I was chattin and chewin the other night with lifelong friend Jane Maxwell, nee Nettleship (whose father Johnny was the much-beloved sports editor of the Telegram-Tribune for more than 30 years) when the topic turned to bullying.
As a former principal and school superintendent, Janes take on bullying is that it has and will continue to lead to school violence conceivably on the scale of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School that resulted in 13 deaths and 24 students wounded.
As it turns out, the two students who carried out the attack were gifted students who had been bullied for years. Following that tragedy, the U.S. Secret Service analyzed 37 premeditated school shootings and found that bully victims were involved in more than two-thirds of the attacks.
Along those lines, Jane recalled an incident when she was school superintendent in Susanville in northeastern California.
A young, socially awkward, devoutly religious girl was picked on much like chickens pecking at a weaker member of the flock.
Over time, she carefully crafted a plan to plant explosives in flowerpots and other locations around the school before her intentions were discovered.
These children just want to feel safe; theyre terrified, Jane explained. If feeling safe means doing away with their tormentors, then thats the extremes to which theyll go.
Schoolyard bullies have been a staple for as long as there have been schoolyards. Yet something is ramping up the behavior, so much so that there have been outbreaks of bullied youngsters who have committed suicide to escape their tormentors.
Now, Im not a psychologist, but as a journalist, someone who gets a curbside seat on the passing parade of life, here are some observations. Take them for what theyre worth:
A tough economy is being exploited in political discussions on both sides of the aisle. That, in all likelihood, shapes frustration levels in the home. Kids pick up on that frustration and act out to feel control.
Along those lines, political pundits of both political persuasions whether its liberal commentator Bill Maher calling Sarah Palin a c--- or conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh calling a woman a slut are coarsening the national conversation. That sends a message that just about anything is fair game in name-calling and bullying others.
Reality television is just one long rant of bad behavior and miserable examples of social interaction. Again, that sends a message to impressionable minds that such bullying is not only accepted, but can actually lead to 15 minutes of fame.
Finally, theres the rise of anonymous bullying through social media such as Twitter and Facebook. With the option of posting anonymous comments, vast opportunities of bullying have been opened up to our children. The problem has become so pervasive that the number of youngsters who have committed suicide through social media-related bullying has led to 35 states passing laws specifically singling out electronic bullying.
Laws are a reaction and generally are the final straw of frustration that our culture relies on to solve its problems. Our prisons are full of the effectiveness of such laws not.
No, if theres a unifying element in the rise in bullying, laws wont fix the problem. The answers can and should be found in the home or, more specifically, what type of examples and life skills parents give their kids within the home.
Want a child with a sassy mouth who shows little respect and picks on others? By all means, dont take the time to correct their actions and remarks. Park your childs carcass in front of foul-mouthed pundits on the TV and radio and reality programs. Tear down their sense of self-worth because it makes you feel momentarily better with your lot in life and your political and economic frustrations.
If thats not what we want as a culture, look at the 16 Cayucos Elementary School students who created a public service announcement dealing with the harm that cyberbullying can cause. It will continue airing through the end of the month on KSBY and KCOY television stations. These young people are our leaders of tomorrow.
Or, check out Hear Our Voices," a live performance dealing with anti-bullying April 23 at the South County Regional Center. Underwritten by the Asset Development Network of San Luis Obispo County, the play is written, directed and produced by Albert Nuñez, a graduate of Cal Polys Theater Program.
In the final tally, bullying is not the same as a prank, not when it can lead to abject fear, mental breakdown, broken lives, suicide and mass murder.
Overstated? Not one bit.
Bill Morem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 781-7852.