There’s a lawmaker in Tennessee who, during the debate over an anti-bullying bill, said “that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I’m reminded of that old saying about sticks and stones, which ends in “words will never hurt me.” Neither statement is true.
In the wake of an explosive story about football players being charged with sexual assault and the online bullying of the victims, Torrington parents and educators have been forced to confront some very unpleasant truths about the culture in their schools. One piece of this is the sort of horrible but typical victim-blaming that accompanies rape culture, which I wrote about last week. However, the other piece is much more banal and common, a culture where bullies can thrive.
What’s remarkable isn’t the bullying itself, because bullying happens in every town and at every school. Bullying happens in the hallways, in the classrooms, in the lunch room, on the streets, online, and everywhere else. No, what’s remarkable here is that adults noticed. There are plenty of studies out there suggesting that students believe there’s a lot that teachers and other adults simply don’t see.
What goes unseen can be devastating. A search of Google News for “bullying” turned up a depressingly large number of current stories, many of them tragic, about bullies and their victims. There’s one heartbreaking story about a boy named Parti Holland II, who endured relentless humiliation because of his size and his race for years. His aunt reported that he’d suffered torment that included “being punched, tripped and chased home.” His friends said that he “was upset because his bullying allegations weren’t being taken seriously by school staff because of his size.” Parti was found hanged in his room on the evening of his 14th birthday.
Parti isn’t alone. According to one set of statistics, 1.5 million children in grades 6-10 reported being bullied. The Internet makes bullying so much easier and even more widespread; the Pew Internet & American Life Project said that 1 in 3 teenagers said they were the victim of some kind of online attack — including half of girls 15-17 surveyed. Kids of all ages, at all levels, are targets.
I was one of them. I was bullied, teased, harassed and attacked from the moment I began school. It happened every single day. I’ve been called every name in the book. People I thought were my friends spit in my hair, or hit me on the bus. I’ve been cut with words so sharp that I couldn’t even feel them going in, I didn’t know how badly I’d been hurt until much, much later. There are studies suggesting that victims of bullying suffer long-term mental health problems and other issues, and I can see the truth in that. I’ve struggled with depression, anger, and low self-esteem my whole life. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, I’ve had plenty of advantages in my life, but I do want to stress how common, how utterly common, this all is.
When I became a teacher many years later, I had a mission in mind. I’d find out about the bullying going on in whatever school I landed in, and I’d protect the victims as best as I could. But when I got there, it slowly dawned on me that I wasn’t seeing it. I knew it was happening, but it was happening out of my sight.
That’s a sad truth that they’re waking up to in Torrington. Connecticut passed anti-bullying laws a decade ago, and recently amended them. Some teachers report that they’ve had success in dealing with bullies thanks to new state mandates, but the public list of bullying incidents at Torrington High School is . . . blank. I doubt that teachers were willfully ignoring problems. I’m guessing they never saw them.
So what do we do as we are confronted with all of this? Lawmakers and educators have been making a real effort over the past 20 years or so to actually address bullying. However, research and the flood of news stories about bullies and their victims strongly suggest that existing anti-bullying laws don’t seem to be having an effect. No, this isn’t something that government or even schools can easily fix. This starts with parents, with families, and with society in general. It starts with all of us.
This doesn’t help the kids suffering now, or the victims of past bullying. But please, if you’re out there, know that you aren’t alone.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.