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Teen suicide is always disturbing and heartbreaking. However, most psychiatrists will tell you that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint exactly why an individual chooses to end his or her life. Typically, there’s a complexity of mental health issues involved—issues that might or might not be explained fully by bullying.
In a classic case of perception becoming reality—and not just shaping it—the worldwide view of South Hadley High and its surrounding community is overwhelmingly negative. It will take years, if not a decade or more, for the school to rebuild its reputation.
The district has a number of proactive plans in place to address bullying concerns district-wide and in the community.
These include the formation of a citizen task force, reviewing policies and procedures, offering more training, and communicating more openly with all key publics, starting with students.
While these efforts are commendable and underreported in the news media, the district might want to consider making a clean break with the past by apologizing (verbally as well as in writing and on the web site) for not intervening sooner or more effectively.
Although overdue and likely to cause the district’s legal counsel heartburn, research has shown that apologizing when mistakes are made (including sins of omission as well as commission) tends to reduce litigation.
If the district’s review of the facts shows that school personnel did everything humanly possible to prevent such a tragedy from occurring, or that additional intervention likely wouldn’t have changed the outcome, and if district officials are confident that all policies and procedures were followed to the letter and need no improvement, and if they believe that South Hadley High School has no systematic climate or cultural concerns that need to be addressed, then they might get by with simply expressing care and concern for the victim.
All of those “ifs” create a pretty high bar to leap over, however. Assuming for a moment that South Hadley High School and South Hadley Public Schools are like most public schools and districts nationally, they probably have some additional work to do. And even if everything was done perfectly every single time in response to Prince’s bullying, the fact remains that a young girl decided that dying was better than living.
With about one-third to one-half of all children experiencing bullying as some point during their school years, it’s time for all of us who care about children to take more proactive and assertive action in responding to reports of bullying. This includes other students, parents, mental health professionals, business leaders, elected officials, and other community members, along with educators. Schools can’t bear the sole responsibility for eradicating bullying and other social ills.
Bullying often is seen as the first step on a continuum of escalating mental health concerns, including violence to self or others, according to child and adolescent psychiatrists. Depression, anxiety, insomnia, digestive problems, low self-esteem, and other symptoms consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are common after-effects of bullying in children, teens, and adults.
Girls are more likely to engage in verbal or relational bullying, in which the victim is denigrated and ostracized by a social group or clique. Boys are more likely to engage in verbal and physical bullying. In some cases, bullying and harassment turn into physical or sexual assault.
While many bullying victims don’t commit suicide, thoughts of suicide are common,
according to researchers and child psychiatrists. Victims often carry permanent scars from the emotional, relational, verbal, physical, and online abuse they endure from bullies, experts say.
Although Prince’s abuse occurred primarily at school, the young teen did experience electronic harassment as well. Cyber bullying and cyber stalking can be particularly painful for teens.
The 24-7, constantly connected nature of their lives makes it difficult to escape or find a safe haven. Hateful text messages, humiliating Facebook comments, and online threats don’t stop just because the bullies and victims aren’t in close proximity to each other anymore.
The anonymity afforded by many social media sites and other digital communications only makes matters worse, as bullies feel free to say and do things online they’d never do in person or at school.
A 2007 Pew Research Center study shows that 32 percent of online teens have experienced some form of electronic bullying. Tactics range from posting embarrassing photos without permission (6 percent) to having private material forwarded without permission (15 percent).
About 13 percent of online teens also report receiving threats or have been the victims of digital rumor-mongering, the same study showed. Similar to bullying that occurs at school or in the community, perpetrators of online bullying tend to be the same age as their victims.
For Phoebe Prince and other victims of abuse by bullies, where and how the bullying occurs matters little. They just want it to stop.
As educators charged with helping keep students safe from emotional and physical harm, we can and should do more.
As community leaders charged with creating a more just society by forming future citizens, we can’t dismiss cruelty as “normal” teenage behavior. It’s not.
Recognizing the warning signs for teen bullying, suicide Mainstream media outlets have coined a new term to describe the rash of student suicides committed in the wake of persistent school bullying and harassment: “bullycides.” The issue has spawned significant new research to determine whether the phenomenon is really new, or simply being reported more often. Either way, school officials need to do more to make parents aware of the stress that today’s teens and tweens face.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 12 percent of all deaths among youth and young adults in the U.S. result from suicides.
Nearly 20 percent of high school students surveyed by the CDC report being bullied on school property during the previous 12 months; 5 percent report not going to school on a least one day during the past 30 days as a result of safety concerns.
Perhaps even more telling, 26.1 percent of the CDC survey respondents felt so sad or hopeless for a two-week period or more that they stopped doing their usual activities—a clear sign of teenage depression.
Nationwide, 13.8 percent of students reported they had seriously considered committing suicide. The numbers are particularly bleak for female students, 17.4 percent of whom reported suicidal tendencies.
Another recent CDC study might point to some possible causes. According to the CDC, adverse childhood experiences (called ACEs) are common across racial/ethnic groups and states.
For example, 22 percent of adult women and 16.7 percent of adult men in the study reported having grown up with a mentally ill household member. When substance abuse is included, the number skyrockets to 30.6 percent for women and 27.5 percent for men.
Women are also more than twice as likely as men to become victims of sexual abuse while growing up, 17.2 percent for women as compared to 6.7 percent for men.
Because the CDC identifies a family history of suicide, mental illness, and alcohol or drug abuse as major risk factors for suicide, school personnel need to stay alert for signs of trouble and recognize that bad behavior might just represent a cry for help.
No wonder a recent article in the Washington Post cited bullying and abuse at home by older siblings or parents as a primary cause of school bullying.
“Domestic violence and bullying feed each other,” wrote Susan M. Swearer, an associate professor of school psychology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
According to Swearer, a 2007 study indicated that “72 percent of children who were physically abused by their parents became a bully, a victim of a bully, or both.” Both bullies and victims are at risk for significant mental health issues, from low selfesteem to anxiety and teenage depression.
So, while bullying might serve as a triggering event, or increase a young person’s tendency for “self harm,” other risk factors also likely are involved, according to Swearer.
“Interpreting a teenager’s suicide as a reaction to bullying ignores the complex emotional problems that American youth face,” writers Swearer, author of Bullying Prevention and Intervention: Realistic Strategies for Schools and co-director of the Bullying Research Network. “To understand the complexity of suicidal behavior, we need to look beyond one factor.” In addition to mental illness, Swearer says easy access to firearms and medication, exposure to the suicidal behavior of others, and isolation might all contribute to a child’s feelings of hopelessness and despair.
Major shifts or changes in behavior, such as isolating former friends, changing peer groups, dropping grades, and losing interest in favorite activities, should raise red flags for educators, parents, neighbors, friends, or other individuals concerned about a child’s wellbeing.
Other warning signs include difficulty sleeping or over-sleeping, changes in body weight
or appetite, irritability, sadness, lethargy, and difficulty concentrating. Younger children might report vague physical symptoms or have more frequent emotional outbursts.
For most young people, developing resiliency and responding well to adversity represent learned skills. As such, we need to help students develop these characteristics and not simply judge them for not having them.
The National Association of School Psychologists offers several tips for parents and educators for increasing student resiliency, from encouraging students to express negative emotions to modeling positive attitudes and getting more physically fit.
Connect with Kids, a video production company, offers documentary-style programs on a wide range of social and emotional health concerns, including teen stress, over-scheduled children, school bullying, teen suicide, cutting, and other often taboo subjects.
These programs are available online for a subscription or may be purchased for use in training and informational sessions.
Connect with Kids also will create videos and other custom-made content using local talent, or help school leaders plan town hall forums to get more parents and community members talking about issues of concern to educators.
North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools is using Connect with Kids’ digital content as part of its recently launched Parent Academy program. Parents can view the content online or via GCSTV-2, the district’s public access cable channel.
As economic woes create more burdens for American families, we’ll continue to see more signs of stress in the students we serve. Providing more resources for parents and educators to help them cope with the increase is an important first step.
Police: No charges in gay teen’s bullycide Police investigating the suicide of a bullied gay teenager said Nov. 22 that offensive comments he endured online and at school couldn’t be considered criminal and that no charges would be filed.
Amherst, N.Y., investigators last month sent 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer’s computer and cell phone to a forensics lab to help determine whether anyone should be prosecuted for the bullying he often talked about before taking his life Sept. 18. They also interviewed Jamey’s family, friends, and peers, uncovering five bullying episodes at Williamsville North High School, where he’d just begun his freshman year, Chief John Askey said.
“He was exposed to stresses in every facet of his life that were beyond what should be experienced by a 14-year-old boy,” Askey told reporters during a news conference at police headquarters.
But neither the in-school bullying episodes, one of which involved pushing and an antigay remark, nor “insensitive and inappropriate” online comments were found to be prosecutable, Askey said, in part because the victim is dead and unable to help prove harassment or other charges that might have been filed.
“I’m not satisfied, to be honest,” said Askey, adding that officers had devoted hundreds of hours to the investigation. “I would like to have seen something we could have done from a prosecution standpoint.” Jamey’s father, Timothy Rodemeyer, had a similar response.
“We’re not satisfied, but we somewhat expected this outcome,” he told The Associated Press by phone after the press conference. “That’s why we’ve taken on a mission trying to get laws passed that will make people accountable.” The investigation determined that three students had targeted Jamey in high school, one of whom hired a lawyer after Jamey’s death. Those students weren’t the ones commenting inappropriately in online forums, the investigation determined.
Anonymous posts on a Formspring account Jamey opened said “Kill your self!!!! You have nothing left!” and “Go kill yourself, you’re worthless, ugly and don’t have a point to live.” While Jamey had told his parents the taunting he’d endured in middle school had not carried over to high school, he posted online notes ruminating on suicide, bullying, homophobia, and pop singer Lady Gaga.
“People would be like ‘faggot, fag,’ and they’d taunt me in the hallways and I felt like I could never escape it,” he said in a YouTube video posted in May as part of columnist Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project, which seeks to give voices and hope to bullied gay and lesbian teenagers.
After he hanged himself outside his home in suburban Buffalo, activists, journalists, and Gaga herself seized on the suicide, decrying the loss of another promising life to bullying.
Even though no criminal charges will be filed, Askey said there have been other consequences.