Time to put bullying in its place

From Newsday’s Opinion section

Earlier this month, a 14-year-old was beaten, slapped and kicked by three teens yelling anti-gay slurs aboard a school bus in Westbury, part of an “ongoing course of conduct” over months, according to police.

Such attacks aren’t new, and unfortunately, the news has been full of similar incidents in the past few months. Gay (or perceived gay) teens are often the targets, which speaks volumes about how far our society still has to come in embracing and celebrating diversity. But bullying can happen to anyone, and the results can be deadly.

No longer confined to schoolyard or on-campus taunts, bullies now leverage high-tech tools to torment their prey. The suicides this year of Rutgers University freshman and high school student were allegedly caused, at least in part, by cyberbullying.

Regardless of whether a bully uses the Internet or sticks to “old-fashioned” methods of abuse, the situation has reached epidemic proportions. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 160,000 children a day stay home from school because they’re afraid of being bullied.

What’s a parent to do? In early September, father James reached his breaking point. He boarded his daughter’s bus and, in an expletive-filled tirade, confronted the kids who had consistently bullied the girl, a 12-year-old with.

According to Jones, he had repeatedly asked the school to do something about the physical and verbal abuse that his daughter had suffered, but his pleas had fallen on deaf ears (school officials deny his allegations). His outburst on the bus – which he later admitted was the wrong way to handle the situation – was the result of his frustration at their inaction, he said. Jones was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and disrupting a school function, and has been offered a plea deal.

Most comments posted online in response to the widely publicized story echoed the same theme: Go get ’em, Daddy!

But Jones shouldn’t be seen as a folk hero. After all, would you really want an infuriated, out-of-control adult getting on your child’s bus and screaming profanity and threats? Even if you think the bullies “deserved” it, what about the other kids?

Still, many parents can imagine themselves lashing out in the same way – I know I could. And when I asked friends on Long Island if their schools had programs that adequately deal with bullying, the typical response was that, despite claims of “zero tolerance” for such behavior, not enough is being done.

One-time, feel-good assemblies won’t do the trick. Ongoing, comprehensive anti-bullying programs should be an inherent part of every school curriculum, from preschool through high school.

Kids need to be taught that if they’re being bullied, or witnessing the bullying of another student, they should report it – to parents, to teachers, to the school counselor. But that’s only part of the equation. Parents also have to actively teach their kids not to be bullies.

And they need to be taught that bullying isn’t just physical. Gossiping, mean-spirited rumor-mongering and repeated exclusionary behavior are all insidious types of bullying that so many kids – maybe even most – engage in at one time or another.

At the first federal Bullying Prevention Summit in Washington in August, Secretary of Education made it clear that bullying is an issue our schools, in partnership with parents, must address. “Children are never born as bullies,” he said. “It is a learned behavior. And if they are learning to bully from their peers, or parents, they can learn to behave differently, too.”

Like most parents, I didn’t know exactly what my district was doing to educate students about bullying. So I asked, and it turns out they’re doing a lot. I’ve asked to be involved in the effort. It’s not a cure-all, but if each of us made the effort, perhaps there’d be one less story about a teen suicide. That would be worth it.