I Promise to Stop Bullying

I put myself out there and risked criticism when I exposed my life as a victim of bullying in “An Open Letter to my Eighth Grade Self,” but little did I know the impact that letter would have on those who read it, which got me thinking. I have a friend whose daughter, whom I’ll call “Cassie,” is just finishing up eighth grade, and after I wrote that letter and saw the overwhelming response to it, I began to wonder what eighth grade was like for her. I discussed at length the issue of bullying and social pressure with Cassie, and she inspired this article.

Back in my day (read that with a creaky old-woman voice), we didn’t have the Internet, cell phones, or social media. When I got bullied, I could cut it all off, along with the social pressure that went with it, when I shut my front door. I slept fairly well knowing that at least at night I could get a break. Now, because of social media, peer pressure is pervasive. Bullying and social pressure don’t stop when kids reach the haven of home, invading a kid’s life constantly, even when he or she is involved merely indirectly. Some teens and even preteens have resorted to suicide because bullies posted pictures of them on Facebook or harangued them constantly through Twitter, Instagram, or SnapChat. Cassie adds, “My friend ‘Jennifer’ hangs out with a group of friends who took a picture and posted it on Instagram. They cropped her out of the picture, so people stopped talking to her, and looked down on her. They knew she wasn’t part of the group.” So the issue is not just about bullying, it’s about social rejection, which can escalate bullying behavior.

When I was a kid, bullying was accepted as one’s lot in life, and it was expected to be handled on one’s own. Kids were left to work things out for themselves. There was a huge amount of shame in being a victim of bullying, so victims sometimes worked as hard as the bullies to avoid detection. Now, though, laws and mandates in almost every school district exist in an attempt to prevent all forms of bullying. In 2003, I started the first anti-bullying program in my school district at the insistence of my students—they knew there was a much bigger problem than could be dealt with by “working things out.”

I asked Cassie what happens when someone gets bullied at her school. “If you are getting bullied, you fill out a bully form. If it’s something small, like ‘I got pushed into a locker,’ it results in a talking-to, but for something bigger you talk to the counselor. There is no policy on cyber-bullying.” Well, there is such a policy, as I found out by chatting with her district’s Director of Communications. The policy not only defines what cyber-bullying is, but it states that the district deals with bullies outside of school if necessary: “The District may discipline for Cyber bullying conduct off school premises when it materially and substantially interferes with the educational process.” Then the policy details possible punishments. In fact, there are no fewer than three sections of the board policy dedicated to the prevention and punishment of bullying of all kinds. What mystifies me is why Cassie doesn’t know that. And if she doesn’t, many other kids don’t either.

What struck me hardest in all this was that bullied kids get a “talking-to” or a visit to the counselor, but the focus is on the victim; the bully doesn’t seem to receive any punishment or intervention at all. That’s like telling a burning house that it caused the fire itself–not an effective way of handling the problem. Instead of stopping the bullying, it silences the victim, which on the outside looks like a solution, so it’s easy to pretend the problem no longer exists.

Cassie says that this year is better than last year because last year she had just moved from a gifted charter school where, although “when I was at [name withheld] I got nitpicked, but I could handle it, because I learn fast. I’m worried people will come after me for that.” She says it took a while to find her place and was stuck in “low” classes until she proved she could handle harder work. She’s right; there is a difference in demographic between regular classes and advanced ones. Students in advanced classes are more likely to have parents with advanced degrees and stable incomes. She felt out of place because she had those things but was placed with students who didn’t. I suspect that when she said “come after me,” she didn’t imply violence, but she did consider her intelligence a weakness that could be exploited if she didn’t handle herself right.

I asked Cassie about how much social media impacts her friendships. She replied, “There are girls that are on it all day, checking updates. I post every once in a while to Instagram, but some girls care so much about what others are doing that they forget to have fun themselves. They can’t have as much fun because they are always posting or checking for updates. One time my mom and I took a bunch of my friends to the Museum of Nature and Science in Denver. One friend spent so much time telling us what everyone else was doing that she didn’t realize she was somewhere fun, too.” As we discussed this situation further, it became clear to me that this other girl’s self-image and perception of popularity were directly tied to her access to social media. It makes me wonder if this girl would report cyber-bullying if she saw evidence of it.

“Regular middle school is harder than charter school. [At a charter school] you don’t have to be with the latest fashion or tech to have your friends be your true friends…my friends know I am their true friend, and they can trust me with anything, but when we get to school, [some] go hang out with the popular girls, instead of [the rest of] us, because they want to be popular,” Cassie says. When I asked her where she fits into the social ladder, she said, “We’re all very sporty, but we don’t have a group. All the popular kids talk to us; the nerdy kids talk to us. I meet a lot of people because I play a lot of sports.” This, then, remains the true secret to fitting in, no matter the time period one grows up in: getting involved. I’m sure I heard “get involved” in junior high, but I was so occupied with keeping the bullies off my back I didn’t really consider joining any extracurricular activities. I just wanted to get the heck out of there.

I enjoy spending time with Cassie because she is such a good-natured person. She doesn’t seem to have the worries and fears I had in middle school. She matured a lot faster than I did, so besides technology’s influence on her social life, that may be the biggest difference in our experiences. With modern studies influencing how schools deal with bullying and peer pressure, she has advantages I never had. Her teachers and parents are much more aware of these problems and more proactive in dealing with them. There is less shame in admitting to being victimized, and more is being done to encourage bystanders to report bullying behavior before it escalates to the levels I experienced.

Even so, bullying and peer pressure still prove troublesome, perhaps because they are hidden better with the aid of social media. Just because a victim gets a talking-to and learns from it not to complain doesn’t mean the issue is resolved. Parents need to be vigilant about watching their teen’s access to social media. Administrators need to follow up with the bully even if things quiet down because, in all likelihood, multiple silent victims may not be able to advocate for themselves. Silence does not mean the problem has gone away. The policies are there already: the adults need to hold the bullies accountable for their behavior both on and off the Internet before anything will change for the better.