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Confronting Bullying-related Suicide

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Oct 01, 2010

How Can We Create a World Where All Young People Feel Safe?

By Rev. Meg Riley, UUA Church of the Larger Fellowship

When I was in my twenties, I worked in a residential center for teens.  These were kids who were abused, abandoned, between foster homes.  They were troubled kids.

Life at the shelter wasn’t easy, but there was a strong and healthy staff.  The staff operated with a strong awareness of family systems—that the way teens were behaving, which might look illogical to us, was a response to family systems (often augmented by social service systems) in which such  behavior filled a need.

Furthermore, when the tenor of the teen residents would veer off course, one of the first questions we would always be asked in staff meetings was, Could there be something in the staff itself which was modeling their behavior—were we mad at each other about something, was there a staff member not pulling her or his weight, was someone in the staff checked out and causing a vacuum?

Those staff meetings could resemble therapy groups.  But what I learned was that, 90 percent of the time, if the adults addressed what was going on with us, if we took seriously the ways which we were not present, the teens shaped up.  Their life struggles didn’t go away–we didn’t turn into Mayberry—but life in the shelter got markedly better.

I have been reflecting on this, as I watch all of the sudden attention to homophobic bullying, which has recently resulted in four publicized suicides and countless others we’ll never know about, for teens and young adults.  Comments after articles I read tend to have a “Throw the book at those bullies!  Lock them up for life!”  quality.   I don’t hear people asking the question which was asked at the residential facility where I worked:  Is there something adult culture is modeling which these teens are emulating, albeit in a less nuanced, more stark fashion?

In the half century I have been watching life on this planet, I believe I have watched the United States become a more cruel and less caring place.  This is true of the social policies we have created in many cases—eliminating safety nets for the poor, allowing “freedom” for a tiny minority to mean that their wealth eclipses the basic needs of the great majority, allowing people to die because they don’t have health insurance.  But it’s not just policy.  There is, just plain, less connection and care in our daily lives.  There is less occasion for many of us to talk to neighbors, less time  for overworked people of all social classes to care for children, more willingness to treat each other as annoying obstacles on overcrowded highways.

That is why I am proud to put on an unflattering orange-gold t-shirt, day after day, with the word LOVE emblazoned across my chest.  Lord knows it’s not to look good!  I want to remind myself, and to tell everyone who sees me, including young people, that no matter how imperfectly I embody it, LOVE is the reason I get up in the morning and standing on the side of love is my aspiration. 

What would it mean for adults in our culture to ask ourselves, “What are we doing that creates the apparent increase in bullying of gay or marginalized kids?”   If we asked ourselves, “How do my actions in the day conflict with my aspiration to stand on the side of love?”   I wonder what thoughts would emerge, going beyond the obvious, if we thought about how to create a world for kids where they could feel safe, no matter what their identities?

16 Responses to “Confronting Bullying-related Suicide”

  1. Patty Williams says:

    I beg to differ, I was harassed horribly in High SChool and in College. IN HS it was all rumors about my alleged sexual promiscuity, in College, based on a picture in a “New Faces” book I was barked at mercilessly every day as I walked by fraternity row on the way to the cafeteria. My nick name: poodle, was known to the entire school, and again I was rumored to have slept with boys I didn’t even know. And frankly that harassment wasn’t the worst kind of behavior I saw. Girls were gang raped, and humiliated and then blamed for being loose. I am surprised there weren’t suicides. Many girls had to leave school. I refused. I was a strong person. No these days are not worse, in my day no none would have cared if a kid killed himself because of his sexuality, no one would have dared publish a story about homosexuality. Even this public outrage is evidence of an increased sensitivity to the concerns of the under dogs of our world.

  2. Sarah says:

    I’m not sure which articles you’ve been reading but on most of the ones I’ve seen, the comments are significantly more in the “the bullies didn’t mean any harm, they’re just kids being kids, and really it’s the ‘victim’s’ [yes, with the sarcasm quotes--happens more often than you'd want to believe] fault for not learning how to conform, if those ‘victims’ would stop being so darn different they wouldn’t have been bullied.”

    I think one thing we can do to create a safer world for kids is to hold bullies accountable for their actions and make it absolutely clear that bullying is not something that will be tolerated. That isn’t happening now. Teachers are too scared of hurting a parent’s feelings to so much as give bullies a verbal warning. The bully goes unpunished, and God forbid the victim try to defend him or herself–then the bully walks free while the victim is punished. No, I don’t think they should be “locked up for life,” but the fact is that these bullies are directly responsible for the death of a child and they should be held accountable for it.

    Another thing we can do is to stop blaming the victims. Stop looking at an article about a child who was effectively tortured to death and asking what that child or any other should have done differently to make the bullying stop, and start asking what that child’s teachers and parents and other people in positions of trust should have done to make the bullying stop.

  3. Aspen says:

    I used to work in a high school. While the staff was dedicated and often insightful, they also often embodied the homophobia, racism, etc. I saw in the kids around me. And that, and other “isms”, didn’t get confronted. When I tried, I’d often be told I was “too sensitive”.

  4. Frank Hoag says:

    Meg,

    What a welcome joy you are, reminding me to think, reminding me to love, and best of all reminding me why I am a Unitarian.Driving to school this morning I talked to my two middle school daughters about the tragic incident with the students at Rutgers. Tonight at dinner, I will tell them about the question I must wrestle with; “what am I doing that might help create bullying”. Thank you.

  5. Blessings, Rev Meg! We certainly need to see how we as individuals and society are contributing to the problem, whether through commission or omission, and correct our behavior. We need to BE love, period.

    On the other hand, the students who filmed Tyler Clementi, need to be held accountable–a message needs to be sent to society that actions have consequences. Sometimes love has to be a little tough.

    Having said that, however, while I want the students to face the maximum sentence, I hope that the judge will get creative with the actual carrying that out. No, I do not want this young man and woman locked in prison, but nor do I want them to be totally free either.

    Methinks the young man and woman who led Tyler to jump off the George Washington Bridge need to confront Tyler’s parents, apologize, and mean it by experiencing the soul-wrenching grief of burying a child. They need to confront his friends, apologize, and mean it by exeperiencing their grief and rage at burying a friend. They need to look at his broken body and realize that they are complicit in his death and know that this is unaaceptable. They need to perform some real service to the LGBT community and not simply work in some organization for a month. I am talking a few years, at least.

    May forgiveness reign, followed by love. But Bonhoeffer protested against “cheap grace” and so do I. A mere slap on the wrist won’t help these two young folks or us as a society. Love is never easy, but always necessary.

  6. Donna Gilbert says:

    I received a very similar message in my email box this morning from Heather Forbes (beyondconsequenses.com). Here is it:

    Peace in your home begins with you.

    You simply want your children to be okay. But how can they be okay if you’re not okay? Your children can’t get better if you are at a point of depletion or at your screaming edge.

    The only way to make a change in your family is to make the change within yourself. Yet, very few of us were taught how to do this and more importantly, were never given the permission to do it. This conference will lead you through that process and help you reclaim yourself and your happiness!

    I think you both might be on to something!

  7. Kate says:

    I really liked what you posted Donna.

  8. Raymond Ross says:

    One of the most difficult decisions I ever made was to resign as a volunteer leader in the Boy Scouts of America in 1999. I loved scouting and was an adult leader for 18 years. But at long last, I realized that my active participation was a tacit approval of anti-gay attitudes sanctioned by the BSA. It changed the way I looked at myself as a role model for children. I don’t know that I changed the organization, but my actions changed me. And I am confident that I can support all children in an honest, loving and appropriate way.

  9. McPhee Gordon says:

    I sincerely believe people especially adults need to read these parts of your article in order “to get it.”

    “LOVE is the reason I get up in the morning and standing on the side of love is my aspiration.”

    “What would it mean for adults in our culture to ask ourselves, “What are we doing that creates the apparent increase in bullying of gay or marginalized kids?” If we asked ourselves, “How do my actions in the day conflict with my aspiration to stand on the side of love?” I wonder what thoughts would emerge, going beyond the obvious, if we thought about how to create a world for kids where they could feel safe, no matter what their identities?”

    “Comments after articles I read tend to have a “Throw the book at those bullies! Lock them up for life!” quality. I don’t hear people asking the question which was asked at the residential facility where I worked: Is there something adult culture is modeling which these teens are emulating, albeit in a less nuanced, more stark fashion?”

    Standing on the Side of Love is the Point is it not?!

    Meg, you bring up excellent questions I believe would be useful in many arenas such as schools, churches, Child Care Centers, Mosques, Synagogues, colleges and etc.

    For other people “throwing the book at someone” is violent just in a sentence. I believe to love is courageous and brave. Love is patient and kind! As a society we cannot afford to take shortcuts anymore. Standing on the side of Love takes means to take with people.

    McPhee Gordon

  10. Graham Kreicker says:

    Rev. Riley make some good points. But, if we stand on the side of love we need to stand on the side of justice. It is clear that, whether it is Wyoming or New Jersey, people do these terrible things becaue they “know” they can get away with them and face no consequences. It is important for society to model both tolerance and respect for the dignity and worth of all individuals, and at the same time to provide strict sacntions for those that break the laws.

    Maybe the classmates that caused the man to kill himself came from very disfunctional and homophobic families, or as Rutgers students, they are just as likely to be spoiled rich brats that did a prank. But, neither background, NOR the most expensive lawyers money can buy should prevent them from reciving a fair and, hopefully, awidely publicized trial.

  11. Anne says:

    I highly recommend the movie Bullied, which can be ordered for free from Teaching Tolerance, by teachers. Teachers and other school staff and parents/guardians should watch this. Too many people let these kind of bullying incidents go, without intervening.

  12. Trent says:

    I agree. What do we expect our youth to act like, when our adults act like youth… like children. Many older americans, though i refrain from calling them “adults” act like bullies themselves, denying rights, recognition, and respect to valuable members of our society whom are apart of the larger web of existence. I also liked how you mentioned that it resulted in four publicized suicides and (countless others) we’ll never know. I’m glad someone caught this point. There are many other suicides out there many of which are becuase of the same reason, but are unknown due to the fact that the student wasn’t out to anybody but themselves.
    However, I am not sure I agree on the world getting worse. From my perspective, would we even be having this conversation 20 years ago? let alone 60 years ago when society would have labeled homosexuals “sexual psychotics”? So no, I think the world IS becoming a better place, not a worse one.
    Maybe we just need to speed up the process of progress a little faster, there are alot of wonderful people we might not have the opportunity to be blessed by if we don’t.
    I’m glad “standing on the side of love” is one of those organizations ahead of their time.

  13. Lylian says:

    I have the chance to observe many children. Take 2 dysfunctional families with an older girl, younger brother scenario. In one family, the girl is caring of the brother. She tries to protect her brother from the parental dysfunctions. In another, the girl takes her anger out on her younger brother.
    .
    I’ve seen bullies in the playground. They bully because they want to and the can. They pick on those more vulnerable. Doesn’t matter if the child is 6 or 8 or 12 or more.
    .
    Of course, might the child not be a bully if the parents were less dysfunctional? Yes. But let’s not forget, the inherent personality and character of the child also plays it’s role. It’s not all about parenting. It really isnt. Some kids are just kinder than others.
    .
    So, if we are to stand on the side of love, let’s make sure that the side that of the vulnerable. Sure a bully may also be vulnerable, especially when they get caught. Putting firm boundaries around what a bully can or can’t do is something we do with bullies in the school yard. We can of course do it in a way which teaches caring and compassion. But let’s not forget, a bully bullies because he wants to bully those more vulnerable. He/She also has choices.
    .

  14. Patricia Hennigan says:

    I’d like to respond to Graham Kreicker. It’s a minor point, but I think you have a mistaken view of the students at Rutgers. Having lived near the university for 40 years, and as a graduate of Rutgers College in the 1980′s, I can tell you that it isn’t a school of rich, spoiled kids. It’s a public school with a good academic reputation. And it’s a harsh place. It’s huge, it’s overwhelming and it’s impersonal. One of the first lessons you learn there is the “RU Screw”. You’ll be sent from pillar to post to change a class or take care of any administrative task, and then you’ll get an incorrect bill. That’s probably why they are starting a new Civility program there. I don’t know those particular kids, but I can remember kids jockeying for their place freshman year, trying to create an identity for themselves, to find friends. I believe those kids decided to do that at the cost of another student.

  15. Meg Riley says:

    Patty, I apologize if what I said indicated that bullying in the past was not as cruel and damaging as it is now. Bullying is bullying; violence is violence; it doesn’t help to rank or rate. I am really sorry about what happened to you.
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. The thing about blogs is, you write them and publish them fast!

  16. As with most problems, it can be a mistake to look for a single cause or a single fix. A multi-pronged approach can work best. Even if some of us remember times when the bullying was worse, we can still do what we can to make things better today.

    Rev. Meg’s suggestion is one good prong. What do our kids learn when they hear all the fear mongering and hate mongering, directed at people who are politically or religiously different, and that passes for news?

    Another prong: studies have shown that intervention in bullying by faculty is relatively ineffective. What does seem to work better is training the “silent majority” of students to rally behind the victim. They have found that both the bully and the vic take the silence for consent. Hence, the bully feels approved of and carries on, while the vic lacks the sense of social support that might help her/him stand up for himself.

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