Opinion

It's time to face the tragedy of bullying

 

“Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newton know they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm”

– President Obama, Inauguration Speech January 21, 2013

 

It felt particularly fitting that President Obama’s inauguration occurred on the day we celebrate a great leader, Martin Luther King Jr., who stood for nonviolence and whose life was taken violently.

Like the rest of the nation, I am still reeling from the shootings that occurred in Connecticut, this time of small children along with the adults who attempted to protect them.

Since this last shooting, there has been much debate about gun control – as if that is the answer/direction we take.

My feeling is there is not one answer and/or direction. The “issue” is a complex one, and what I find astounding and disappointing is the lack of progress we are making in an area that can hopefully offer a piece of the solution – being more proactive in our schools.

I have worked with students for over three decades in private and public school settings, general and special education, drug alcohol, mental health and school counseling ranging from grades K-12. I am unable to count the number of times students have come in to my office in tears because they were bullied, teased, made fun of, ostracized, and attacked. Bullying is as common in schools as school lunches.

As we look to “profile” the assassins who open fire in a school and then take their own lives, we know we are dealing with mental illness. When we dig further, we often find the person to be a sociopath – with no moral compass (and only 0.6% of our population), and that they too were bullied.

It is time we no longer take this lightly or treat it as though it is a normal part of child development. Middle-school-aged children are the worse. It’s not that they are mean spirited.

Studies show us that middle school aged youngsters want to be like their peers more than anything else and more than any other time in their life. So, if their friends are teasing others, so will they. Anything to attempt to avoid it happening to you! But, the thing it – it happens to almost everyone.

On a recent vacation, I met a woman who was in her 50s. She told me she had been bullied all through school for being overweight and began cutting on herself at an early age. She then became very depressed and after she married and had her own children, one suffered enormously from depression and nearly took his life.

Her son called her at a bridge where he was ready to jump. Had she not picked up the call and drove there, he would have died. It became apparent to me that of course there is a genetic piece to depression and other mental health illnesses, BUT also how bullies can impact people for generations!

This woman went to a reunion many decades later and faced the leader of the pack of the bullies. She confronted him with this and he had no recollection of what he had done to her. When she kept reminding him he finally looked at her and said, “Well… I didn’t mean anything by it.” Six words that were supposed to make it all better.

Every time a young person is called a fag, or retard, or fat, or whatever it is; any time these slurs are now posted on Facebook of sent to multiple people in the form of a text or a tweet or the latest new technology for all to see and then challenged by an adult we still hear those words: “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

We must stand up to bullying. There are programs that teach violence prevention and empathy building. In fact, I have been trained to implement these programs by the Committee for Children, a nonprofit group in Seattle who wrote Second Step. The lessons cover these concepts and although once a week for a period of time is not enough, it is a start.

But then we are faced with the reality of our schools today – teachers are very overwhelmed by making sure they are meeting learning objectives and that their students do well on standardized tests; counselors are overworked with a myriad of duties many of which are data based; mental health counselors and social workers are being removed from schools … what then do we do?

We need to put our heads together to figure this out. We need to make sure each child feels safe, protected and heard when he or she comes to school. We need to believe that this is an enormous tragedy we face. It must happen now.

 

Ellen K Reichman, Kirkland

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