I’ve been happy to see a considerable amount of attention being given to the tragic story of Tyler Clementi.
- Tyler’s roommate Ravi tweeted on Sep. 19, 2010: “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with another dude. Yay.”
- Two days later, Ravi tweeted: “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it’s happening again.”
- The following day, Sep. 22, Tyler wrote on Facebook, “Going to jump off the GW Bridge. Sorry.” An hour later, Tyler committed suicide by jumping off the bridge.
I can only speculate that the story has reached a wide audience because it involves sex, social networking, the media loves patterns, and the fact that cyber bullying is still a novel phenomenon for many people. Sadly, similarly tragic stories occur far too frequently and often go unnoticed.
Asher Brown, an eighth-grader who committed suicide on Sep. 28, 2010 after prolonged bullying by four other students. According to reports, he was bullied for being accused of being gay, being small, not wearing designer clothes and owning an iPod, and preferring to read instead of listening to music. Other students “performed mock gay acts on him in his physical education class,” and Asher came out to his parents the morning before he shot himself in the head with his stepfather’s pistol.
The same day, 13-year-old California middle school student Seth Walsh died after hanging himself for a tree in his backyard after years of being bullied for being gay. Sep. 2010 also saw the deaths of gay students Raymond Chase and Billy Lucas. Hearing these heartbreaking stories all within a short period of time forced me to revisit the issue of youth bullying.
From kindergarten to fifth grade, I observed bullying almost every day at my school. Most of those days, I was the one being bullied. I had the unfortunate experience of being “the fat kid” at my kindergarten and elementary schools. My weight was perhaps my defining trait at the time. It dictated my activities (such as learning to play chess so I could run to the chess club in the library after my last class and be out of the reach of bullies), my personality (lots of defense mechanisms), and social situation (I had no friends at school).
What made things almost unbearable was the fact that the school teachers and administrators didn’t seem to care at all. One of my most vivid school memories was being cornered by a few bullies, and a crowd emerged shouting “Fight! Fight! Fight!” while I was being beat up. With my back up against the brick wall, I saw an assistant principal walking towards me and the crowd. A momentary flutter of hope quickly passed as I saw her look at me and the crowd, and then kept on walking. Complaints by my parents fell on deaf ears. It appears that the school’s attitude, which I fear is common across the country, is that “boys will be boys” and that this is an expected, natural, and accepted event to occur on school yards. After six years of fear, anger, and isolation, I chose to forgo returning to my elementary school in sixth grade and chose instead to change districts and go to a 6-8 middle school. While I was still occasionally pushed into the mud at the school bus stop and teased for my weight, fortunately I was no longer forced to endure the frequent physical abuse.
Although it’s hard to admit, being bullied as a child played a major role in shaping me. While I like to think that it influenced some of my more positive traits (such as making me more empathetic), it also left quite a few scars that still manifest themselves in many ways (distorted body image being the most obvious example). While in college, I focused on mental health awareness campaigns both on a school-wide scale and at the individual level during my three years as an RA. I focused on mental health because of how critical an issue it is among college students, while bullying wasn’t very prevalent on the UCLA campus. It wasn’t until I took a crime policy class that I started to think critically about bullying and start to realize that things can be done to combat this widespread issue that isn’t taken seriously at many schools.
What Can Be Done?
My favorite professor at UCLA, Mark Kleiman, got me thinking again about this issue with a story he told in passing during class. His story focused on how to approach the issue from a police and criminal justice stance. While this informed my early thinking on the subject, the recent media attention on this issue has provided me an opportunity to bring up the subject with friends and family.
My mother, a preschool and community college teacher, believes that when a child beings bullying others, it is a warning sign that there is a problem at home. The solution from this perspective is not to get the police and administration more involved but to examine the child’s life at home.
Other friends, drawing on personal experiences, have expressed a wide range of causes and solutions. The issue of bullying is complex, discussed too infrequently, and extremely important. My goal is to start really digging into this issue and I plan to share my findings and thoughts in this space sporadically in the future.