By Karen Haywood Queen/Coastal Virginia Magazine February 2013
Every day in ninth grade, Portia, Samantha, Linda and Sarah teased me, shoved me, kicked me, pinched me and hit me during the 45-minute bus ride to and from school. That was year four of six years of bullying.
Bullying isn’t new. School children in 17th century France dueled, brawled, mutinied and beat teachers. In British public schools from 1775 to 1836, mutinies, strikes and violence were so frequent that schoolmasters occasionally sought assistance from the military, according to a 1998 paper from the Reason Foundation. Of course, in those times, StopBullying.gov didn’t exist. There was no Bullying Prevention Awareness Month (October). Cyber bullying didn’t exist. School shootings weren’t part of the national culture.
Sixteen percent of school children say they have been bullied, according to a Clemson University study. Children at risk for being bullied are those who are underweight, overweight, wear glasses, wear different clothing, are new, perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves. They are depressed, anxious, have low self-esteem, are less popular and are seen as annoying, according to StopBullying.gov. But even tough-looking NFL football players are bullied.
I was skinny, smart, uncoordinated, short, flat-chested, had an ugly smile, wore glasses and dressed funny. I lacked social skills and had few friends. I was bullied from sixth grade through 11th grade.
Signs of Bullying
According to StopBullying.gov, bullying includes: teasing, name-calling, inappropriate sexual comments, taunting, threatening to cause harm, leaving someone out, telling other children not to be friends with someone, spreading rumors, embarrassing someone in public, hitting/kicking/pinching, spitting, tripping/pushing, taking/breaking someone’s things or making mean or rude hand gestures.
Every time I walked past his house, Bill hit me with a Frisbee. Gary spit on me. At school, Charlotte and the other kids hit me and took my candy, gum and lunch money. In math class one day, Ellen mentioned gym class, showers and then said in a loud, clear voice, “I heard you were bald…beneath.”
Signs that a child is being bullied include: unexplainable injuries, lost or destroyed possessions, frequent headaches or stomachaches, changes in eating habits, difficulty sleeping, frequent nightmares, declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, not wanting to go to school, sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations, feelings of helplessness and decreased self-esteem, as well as self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming oneself or talking about suicide.
Cyber bullying adds another dimension. According to a study by Pew Research Center, 33 percent of teens have experienced cyber bullying. Ninety percent of teens who say they have witnessed online cruelty say they sometimes ignored the mean behavior, the study says. Twenty-one percent admit to also joining in the harassment.
When Kids Handle Bullying
Childhood has a code of silence, so I never told an adult. I gave candy and gum to other kids and invited them to ride my pony and jump on our trampoline. I hoped they’d like me in return. They didn’t.
Statistics from the 2008–2009 School Crime Supplement show that an adult was notified in only about a third of bullying cases. Kids don’t tell adults because they fear being labeled weak or a tattletale; they want to handle it on their own to feel in control again.
Today, I still smile—with the white teeth I was meant to have—when I remember my big revenge. I changed my answers on a test that Charlotte was copying, resulting in an F for her while I got an A. When Samantha asked if my pony minded if someone sat behind his saddle, I told her no, then pretended to be surprised when my pony bucked her off. Unfortunately for me, the bullying continued.
Sadly today, some bullied kids take drastic action. The shooters in 12 of 15 school shootings in the 1990s had been bullied, according to StopBullying.gov. Bullying victims are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University. A study in Britain found that at least half the suicides among young people are related to bullying.
Nationwide and in Coastal Virginia, teenagers have committed suicide after being bullied. The family of a Caroline County girl who committed suicide in October said she was bullied. A Gloucester girl killed herself in September after bullies hit her, stuffed her into trashcans and forced her into lockers, her family said. Families of a York County boy and a Williamsburg area boy, each of whom committed suicide in 2010, blamed bullying.
Of course, those statistics don’t mean that every school shooter or every suicide can be blamed on bullying. Nor do they mean that every bullied child will evolve into a school shooter or suicide victim.
No one defended me as Portia and her pals bullied me on the long bus ride. One day, when I stood to get off the bus, Sarah hit me for the third time. This time, I shoved her back and the bus driver slammed on the brakes. Caught off balance, Sarah fell. “We’re going to [get you good] tomorrow,” the girls yelled as I got off the bus two stops early.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 160,000 children stay home from school each day because of fear of being bullied.
The next day, I called my mom and told her I felt sick. She came and got me from school. The day after, on the bus ride home, Portia came back to my seat, followed by Linda and Samantha, in case they were needed. Portia didn’t need any help to break my nose, blacken my eye and break my glasses. I had to go to the hospital.
My parents went to school. The administration did nothing. “It’s a neighborhood problem,” the principal said.
My parents filed charges, and Portia was convicted of assault in juvenile court. Some of the silent bystanders were upset because they had to miss a church inner tubing trip to testify. Although the conviction went on Portia’s juvenile record, the judge didn’t even sentence her to probation.
Parents of the boy who committed suicide in York County filed a wrongful death lawsuit against school administrators, but a judge dismissed the suit.
The suicides and school shootings are indisputable facts. But the bullying is usually reported as “alleged bullying” even when no perpetrators are named. Often the adults in bullied children’s lives try to minimize what happened by calling it “teasing.” School administrators and law enforcement often don’t want to admit bullying. The sheriff’s department in Caroline County rebutted the family’s claims of bullying. In some cases, administrators say there was no record of bullying. In other cases, children and parents complained, but the bullying continued.
Local Schools Address Bullying
Coastal Virginia schools are addressing bullying. The schools’ codes of conduct ban bullying. Some area schools, including many in Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Hampton, have joined the national anti-bullying campaign, Rachel’s Challenge, named after Rachel Scott, who was killed in the Columbine school shooting. Kids are encouraged to stop bullying by being more than bystanders.
After my court date, the bullying at school lessened but continued until Cheryl and Lisa (their real names) told Portia and her pals to leave me alone. Cheryl and Lisa did what administrators and even the court couldn’t do—stopped the bullying at school.
I decided to spend more time in church activities where I thought I’d be safe. My first night at our teen girls’ mission group, Sarah was there. “Do you like it when they pick on you on the bus?” she asked, smiling sweetly. I never went back.
I continued to go to Sunday night youth group, and then the bullying began there, too. Eileen and Mary, daughters of church leaders, spent the entire two hours kicking my chair off the risers in the choir loft. The adults never saw; and again, I never told. But after Christmas my junior year of high school, I never went back. It took a while before I felt safe in any church. I know many people who were bullied in church who never returned.
Breaking The Cycle
I finally broke the cycle when I went away to a large university, made new friends and refused to be a victim. I found new jobs—twice—when I was being bullied at work.
Others aren’t so lucky. A study in Norway showed that one-third of students who said they were bullied, 41 percent of girls and 28 percent of boys, exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A University of Virginia study found that schools with high levels of bullying had dropout rates 29 percent higher than the state average, while schools with low bullying levels had dropout rates 28 percent lower than the state average.
When my son was seven and called a classmate “chubby,” I made him apologize and write a letter listing things he liked about this boy. I did not think my son was a bully, but I was taking no chances.
Signs children are bullying others, according to StopBullying.gov, include having frequent physical or verbal fights, having friends who bully others, acting increasingly aggressive, getting sent to detention frequently or having unexplained extra money or new belongings.
Both of my children endured short rounds of being excluded. I helped both of them learn the social skills I wish I’d had. Now they are popular leaders and peacekeepers, and I’m proud.
I saw one of my bullies, Sarah, a few years ago. Even though she is well known in the city where we grew up, I know I am happier and stronger. I have achieved many dreams and goals. I’m a nationally published writer, play in a jazz band, teach piano, I’ve competed in three half marathons. I volunteer as a leader with my church youth group, and when I see kids being left out, I intervene swiftly. [When I saw Sarah] I smiled, said a brief hello and walked on by, head held high.
What Parents Can Do
• Talk to your kids. Let them know that if they are being bullied, it’s OK to tell.
• Don’t blame the victim, but do work with your kids on social skills so they can confront their attackers. Role-play how to act in tough situations.
• Advocate strongly for your child. Demand action and a written record when you report bullying. Encourage administrators to take strong action against verbal and physical bullying.
• Stop the cycle. Consider taking your child out of a school where he is being bullied; do the work to boost social skills and let him make a fresh start in a new school. If you have to, close down your child’s social media and take his cell phone to eliminate cyber bullying and lessen the chance that bullying will follow your child to a new school.
• If you suspect your child may be a bully, let him know the pain the victims feel.
• Visit the following websites: http://www.StopBullying.gov, http://www.Bullying.us