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The Effects of Bullying

Last year, when the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and the Ad Council enlisted Wanda Sykes and Hilary Duff in their “Don’t Say Gay” campaign, some people thought it was an unnecessary exercise in political correctness because name-calling is not a major concern.

Two recent news stories illustrate the impact that verbal bullying can have on its target.

On April 9 in Springfield, Massachusetts, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover committed suicide by hanging himself with an extension cord. He was 11 years old. Although he played stereotypically “masculine” sports like football and basketball, he had been teased all year for being perceived as gay due to his clothes, appearance, and, oddly enough, involvement with the Boy Scouts.

Earlier this month, ABC News ran an online report about a high school in Mentor, Ohio that had four student suicides in 2007 after enduring bullying from classmates. The parents of one of the students, 17 year old Eric Mohat, have sued school administrators and a teacher for not intervening on their son’s behalf and contributing to Mohat’s “bullicide.” Like young Carl, he was called "gay," "fag," "queer," and "homo" in front of his teachers, although he didn’t identify himself as gay. On one occasion a student told him "Why don't you go home and shoot yourself, no one will miss you."

These incidents did not happen in places that were hotbeds of homophobia. Massachusetts is regarded as one of the most progressive and LGBT-friendly states in America, and Mohat was raised in an upper middle-class community where people are assumed to be “sophisticated” in their attitudes and behavior.

As shocking as these stories may be, they are rather common. According to the National Youth Violence Prevention Center, nearly one in three children have reported either being bullied, having bullied someone, or both.

GLSEN’s 2007 National School Climate Survey painted a bleak picture for LBGT students. Of the more than 6,000 students who replied, 86.2 percent said they were verbally harassed in school, 44.1 percent were physically assaulted, and 22 percent reported physical assaults. Sixty percent of the students said they did not report the incidents to school staff, largely because they did not feel the administration would do anything.

That sentiment is supported by the experiences Walker-Hoover and Mohat endured.

Walker-Hoover’s mother says she called the school every week to express her concerns, but she was not satisfied with their response. The school’s last attempt at mediation was to have the boy and one of his bullies eat lunch together. In Mohat’s case, a teacher moved the desks of the bullies, but no further action was taken.

This kind of environment is clearly not conducive to learning. And the risks go deeper than sending a message that teachers lack control of the classroom or even the personal hell the bullied student experiences. Sometimes the student being bullied gets revenge in unexpected ways. Consider the cases of Michael Carneal, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, or Jeffrey Weise, all victims of school bullying who killed over 20 people when they shot up their high schools.

What can be done?

In Nashville’s public schools, there is a zero tolerance policy for drugs, guns, drug paraphernalia, and coming to school intoxicated. That means students are automatically kicked out of school for those offenses. Should bullying be added to that list? Given the high rate of bullying in schools, what would be done with all those expelled children? Do people want to teachers to focus more on conflict resolution than education?

Mohat’s family might be on the right track with their lawsuit against the school, and they certainly have a duty to protect their students, but the problem goes beyond those eight hours of class time. What about the influences kids are soaking up before they get to school?

I think the rise in bullying is a reflection on the kind of examples these kids are seeing on a daily basis. In entertainment, whether it be video games, reality television, sports, or movies, the bully usually gets what he wants and becomes more popular. Being aggressive is seen as a virtue by many people in business and politics. Children tend to copy what they see, and they may see bullying as a way to elevate their status.

There are also parents and guardians who simply refuse to discipline their child or install any sense of values. It’s always an experience to go out in public and see how many children seem to be in charge of the parents, and not the other way around. Even in situations where the child is clearly in the wrong, the parent will defend him if criticized. If a 13 year old is dominating his house, he will probably think he can do it in school as well.

Schools can do a lot of things, but I’m not sure raising children is one of them. Parents need to take more responsibility, not only for the actions of their child, but also for the influences that impact their lives. If parents devoted more time to teaching their children to respect others, perhaps Eric Mohat and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover would still be alive.

From “Blackout” for 4/13/09 by Anthony Rucker


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