Rash of Suicides Puts Spotlight on Bullying

faux street signs: School Zone, No BulliesJustin Aaberg, Cody Barker, Asher Brown, Harrison Chase Brown, Raymond Chase, Tyler Clementi, Jeheem Herrera, Billy Lucas, Felix Sacco, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, Seth Walsh — each of these boys, only teenagers, reportedly unable to cope with the torment by their peers for being gay, took their own lives last year.

Their tragic deaths made national headlines, bringing much-needed attention to the enduring problem of bullying in schools.

For example, the rash of incidents inspired Dan Savage, a gay, internationally syndicated relationship advice columnist, to create the It Gets Better Project, a collection of videos featuring celebrities and non-celebrities alike, assuring bullied lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth that their lives will improve in adulthood.

Even President Barack Obama weighed in.

“There are people out there who love you and care about you just the way you are,” Obama says in his It Gets Better video. “And so, if you ever feel like because of bullying, because of what people are saying, that you’re getting down on yourself, you’ve got to make sure to reach out to people you trust. Whether it’s your parents, teachers, folks that you know care about you just the way you are, you’ve got to reach out to them. Don’t feel like you’re in this by yourself.”

Last year’s suicides also spurred a handful of state legislatures to pass anti-bullying laws — or to strengthen them, as in New Jersey following the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi. On Sept. 22, 18-year-old Clementi jumped off a bridge after discovering that his roommate secretly recorded Clementi having sex with a man and put the video online for others to see.

New Jersey’s anti-bullying “bill of rights” requires, among other things, anti-bullying training for all teachers, administrators and school board members. (All but five states — Hawaii, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota — and D.C. have anti-bullying laws.)

And last year, two of the state’s members of Congress — Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Rep. Rush Holt, both Democrats — introduced the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act. The bill would require higher education institutions nationwide to establish anti-harassment policies. It also officially recognizes cyberbullying as a form of harassment. The legislators are expected to reintroduce the bill in the new Congress.

Scope of the problem

Like Obama said, young LGBT individuals who are bullied aren’t in it by themselves. According to a 2005 survey of middle and high school students conducted by Harris Interactive and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 90 percent of students who identified as LGBT had been bullied in the previous year.

The label is so stigmatizing that Mental Health America says for every lesbian, gay and bisexual youth who is bullied, four straight students who are perceived to be gay or lesbian are bullied.

Sexual minorities and even those perceived to be sexual minorities are not the only targets of bullying, however. Statistics compiled by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration show that as many as one in four U.S. students are bullied with some frequency, with verbal bullying being the most common form experienced by both boys and girls. Children with disabilities or special needs may be at highest risk of being bullied.

Furthermore, victims of bullying are more likely than other children to be depressed, lonely, anxious, have low self-esteem and feel unwell in addition to having suicidal thoughts. They also are likely to fear going to school, using school bathrooms and riding on school buses.

Responding to bullying

If bullying in schools is so pervasive and disruptive to the learning process, why is it an enduring problem?

One reason, said Sharon Issurdatt, an NASW senior practice associate with expertise in school social work, is that educators historically have not taken the problem as seriously as they should, or they’ve instituted well-meaning but ineffective policies.

“Many adults believe that being picked on is just an inevitable part of growing up,” Issurdatt told NASW News. “They think the best way for the victim to deal with the problem is either to fight back or ignore the aggressive behavior. This approach does not work.”

Educators also may be reluctant to get involved in matters of bullying if they do not witness the aggressive behavior firsthand. “This makes the victims feel as though adults cannot be trusted to protect them,” said Issurdatt.

Another mistake is attempting to resolve bullying through conflict resolution. “Bullying is in essence an abusive relationship,” Issurdatt said. “You wouldn’t tell a battered spouse to just ‘work things out’ with their abuser.”

Conversely, schools that take a hard-lined approach to bullying through measures such as zero-tolerance policies that result in automatic suspension or expulsion can actually increase the instances of problematic behavior.

Stan Davis, a social worker and bullying prevention expert, told NASW News that more appropriate policies stress “zero indifference,” not “zero tolerance.”

Davis and Charisse Nixon, associate professor of developmental psychology at Pennsylvania State University at Erie have been working on the Youth Voice Project, a large-scale study of students’ perceptions about bullying and the effectiveness of different interventions.

More than anything, Davis said, students who are bullied need to expect that adults will show concern and intervene.

“In our study, we found that schools were all over the map with regard to how they address bullying. What mattered most was connectedness — whether a student felt comfortable approaching an adult about another student being mean to them.”

Davis is on a crusade to spread the evidence-based gospel about what works in bullying prevention. On his website, Stop Bullying NOW, he explains that an effective strategy, which school social workers are uniquely capable of carrying out, begins with identifying what peer-to-peer behaviors won’t be tolerated in school. Essential to that is getting students’ input.

Next, educators need to develop and consistently enforce effective consequences for bullying. “Effective consequences are small (so they can be used consistently), escalate with repeated aggression, and often involve loss of unstructured times like recess, lunch with peers, or extracurricular activities,” the website says.

“Educators also need to set the expectation that school is not home; it’s a workplace where you have to treat people with respect, even if you don’t like them, to get the work done,” Davis said.

An effective strategy includes building staff-student connections so bystanders feel empowered to tell adults, support targets of bullying and discourage unacceptable behavior. “An effective bullying prevention program is integrated into the daily life of the school,” he said.

School social workers are uniquely qualified to intervene in cases of bullying because, as Davis put it, they understand the cognitive processes involved in victimization. Using a strengths-based approach to psychosocial behavior, school social workers can help targets of bullying avoid internalizing negative messages.

“The goal is not to change the behavior of the bully — that’s really too much to ask,” said Davis, who thinks kids are taught too optimistic a view of society. “Not everybody around you has altruistic motives, and if you know someone who is mean, you probably should spend as little time around them as possible.”

Bullying 2.0

When one considers the statistics — 93 percent of teenagers use the Internet; nearly two-thirds use the Internet daily; 73 percent use social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace; 75 percent own cell phones and two-thirds of them send and receive text messages — it’s little wonder that 26 percent say they have been bullied or harassed through text messages and phone calls; otherwise known as “cyberbullying.”

A cyberbully is one who uses Internet tools (such as e-mail, instant messaging, social networking websites, blogs, chat rooms) and cell phones to harass, stalk, impersonate, out, trick or even fight others.

Karen Slovak, an associate professor of social work at Ohio University at Zanesville, told NASW News that electronic communications has a dehumanizing effect. “When students are [bullying others] electronically, they are missing those social cues” we rely on in face-to-face interactions, she said. “Hiding behind a screen gives us so much power.“

Slovak and Temple University Assistant Professor of Social Work Jonathan Singer co-authored a study of school social workers’ perceptions of cyberbullying published in last month’s issue of the social work journal Children & Schools. They found that although most school social workers believed cyberbullying must be addressed, almost half did not feel equipped to handle the problem.

She said school social workers can function as key personnel in teaching educators, students and parents about cyberbullying, but traditional approaches to preventing and intervening in bullying might not be applicable.

“Still, there are resources out there, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Slovak said. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children maintains a website, NetSmartz Workshop, with free resources for doing just that.

Teaching students about Internet safety is an important part of preventing cyberbullying, which a recent report by the National Cyber Security Alliance suggests isn’t adequately taught. According to the report, a little more than half of schools require teachers to cover cyberethics, cybersafety and cybersecurity. Approximately 40 percent of teachers had not taught topics related to cybersafety or cyberseurity in the year prior to the study.

Slovak recommends that prevention and education about cyberbullying start in elementary school. “We must help students develop a sense of empathy toward other people as early as possible,” she said.

Slovak and Singer also investigated school social workers’ perceptions of suicide. That article is forthcoming in the Children & Schools journal.

“Society has had the mentality that sticks and stones will break my bones, but I think we’re coming around on that,” said Slovak. “We recognize now that words can hurt somebody to the point of killing themselves.”