A story of injustice mixed with justice hit the news yesterday. A Florida sheriff arrested 2 girls (ages 14 and 12) for cyberbullying. Their victim, 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick, jumped to her death from an abandoned concrete factory. The Facebook entry from her torturer: “Yes, IK I bullied her Rebecca and she killed herself and IDGAF” (=I don’t give a…..). See “Sheriff: Taunting post leads to arrest and Rebecca Sedwick bullying death.” This little sweetie is being charged with aggravated stalking–a felony.
After my initial anger and disgust (but not shock), I began to wonder about Rebecca. What made her a target? What kept others from protecting her? I reflected on the suffering of some of my young clients, who, although they fortunately did not suicide, have suffered life-long wounds. Many drop or flunk out of school, fail to find a suitable career or life partner, turn to drugs or alcohol.
Justin* was a pretty savvy seventh grader cool. He dressed just so, used the proper 12-year-old lingo, performed adequately in school–not too well and not too poorly. He was a bit chunky but tall, and a good athlete.
We were all surprised when Justin was bullied–mercilessly–in junior high. Teased, put-down, called names, Justin was verbally attacked, but emotionally bullied, as well, with nasty notes and cyber bullying. It took him a while to share his humiliation with his parents, who took the problem up with the school principal.
Justin’s parents and teachers were perplexed.
And with good reason, since he didn’t fit the profile of the victim. Here’s what some classic targets look like.
- The slow learner, the one who didn’t learn to read until third grade, who’s still struggling with multiplication in junior high.
- Sadly, the child with the noticeable disability, perhaps as slight as thick glasses or a hearing aid. Imagine the poor stutterer.
- The student who’s clumsy and awkward–a disaster in gym and a misery at pickup games.
- There’s the crier; the child who cries easily in public triggers cruelty.
- The heavy child. A woman who was overweight as a child reports other kids moo-ing at her in the halls.
- Those who have few to no friends are open to bullying–and have no one to protect them once it starts.
- The hyperactive student.
- Some, to be frank, are just plain annoying, with behavior that irritates teachers and classmates alike. Others enjoy watching them be bullied.
- Some are children with poor self-image and self-confidence, unsure of themselves, sometimes girls who develop earlier than their peers.
So back to Justin. When the obvious things don’t seem wrong, how does the apparently average kid become the target?
His grade provides one clue. Children that enter a new school in junior high take their chances. The in-crowd is already established, and the new kid may have no allies . The ice-breaking is more challenging if the family has changed geographically as well; what’s cool in suburban Georgia might be a disaster in suburban Maryland. Justin moved from Minnesota to New York, where he fell victim to a bullying East Coast gang .
Moving provokes another of the hidden risk factors: neediness. A transplanted child is a lonely child. Trying too hard to make friends usually backfires.
What about the child who has been in the same school since kindergarten? In Julie’s case, the bullying started many grades earlier. Because she was tormented and isolated in the early grades, this child became increasingly timid and withdrawn. Other kids were afraid to risk spending public time with her. Julie failed to learn the social nuances typical of her milieu.
Sometimes the issue is a family one–status, religion, poverty, or social cliques. Justin doesn’t fit in because his parents are active in Greenpeace in a conservative community, or they’ve lost their jobs and can’t afford to keep up their property. His mother embarrasses him by being a street preacher, or he belongs to the only divorced family. Julie’s the only girl without a cell phone or the internet; her parents don’t believe in the technology.
Sadly, a child can be bullied because of a special needs sibling or for befriending another victim.
What can we do as adults? At least be aware. When a child doesn’t want to go to recess, a field trip, or even to school, think of bullying as a possibility. If the child has no friends, no one calls or stops by, she doesn’t nag for a cell phone, see what you can find out. Asking often fails; the child is embarrassed and certainly doesn’t want you to go to school to report the bullying. Studying your child and earning her trust is the only way to proceed. There are no easy answers, and you can’t solve the problem by calling the bully’s parents or reporting the problem to the principal. Those actions will earn your child’s distrust and are likely to increase the attacks.
You also can’t solve the problem by becoming your child’s substitute pal. Much as you’d like to take her to the movies with you on Saturday, the shame of running into her peers at the same theater is too painful.
See my earlier post on the need for the victim to fight it out herself: “Bullying: Changing the Mindset of the Victim.”
However, we all have to do something. Being bullied is something a child never gets over.
The Florida sheriff has put us all to shame. There’s someone who’s taken a stance. Maybe we’ve got a beginning of a partial solution.
**Justin is not simply a client whose name has been changed to protect their privacy. He is a teaching example, composed of bits and pieces from real individuals, combined with fictional elements designed to make the story more educational and more readable.