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My town has a Facebook page that is appropriately named “Town, State.” It’s a reliable source of middle aged drama and news of town happenings, good for the occasional laugh, eye roll, or sigh. Recently, my attention was caught by some postings by adults and parents within the group who were seemingly aghast to have witnessed bullying among middle schoolers on our Main Street. Huge eye roll.
Bullying is a scourge of a condition of teenage-dom, and almost everyone has experienced it in some form. Some kids are more likely than others to bully, based on internal turmoil that is expressed outwardly with anger and intimidation tactics. Some kids are more likely than others to be bullied, based on race, size, sexuality, or general other-ness that is often joined by an inclination towards introversion. Until the following incident, I had never seriously been bullied. I’d been in little spats and stepped into conflicts on behalf of others, but nothing trajectory-altering had taken place.
Right around the time my PTSD and eating disorder were coming to a head, I was being severely bullied. I have no desire to give specifics, but for the sake of perspective I’ll give a brief overview. To this day, neither any of the adults involved in the investigation nor myself and my family know the cause of the bullying. We suspected it was derived from one girl’s issue with a relationship of mine, but all we knew definitively was that there were points, laughs, whispers issued my way. There were social media posts galore. Some said I was faking my anorexia. One girl commented that I “wasn’t the only one with an eating disorder, you know,” presumably in response to my missing school for recovery. Some said I was a “pussy” for not coming into school, for I missed weeks out of fear of the pack of people who were doing it. When I did come into school, posts were made about my deserving to be punched in the face for daring to set foot in the building. Fake accounts on social media were made to message and mock me. The genuine anguish it all caused me, as I was holed up in my room and not eating, put tremendous stress on my relationship, my family, and most of all, my schooling. It ended with a Title IX investigation, a suspension, an expulsion, and several apologies but it never has left me, and the words that were used to describe me are emblazoned across my brain in neon, still.
Before it happened to me, I’d seen it all around me. I was never terribly popular but I was well liked enough to avoid mocking and nastiness. Some of my friends, however, were targeted, and watching them endure the viciousness of their peers was absolutely heartbreaking and catapulted me into action whenever possible. Other times, I’d look on as a peer was publicly humiliated. One time in my local middle school, I noticed that a girl was sitting at a table, alone, as a group of boys at a nearby table pointed and laughed at her. When I invited her to sit with my friends and I, one of the boys approached our table with a note for her proclaiming love and asking her out. He burst into laughter and ran back to his table, his friends doubling over as well. I crumpled the note and threw it into the trash. Not our pristine, perfect town? I’ve seen some of the worst of my town in various school hallways.
“Around one in three American students report being bullied in school.”
My town is far from alone. Around one in three American students report being bullied in school. It’s most common in middle schools but can happen at all grade levels, of course. Around fifteen percent of teenagers report being cyber-bullied, though the number increased to over fifty percent for LGBT+ youth, as would be expected, for bullies target those who are marginalized or perceived as different. Heartbreakingly, only between twenty and thirty percent of bullied youth report their experiences to adults.
Why would they? There are countless media dispersed cases of teens reporting their bullying experiences, only to be met with a sluggish pace, minimal punishment, or complete stonewalling by school administrations. Bullying investigations and resulting measures take time, attention, and sometimes funding that schools are often unwilling to dole out. There has been a recent upswing in attention given to school bullying, and some schools have been implementing programs to change their social cultures, but the issue is just that; a community that passively allows bullying behavior is enabling a culture of name calling, physical and emotional harassment, among many common tactics. My school at the time was one of these cases: slow to act and invalidating of both the severity and their responsibility to step in.
Kids who are targeted report increased rates of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety as well as reduced academic achievement. Victims are up to nine times more likely to consider committing suicide than a non-sufferer, and nearly two hundred thousand kids stay home from school every day due to fear of bullying.
It isn’t only the victims of bullying who suffer from such a culture. Bullies themselves often suffer from substance abuse and addiction, juvenile crime participation, and violent tendencies. Such inclinations are generally based in a deeper pain that, if therapeutically addressed, would be more humanely and efficiently handled than attempting to right a bullying incident that has already escalated. Folks who bully- and I really should be using the term “folks who bully” rather than “bullies,” for bullies are far more nuanced than the term and can be victims as well, but I use the term for expediency- deserve a chance to get better, too. Their behavior is based in something internally painful.
That isn’t to excuse bullying behavior, of course. I’ve been asked to try to put myself in the shoes of those who made months of my life infinitely more difficult due to their lack of self reflection and empathy. It’s the right thing to do- everyone is deserving of some degree of empathy, with no exceptions- but I experience a twang of resentment when I consider the pain of my bullies. Why did they have to take it out on me?
Why? is a question I grappled intensely with, but it isn’t usually opaque. In my experience, those who are bullied are LGBT+, of a heavier weight, shorter, more talkative, dress non-traditionally, participate in theater, are members of a racial minority, and more other-ifying qualities. None of these qualities are in any way inherently negative, but due to their unusual nature in the environments I’ve been in (as well as many, if not most, nationwide), they make for easy bullying targets.
If you know someone who is at risk for experiencing bullying or who is currently being bullied, don’t be a bystander. It’s a cliche that you’ve likely heard in some assembly or another, but it’s much more daunting and intense of an experience to actively practice intervening. I’ve made it a mission of mine to set examples of intervening in bullying situations for my peers, but that is one of the rare situations in which I am an assertive person. I understand how hard it can be to stand apart from the pack on behalf of the ostracized; it’s our natural inclination to stick to the majority, and stepping in is an awkward and uncomfortable social risk. That being said, if you can find it within yourself to be a force of advocacy and goodness within your community, you will not only be able to help prevent the erosion of the mental health of those affected by bullying, but you’ll end up feeling a whole lot better about yourself and your role within your peers, when the dust settles. I wish someone had intervened on my behalf, though I made it through my experience even more fortified. Regardless of the outcome, if you intervene, you’ll know you did the right thing. That knowledge is more empowering than any brief spurt of gratification that putting others down may bring about.