Opinion Columns & Blogs

Adults must help victims of bullying

For several of my elementary school years, I was bullied by one of my classmates.

There were times when I wanted to stay home from school to avoid whatever abuse would come my way, and I remember asking my parents what to do about it. They tried their best to console me and encouraged me to ask teachers for help or, if necessary, defend myself.

Looking back now, it all seems fairly innocent. As we grew older and I became more self-assured, the girl eventually stopped. I managed to move past it and on to another school.

Unfortunately, in these increasingly volatile times, bullying appears to have taken an extremely dangerous turn. The standard teasing, shoving and name-calling on the playground that many of us recall as children have transformed into full-scale physical violence and aggression in text messages and on the Internet.

The National Youth Violence Prevention Center reports that almost 30 percent of young people in the United States are either bullied at school or are the perpetrators of the intimidation.

In a 2008 survey of 824 13- to 17-year-olds, 35 percent said they were targeted by rude comments or threatening messages on the Internet. Eight percent said they were harassed at least monthly.

Last week, I was saddened by the case of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old girl who killed herself in January after being harassed mercilessly on Facebook by older girls who didn’t like the idea of her dating an older football player.

I have thought a lot about this young woman’s pain, and the same question keeps surfacing: Shouldn’t more have been done to prevent this tragedy, and why didn’t the adults in her life — and the adults in the lives of her young tormenters — notice what had been happening for months? How many other Phoebe Princes are out there, feeling like they have run out of options?

It’s true that teenagers can be notorious for building fortresses around themselves, shutting adults out at a time when they may be the most vulnerable.

It’s also true that many school administrators are overwhelmed with a host of problems, including student misbehavior, and that the rules are often unclear when it comes to when and how they should intervene, especially if incidents occur off campus.

Moreover, today’s parents, many of whom are just struggling to stay afloat, are busy and stressed, so much so that they may not be as tuned in to their children’s feelings as they should be.

Despite the myriad factors at play, there’s no excuse for failing our children who are hurting, sometimes silently, and for not stepping in to stop the violent behavior of those who lash out at their peers.

Christine Enyart-Elfers, senior program coordinator with the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education, believes that combating bullying is a community effort, one that involves the input of school officials, parents, and even other adults who have an interest in the well-being of students.

In San Luis Obispo County, school administrators, teachers and staff attend professional development sessions to learn about physical bullying and intimidation in cyberspace.

For the first time this year, the county office is part of the newly established local Anti-Defamation League board, which is addressing bullying at school and in the workplace. Focus groups have been held to discuss the issue with students, and each county school has established ways of communicating what is and is not acceptable behavior, Enyart-Elfers said.

Many states (California among them and more recently Massachusetts) have taken action by passing laws establishing anti-bullying curriculums in the public schools.

I am heartened by these efforts, but they should not stop there. As a society that is invested in the success of our young people, it’s up to us to educate ourselves and other adults in our communities about the hatred and violence that have infected too many of our schools. No child should ever have to suffer alone.