because of societal changes surrounding electronic media and parenting, bullying has become both easier and harder to avoid. It takes on many forms from verbal abuse, emotional abuse, to physical abuse. People are bullied because they are perceived as different whether it's due to their sexual preferences, the way they dress, their size, race, religion, political affiliation, academic performance, or economic background. American Thinker interviewed experts and those who have been personally affected by bullying.
Ben Shapiro stated in his latest book, Bullies, "They come in all shapes and sizes. They're a diverse crowd..." Everyone agrees, including Barbara S. Nadel, a psychotherapist, who feels there is a continuum of bullying from being teased to ignoring or excluding someone, to undermining someone's self-worth. Deborah Runion, an expert and consultant on school violence, told American Thinker that the suicide rates among children are increasing and that it ranks as the second-highest cause of death in America for children between the ages of ten to twenty-four. "Today, instead of calling it children's suicide it is being called 'bullycide.'" People should not just accept it as "kids will be kids," since bullies get pleasure from inflicting pain. The victim certainly does not consider it normal behavior that is part of the growing up process.
Kirk Smalley's son, Ty, who was eleven years old, shot himself to escape bullying last year. Ty was physically and verbally bullied because he had a small physique. Tired of being thrown into lockers and being called names for two years, he retaliated with the outcome of being suspended. His father told American Thinker, "Although my son shot himself, he could have easily hung himself, drowned himself in the nearby river, or taken a chemical from our barn to poison himself. I read of a case where a thirteen-year old girl ended her life by stepping in front of a moving train to get away from bullying."
McCreight emphasized in her book and during the interview that often times parents blame themselves, even though they are not at fault, for not protecting their children. She highlighted a quote from the book, "Because it was Kate's fault, of course, that Amelia was dead. That she had killed herself. It was a mother's job to protect her child, even from herself. And Kate had failed..." Kirk agrees and sadly confirmed how guilty he and his wife feel about not preventing Ty from committing suicide. He recalls how his wife dropped Ty off at home and then had to get back to work. When she arrived home later, Ty was dead. In this instance it was not the parents who should assume the blame, but the school culture of Perkins, Oklahoma.
Ty's parents tried to help by going to the school numerous times, asking for something to be done. The school denied that there was a bullying problem. Yet, Kirk reflects that the day after Ty killed himself, students came to school joking about the suicide. He is frustrated because the bullying is still going on in that school district, and nothing is being done. "We were not members of the elite group of school board members. We could not even go to our newspaper because a school board member owns it, and one of the school board members is a parent of one of the bullies. So where can I turn? James Ramsey, the superintendent of the school district, just a day after Ty killed himself, found no evidence that bullying was a factor. Yet, he did not even interview any of Ty's friends or family."
All the experts interviewed agree that school culture can contribute significantly to an atmosphere where bullying thrives. Lee Hirsch, the producer, writer, and director of the documentary Bully, made the film to bring about change, and to show "how terrifying bullying can be. I was bullied for many years and still cannot understand why. I had a very hard time getting the support of teachers and administrators." Dr. Stuart Twemlow, a Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, believes that schools need to find ways to seek the bullies out. "The environment has to stop providing rewards for the bullying behavior."
All the experts do not think legislation is the answer, because as Hirsch stated, "Unless the legislation is perfect it can be as damaging as it is helpful." Most interviewed believe that the issue must be addressed at the local level and point to the gun and drug laws to show how legislation does not work, because it is never fully enforced. There is also the simple fact that each school culture is somewhat different and a one-size fits all program will not address the individual needs of a school.
In Reconstructing Amelia, McCreight insightfully shows how bullies today use text message blasts, emails, Facebook postings, and a mean-spirited school blog to inflict emotional pain upon the victim. This new form of bullying is a weapon, allowing for anything to be said without having to face or listen to the victims anguish and many times without any recourse.
Therapist Nadel told American Thinker of an instance where someone was bullied through emails by a supposed friend. In that particular case the parents were able to help her draft email responses, but in many cases it is "'bullying by stealth' since the person can remain anonymous, and become detached. It has a profound impact since it is much harder to harass someone to their face. There is this barrier of unreality where someone does not understand that words hurt people and they stay hurt unless a repair is made. It used to be that even if someone was bullied at school they could go home and feel safe. Today they can get victimized 24 hours/day, seven days/week with the whole world knowing."
McCreight commented to American Thinker, "parenting today has become much more difficult, and the balancing act is a lot more complicated. One of my daughters was bullied surrounding social issues at her school. I thought, after hearing her story, that as a good parent I would charge down to the school as well as call the parents. She got extremely aggravated with me because she did not want me to get involved. The difficulty lies in how a parent can create an environment where your children can talk to you, but not lose control. Parents need to find that good mix where they can be a sounding board for their children, that they can be told anything. So, if I could pass one message on to my daughters it would be that: no matter what you do or who you grow up to be, I will love you unconditionally. And that's always true, even when I'm really, really mad at you."
Because both sets of parents often work today, how does that affect parenting and the ability to communicate? Dr. Twemlow noted, "With two-earning parents who brings up the children? I am afraid the nuclear family has gone away. Everyone seems to be doing their own thing." Deb Runion agrees and emphasizes that many parents forget that there is a need, especially with teenagers, to be there when the opportunity arises for a conversation. "Remember teenagers are attempting to figure their way through life and a lot of them do not have the resource or resilience to deal with problems alone. Parents of today think they can buy their children's attention and love with material items such as an IPAD. They can provide these items but there still must be proper support and supervision. Parents have this misconception that when their children reach high school they no longer need supervision. Actually it is totally the opposite. So much is allowed by a parent because they are either tired, have other issues on their mind, or because it is easier to let something go. Too much is allowed or excused because the boundaries have slipped away."
Some of the solutions given by the experts to prevent bullying and become aware of the victims seem easy to obtain. Since they are still children, parents have the right and duty to check their children's technology spontaneously. Parents should teach and role model "the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would want them to do unto you," since the idea of valuing others is highly diminished today. Barbara Nadel emphasizes the need for parents to stay involved and ask their children: how is school going, what groups are you involved in, how are your friends, just communicate.
Regarding the school environment, the solution, according to Dr. Twemlow, is to change how the school functions by assessing its culture and what strategies can be adopted to create a new culture, involving individual programs that fit individual school needs. There must be a sustainable safe school community achieved through the process of asking and listening to everyone in the school from teachers to staff to children. This is something Lee Hirsch feels strongly about and he has created an educator's kit that is sent along with the Bully documentary to schools. Furthermore, Dr. Twemlow wants to start teaching children at a young age that they need to stop being bystanders and, as Runion refers to them become "upstanders," those that step up to the plate to help victims of bullying. Runion wants a policy that is modeled, preached, and consistently enforced each and every day, and refers to it as discipline, education, and learning.
Kirk and Laura Smalley's solution was founding Stand for the Silent to address the issue of school bullying. They start with a discussion of their personal tragedy to show students the life and death consequences of bullying. They hope to create "upstanders" that are committed to change and will stand up for the victims against the bullies.
There needs to be a societal shift that refuses to accept bullying on any level, even though bullying has occurred throughout the ages. (Dr. Twemlow has traced it back 500 years.) Because of societal changes, bullying has become more frequent and nastier, due in part to the electronic media. Parents, schools, and communities need to get involved to make sure students feel safe by teaching respect, empathy, compassion, and tolerance of diversity or 'bullycide' will become the number one cause of children's deaths.
The author writes for American Thinker. She has done book reviews, author interviews, and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.