Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Bullying: What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? (Hum Magazine, October 2012)

Once all of us sixth-graders piled into the gym the rules were simple: find the nametag of your eighth-grade “big brother/big sister” for the year. As one would imagine, it was sheer pandemonium. “Who would I get?” “Who did you get?” We scurried across the squeaky floor searching for our nametags with the name of our corresponding eighth-grader who would steward us through the choppy waters of early junior high. Simultaneously, our “big siblings” were on the lookout for the nametags of their mentees to whom they would impart their fourteen years of wisdom. Within minutes I saw hugs and pats on the back. I saw broad smiles and bright faces.

And then it happened.

After he pulled me by the shoulder, whipped me around and literally punched my nametag onto my chest, I thought I would vomit. The next few months were hell. Unbeknownst to the school administration, this was not a mentorship; this was a pairing of the nastiest bully with the feeblest kid. I started to take the far stairs to get to science class. Even then I couldn’t hide. I was constantly paranoid. Empty hallways felt like long, dark alleys. My routes to class became so circuitous that I started arriving chronically late. Even then he would find me. My “big brother” cannily chose to punch me in the arm so my bruises would not reveal the abuse. I would take my tardy slip without a word and then settle into my desk still shaking. He told me he had come by my house and knew which window faced into my bedroom. I’d never been so terrified in my whole life. I was too scared to tell my parents. I was too embarrassed to tell my friends. I felt paralyzed.

That was 1992. Exactly twenty-years ago. However, back then, when I went home from school I felt safe. I didn’t have a cell phone to receive harassing text messages. As these were the days before Facebook, I didn’t have any nasty posts waiting for me. In this era of incredible connectivity among young people there is seemingly no respite from such harassment. This all-encompassing psychic pounding of vulnerable young people has accompanied a frightening uptick in suicides in the context of bullying. During the last school year, “John,” a 7-year-old student in Miami, Fla. was bullied and sexually assaulted by an older classmate to the point that he attempted suicide once by deliberately standing in traffic with his eyes closed and another time by sticking a metal hanger into an electrical socket. Rachel Ehmke, a 13-year-old seventh grader in Mantorville, Minn., died April 29, 2012 after hanging herself at her home after receiving merciless texts and reading school graffiti calling her a “slut.” Perhaps most famously, on the evening of September 22, 2011, Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi posted from his cell phone on Facebook, “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry” after which he jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. Clementi’s death followed soon after his roommate secretly recorded and streamed online video of Clementi being intimate with a male partner in his dorm room. Seemingly no age group is spared. These are our elementary school students. These are our high school students. These are our college students. As a parent of a toddler, I find myself asking, “What would I do for my daughter in this situation?” Even worse, since I cannot predict how bullying will evolve, I feel woefully unprepared to protect her. I feel paralyzed in a similar way to when I was bullied myself.

Perhaps the most surprising element of this worsening and evolving trend is that the advice we as adults give our children does not seem to be working. Stan Davis, LCSW and Charlisse Nixon, PhD conducted the Youth Voice Project, a research project surveying 13,000 students’ perceptions in grades 5-12, from 31 schools in 12 states of strategy effectiveness to reduce bullying in schools (http://www.youthvoiceproject.com/). Sadly, some of the most commonly recommended strategies by adults (i.e., telling the person to stop, telling the person how I feel, walking away, and pretending it doesn’t bother me) produced markedly worsening of bullying. Furthermore, worsening of bullying was reported when school staff gave reprimands rather than strategies, i.e. saying if they had acted differently they would not have been mistreated, telling them to solve the problem themselves, or silencing youth by telling them not to tattle.

So if our traditional ways of advising our children are ineffective, what seems to work? Davis and Nixon’s research suggests that telling an adult at home, telling a friend, and telling an adult at school seem to make things better more often than make them worse. Overall it seems that the age-old recommendation to  “take matters into your own hands” is not only ineffective but frequently contributes to worsening the issue rather than improving it. Instead, approaching the issue by making others aware (peers and adults) seems to have an appreciable effect in reducing abuse.

Even though there weren’t such well-developed studies when I was in the sixth-grade, I coincidentally ended up doing one of the recommendations from the Youth Voice Project. After a few months, I simply could not tolerate the physical and psychological toll. I gingerly walked into my Principal’s office and tried to explain the situation calmly and rationally but couldn’t help but to burst into tears mid-sentence. I didn’t know how devastated I really was until I saw her reaction to my runny face. I frequently think about her consolation and how she completely understood the fear and misery of daily bullying. I’m not sure exactly what happened but I was never harassed again by this particular boy. To that particular Principal (you know who you are) thank you so much. As we start this new school year, I am reminded that in a world where bullying has become more vicious, pervasive, and lethal, we as mental health providers need to further examine this difficult subject and our students need more educators like my Principal.