On January 14, the suicide of Phoebe Prince shocked the nation's conscience about bullying.
Prince took her life after a tortuous school day in which she was subjected to verbal harassment and threatened physical abuse. The tragedy marked the culmination of months of abuse, which began when the 15-year-old Irish immigrant started school at South Hadley, Mass., High School in September 2009. Since her death police have charged nine kids for their actions toward Prince and Massachusetts lawmakers have passed anti-bullying legislation, joining 39 states already with these laws.
This is the face of bullying today.
As more schools and communities adopt anti-bullying policies, bullying becomes a problem where law enforcement will increasingly be called upon to intervene, adds Jodee Blanco, bullying survivor turned activist who speaks in schools nationwide through her day-long program "It's NOT Just Joking Around!"
"If it's a zero-tolerance school, principals will call law enforcement, who may be very ill-equipped to deal with it," she says, noting these cases must be investigated and handled differently. "You need to look at bullying as a human being first then as a law enforcement officer," she explains.
Bullying: Then and now
Prince's suicide shed light on a very real problem across the United States. The Youth Voice Project, spearheaded by Stan Davis of Stop Bullying Now and Charisse Nixon, surveyed more than 2,600 students to learn the extent of bullying among young people. The study released in March found 22 percent of the students surveyed reported being regularly victimized, defined as two or more times a month. Of those affected students, the study found 11 percent reported being severely affected by the abuse, experiencing problems eating, sleeping or enjoying themselves; and 7 percent felt unsafe or threatened because of the victimization.
When you take those numbers and extrapolate them to 50 million school children nationwide, this translates to approximately 6 million bullied kids, according to Davis. "While not every kid who is mistreated will do something dramatic, there are certainly many kids who have a diminished quality of life because of it," he says.
However, Barbara Coloroso, author of "The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander" and founder of Kids Are Worth It, stresses there are also those kids who may drop out of school, harm or even kill themselves. "And there are a small number of kids, who when repeatedly targeted, will turn the other page into contempt for themselves and everyone else, and they become our school shooters," she says. "We ignore this at all of our peril."
Ironically in the past, people often dismissed bullying with statements like "kids will be kids" or "it's all part of growing up." Bullying is a real part of growing up, adds Blanco, who points out, "Cruelty is currency to the young. They use it to leverage social status. But it shouldn't be a part of growing up, and it doesn't have to be."
But cruelty today packs a far greater punch than it did in the past. Thirty years ago, while bullied students could not escape their feelings of loneliness and rejection, they could escape the abuse within their own homes. Today a nasty rumor can be e-mailed or texted to every single kid in school, posted on a Facebook wall, or made into a video and posted on YouTube. And once they are out there, these negative messages have some staying power. Two years ago, a group of students in Washington made a video called "Six Ways to Kill Piper and Other Stuff" and posted it on YouTube. While YouTube has since pulled the video, it remains readily available elsewhere on the Internet.
"Today bullied kids cannot escape their tormentors," says Blanco. "If they turn on their computer, it's there. If they turn on their cell phone, it's there. And that's why you're seeing more bullying-related suicides today than you did years ago."
What constitutes bullying?