Thursday, October 07, 2010

No, I wasn't feeling nice when I wrote this

I haven’t spoken much on this blog about my personal feelings regarding suicide and bullying. Everything I want to say, I figure, can be found within my book. I also haven’t commented on the recent “bullycide” cases in the news. Each time I almost say something, I find an article written by someone saying the same thing, but much more eloquently.

Today, I’m throwing eloquence out the window.

I just read an article in the latest issue of Newsweek, From Lockers to Lockup by Jessica Bennett, and it irritated the heck outta me. It mostly deals with the specific case of Phoebe Prince in South Hadley, Massachusetts. After Pheobe committed suicide, several of the students who bullied her were charged with various crimes. It’s a complex situation and I’m not even sure where I stand on all the legal issues. But the legal issues aren’t what disturbed me about this article.

Let’s begin with a quote from South Hadley’s superintendent, Gus Sayer. While these are Mr. Sayer’s words regarding the bullies, they fit very nicely into the arc of Ms. Bennett’s article.

“These are nice kids, regular kids. They come from nice families. They were headed to college.”

Okay, can we at least be honest about the basics? Bullying is not what nice people do. Nice people, by definition, treat people nicely. Yes, everyone goes through phases. Hopefully these teens were not on the path to remain bullies their entire lives. But at the time Phoebe killed herself, they were not going through a “nice kid” phase (no matter how they acted around the superintendent).

What about regular? When you’re bullied, yes, it can feel like the whole world’s against you. But in truth, the majority of the students are not calling you a slut, threatening to beat you up, or throwing things at you from a moving car. The “kids” who are doing that are not the norm. They’re not regular.

The law (and the media) may assess the world in black or white, but the players in the case don’t fit into neat categories. Phoebe suffered a terrible tragedy, but court filings have since revealed she had her own demons, too. She struggled with depression, self-mutilation, had been prescribed Seroquel (a medication to treat mood disorders), and had attempted suicide once before.

I love when members of the media call out the rest of the media for not doing a good job assessing the situation. It’s often someone trying to call attention to the “real” issue, which only they have the guts to articulate. Unfortunately, Ms. Bennett says nothing new in her article. Plenty of articles (yes, in the media!) have pointed out Phoebe’s history of suffering.

But what is the point of even bringing that up? Well...

Yet they couldn’t have known how badly the stunt would end….In the case of Phoebe Prince, the answer of who’s to blame might change if you knew that she had tried to kill herself before the epithets, was on medication for depression, and was struggling with her parents’ separation.

Here’s the thing. That’s precisely why bullying is so dangerous. Bullies never truly know the people they’re bullying (unless they happen to be bullying themselves). Everyone has different thresholds and different histories. Whether you bully a depressed person or a non-depressed person, you’re still trying to make a human being suffer. That’s your intent. And in Phoebe’s case, they were very successful in making her suffer. But maybe this case is different. Maybe these bullies would’ve backed off had they known Phoebe’s “demons.”

After all, that’s what nice kids do when they discover a person’s weaknesses.

School bullying can be devastating, but social scientists say it is no more extreme, nor more prevalent, than it was a half century ago…Today’s world of cyber bullying is different, yes -- far-reaching, more visually potent, and harder to wash away than comments scrawled on a bathroom wall. All of which can make it harder to combat. But it still happens a third less than traditional bullying…

Let me get this straight. Cyber bullying is far-reaching, more visually potent, and harder to wash away, but it’s no more extreme than traditional bullying?

Let me put it another way. Traditional bullying is not as far-reaching, less visually potent, and easier to wash away…making it easier to combat.

So your point was…?

Look, if the article’s own calculations say cyber bullying is one-third less common than traditional bullying, that means it’s as common two-thirds of the time. 66%! And if cyber bullying is so much more extreme (despite an attempt to say more does not equal more), then that’s a huge problem.

The reality may be that while the incidence of bullying has remained relatively the same, it’s our reaction to it that’s changed: the helicopter parents who want to protect their kids from every stick and stone…

If you don’t agree with the other side, ridicule them! (After all, that’s what nice people do.) Apparently, not only is the other side afraid of sticks and stones, they’re afraid of every stick and every stone. In my opinion, it’s the responsible parents who do try to protect their children from sticks and stones. But they also realize that some sticks and stones will get through. Then it’s their responsibility to help their children learn from, and cope with, those bruises.

Massachusetts’s anti-bullying statute defines bullying as repeated behavior that, among other things, “causes emotional harm” or “creates a hostile environment” at school. If it were applied to the real world, wouldn’t most of us be bullies?

No, Ms. Bennett. Most people do not repeatedly cause emotional harm or create hostile environments. The fact that you think it’s normal for people to be like that is interesting, though. Troubling, but interesting.

Good job, Newsweek.

32 comments:

Genoveva said...

That's what i hate about those kind of people and the media, they never get it straight. In my opinion, they are afraid to step into one's shoes, for example pheobe's, and find out the truth. but no, they prefer to see it in another view, a view in which they want it to make sense....blaming it on the medicine! Oh please! if there wasn't any bullying in the first place, then she wouldn't had commit suicide...

I'm sorry if i don't make sense what i wrote above, but when i read it, it just many don't understand if they're bullying anyone. i was bullied many times when i was young, and yes it hurts because it gets all in one's head. I wish we could do something to demonstrate that bullying are not nice people!

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

YES! Everything you said!!!!

Katie Alender said...

Oh, you know, sometimes when I've had a rough week, I like to engage in repeated behavior that causes emotional harm to the people around me. I just blow off steam by creating a hostile environment. But I'm not a BULLY! Bullies are... you know... people who are mean to ME.

I think you nailed it--this is a case of a journalist wanting to be the maverick who takes the case from a different angle.

Megan Kelley Hall said...

Great points, Jay! I get so frustrated when they point to Phoebe's past and say that she was on the road to depression and suicide before those kids came along. We don't know that. And does that excuse these kids from their horrific behavior? Great blog post.

Becky Levine said...

Thank you, Jay. I'm glad you took the gloves off--she just does not get it. You are right on track--this is NOT what we do, not what anyone SHOULD do. Cyber-bullying means people get to do it with more anonymity--just as dangerous, with LESS accountability.

Anne R. Allen said...

I think it's "natural" for young children to bully. All primates do it. So do dolphins. Certainly William Goldman made a case for the intrinsic nastiness of human children in "Lord of the Flies."

So young children bully. They also poop in their pants. It's up to adults to teach them not to. This Newsweek reporter seems to have missed that part.

Kristen Pettit said...

THere is no "like" button on Blogger, so-- LIKE!! Excellent takedown, Jay.

Min said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I can't believe Newsweek even published this garbage. Except, maybe they wanted to make the parents of bullies feel better?

M.G. Buehrlen said...

The "they're good kids" defense always astounds me. What we have in this article is a clear example of blind leading the blind. The author's point seems to be that we all hurt each others' feelings sometimes, so that makes it okay.

Lisa L. Owens said...

"As though," and I'm screaming this to Ms. Bennett here, "school is NOT the "real world!?!?!?!"

JenFW said...

Of all the article flaws you mention--quite eloquently, Jay--I think the worst is the gross underestimation of the effects of cyber-bullying. If school bullying is water in a pool, cyber-bullying is the ocean.

idaho-laurie said...

I, too, was boiling mad when I read the piece in Newsweek. I've got a son in ninth grade and I've seen the results of cyberbullying. I'll be sending folks to your blog to read your eloquent response.
Thanks, Jay.

molly. said...

I am a high school student who lives in Massachusetts, close to where Phoebe lived. So this is affecting my school and me a lot. I think that kids my age don't completely get it. They read articles like this and think that Phoebe was just an exception, that normally people aren't "bullied" and kill themselves. Even if suicide isn't "common" does that make bullying any more acceptable? Maybe bullying has been around for a while but that doesn't make it alright to say "oh it's happened before so we shouldn't do anything about it now". What about slavery? What if we kept that mind set on that issue?

I'm glad to say that my school is taking steps to stop bullying, the new laws make it easy to. It's the law now.

Thank you for this post.

K. M. Walton said...

Children, regardless of age, need to be taught (and shown) HOW to be compassionate and caring. It doesn't come naturally for many human beings. Children need to be involved in constant and authentic "teachable moment" experiences in order for it to ever be internalized.

It is also quite powerful when children are able to experience how bullied children feel as a result of bullying (the REAL fallout)...through authentic discussion, authentic dialogue, authentic role playing. You know, walk a mile in someone else's shoes...

Anti-bullying was my #1 focus when I was in the classroom -- even more than the curriculm. I even started a summer day camp called Camp Kindness and I taught the kids HOW to be kind and compassionate. My teaching and my camp are no longer, but my current WIP deals with bullying and the hideous fallout.

Kudos to you, Jay for shining the light yet again on this topic.

Judge Tom said...

After 23 years in juvenile court, I believe that teenagers often learn from the experiences of their peers, not just from being lectured by those in authority. Consequently, “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” was published in January, 2010.

Endorsed by Dr. Phil on April 8, 2010 ["Bullied to Death" show], “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” presents real cases of teens in trouble over their online and cell phone activities.

Civil & criminal sanctions have been imposed on teens over their emails, blogs, text and IM messages, Facebook entries and more. TCI is interactive and promotes education & awareness so that our youth will begin to “Think B4 U Click.”

Thanks for looking at “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” on http://www.freespirit.com [publisher] or on http://www.askthejudge.info [a free website for & about teens and the law].

Respectfully, -Judge Tom.

bluerabbit said...

Some very successful ("nice")people, unfortunately, are bullies. They feel they have a right to align people behind them to oppose people who are not behind them. They also feel they have a right to use anybody they can. Their children are, sometimes, also, bullies. Is this surprising? Is it surprising that school superintendents and local authorities find excuses for these "nice" people???

Paul Joseph said...

This is an excellent post, Jay, and I could not agree with you more. From my years as a middle school teacher, which I realize has not been many, the one thing I have noticed more than anything else is the cyberbullying problem. Too often, schools will not intervene because they feel it is an "outside" problem. Unfortunately, these issues carry into our classrooms and make school a very uncomfortable place for many kids. We have become terrified to hold kids accountable for their actions. We slap them on the wrist, if we even do that, and they just venture out to find more "creative" ways to exploit others. They feel they have the right to "post whatever they want" online and defend it with the "freedom of speech" card. Sadly, they have not been taught the difference. It has to stop. Hollow threats do nothing to resolve this critical issue. It's time we made the bully feel uncomfortable.

Ruta Sepetys said...

"...defines bullying as repeated behavior that, among other things, 'causes emotional harm' or 'creates a hostile environment' at school. If it were applied to the real world, wouldn’t most of us be bullies?"

Wow, that statement is both telling and frightening. Uh, no. I don't think most people go around causing emotional harm and hostility.

Michelle Parker-Rock said...

Jay, thank you for using your voice to bring attention to this important matter and for challenging Ms. Bennett's and Mr. Sayer's remarks. My heart goes out to Phoebe’s family and to all of the families who have lost a child due to the insensitive cruel acts of bullying. I have witnessed such tragedies and feel the pain.

We all have frailties, weak spots, and demons that make us vulnerable. For some, holding it all together is truly a delicate balance. While bullying a person who is already struggling is truly tragic, bullying anyone is wrong and inhumane. Bad behavior is bad behavior. The students Mr. Sayer called “regular kids” are really “kids with bad behaviors.” Instead of excusing them, Mr. Sayer and the other adults involved have the responsibility to hold their children accountable and to teach them well. As a result, perhaps some other lives will be saved.

Lemony said...

Excellent post. In writing it, you've accomplished that rare instance of providing a critical analysis/review of a journalist's work without losing your humanity, your passion about the topic, or your ability to empathize. This is an academically sound blog post that still maintains a sense of justice... and I feel honored to have read it. Thank you for writing this, and for sharing it with all of us. Your eloquence in expressing your outrage at the original piece will give many of us the words we need to help fight this battle. Now, if only Newsweek will publish your post in response!

Caroline said...

It angers me to see nothing done about bullying because in my experience something CAN be done.
The following is my only encounter with bullying. And this was BEFORE Columbine.

My daughter is now 27 and a 5th grade teacher. When she was in 8th grade, she was a shy, sweet, studious, nerdy type of girl who wouldn’t have said a bad thing about anyone. And she was the perfect target for a bully. She came home one day and told me a girl was bullying her. Caller her names loudly in front of the other students in the locker room in gym. “Accidently” sticking her foot out to trip Claire when she walked by. Slamming Claire’s locker on her hand, etc. My daughter was baffled. She’d done nothing to this girl.

I told her to try ignoring the girl. If Claire didn’t react, maybe the girl would get tired of it. The behaviour only escalated. Then I told her to try confronting the girl with a “What is your freakin’ problem?” thinking the girl might back down if Claire showed some backbone. No effect.

I told Claire that now it was time to speak to the vice-principal. I told her that this is how I would have handled this situation in the workplace, i.e., ignoring, confronting, then finally get the boss involved as the last resort. She didn’t want me to, but I called the school. I was told to be show up to see the vice-principal with my daughter the next morning at 7:30.

WOW. I was amazed by his reaction. He was furious that Claire hadn’t let him know sooner. He had Claire write out an accounting of the behavior. He told her that this would be fixed TODAY.

And it was.

The girl was called in to the office the moment school started. In front of me, she was told the last and only time she would be allowed to speak to Claire would be to apologize. She was never to speak to Claire again, no facial expressions, no accidental physical contact, nothing. Most importantly, If he heard that ONE WORD had been uttered by this girl to her friends about Claire, in or outside of school, she’d be out of this school forever. Zero tolerance. He was PISSED!

And that was the end of it. Claire said the girl seemed terrified to even look at her. Two years later Claire, now a high school sophomore, came home one day amused because the girl had approached her and said, “Can I speak to you now?” and apologized again for her behaviour in middle school. Claire graciously said, “Of course!”

The botton line is something can be done about bullying and the bully needs the lesson just as much as the victim needs to know there is help. Kids need to know they can talk to their parents and school officials need to have a policy that’s enforced. I know not all situations are as simple, but I thought I’d share a positive result

Caitlin ♥ said...

There are no words to describe how true your words ring. You're a great man! ♥

Scotti Cohn said...

When I entered college, all members of the Freshman class were subject to having upperclassmen embarrass, tease, or hassle them publicly and on a regular basis. It wasn't ugly or hurtful (most of the time), but I didn't like it and didn't see why it was being done. Someone told me: "Just think, when you're an upperclassman, you'll get to do that to the Freshmen." I couldn't think of a single reason why I would want to. I had absolutely no desire to ridicule, tease, or humiliate anyone. But nobody I talked to seemed to share my view. I know this isn't anywhere in the neighborhood of the kind of thing that leads someone to commit suicide -- but my point is that a whole lot of people think it's "fun" to torment other people at various levels without any regard for how hurtful that might be to that other person. I have always felt like an oddity because I don't find that sort of behavior entertaining or satisfying in any way.

Claire Dawn said...

Some people can only see the way they are.

I stopped caring what people said when I was 13. Buit that doesn't mean there weren't others who did.

No matter whether I feel that they should have or not, I have to acknowledge that differnt people react differently.

Em said...

"Massachusetts’s anti-bullying statute defines bullying as repeated behavior that, among other things, 'causes emotional harm' or 'creates a hostile environment' at school. If it were applied to the real world, wouldn’t most of us be bullies?"

Wow! That's horrifying that Bennett thinks that most people behave in such ways! I am grateful to be surrounded by good-hearted people. Thank you so much for your post.

Anonymous said...

I think that superintendent was the principal of my high school. Those kids were so wonderful. They helped the school get write-ups in the local sports section. And the one who wasn't the athletic superstar, his dad was a prominent Mormon dentist.

Of course, Hitler was a nice kid too. He was going to go to art school .....

Debra Davis Hinkle said...

Comprehensive piece; great job.

Katie said...

Well said!

Lori said...

As much as I want to agree with everyone's posts, I think it's important to mention that we don't know the author of the article or her demons. I'm not defending her opinion, but let's not set ourselves up to be criticized as hypocrites. What one person deems "bullying" may be completely different than another's view. The author of the article could misconstrue these posts as "bullying", although we don't. No offense to anyone here as I feel some very valid points are made by Jay and responders; but let's remember what's really at the heart of the matter.

Jay Asher said...

When someone gets an article published in Newsweek, they're being given a pretty big soapbox. And if you feel their words can be harmful by making people think the bullying issue is being blown out of proportion, I believe it's irresponsible not to speak up.

Unfortunately, the topic is bullying, and it can appear hypocritical to publicly criticize
the writer of an article about bullying. It's a weird line to walk! Yes, I would feel bad if my words made Ms. Bennett feel bad. But she didn't tell me her ideas privately, she published her ideas in Newsweek because she wanted a whole lot of people to hear what she had to say. So I would feel even worse had I said nothing in response (from my much smaller soapbox).

If pointing out the ridiculous and disgusting parts of her article makes me hypocritical, then there I am.

Lori said...

There's no doubt that Ms. Bennett's rebuttal to such a delicate issue is distasteful and disrespectful; and I applaud you for soapboxing and taking a stance. I see your point that it would’ve been “irresponsible” not to speak up. I felt the same way with my post.

The truth is, I don't think there's a person in the world who goes untouched by a “bully”. (Whether they give or receive.) I was called “dog” and barked at in elementary school because some boys thought I was ugly and I’ll never forget that. But I was the only one who, ultimately, could decide how that time would affect my life. My choices stem from how I was raised.

My parents taught me the "golden rule", with the phrase "as long as it's in their best interest" added at the end.

Caprica-Lex said...

I just read an article about a first grade girl who's being bullied for liking Star Wars.

Anti-Bullying Starts in First Grade, Chicago Now

Poor little girl. The thing is that ten years later, those same boys will kill for a girl who likes Star Wars.