In 2009, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that almost one in three students between the ages of 13 and 18 had been bullied in school. A survey by the Cyberbullying Research Center found that one in five students ages 10 to 18 had been the victim of cyberbullying, or bullying that occurs through some form of technology such as email, instant messaging, text messages, and social networking sites. Particularly vulnerable are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) students. A 2009 report by the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that 90% of LGBT students had experienced harassment at school in the previous year.
Students who have been bullied suffer numerous detrimental consequences. They are more likely to skip school and are at greater risk for dropping out. Victims are more likely to be depressed, to use drugs and alcohol, and to engage in violent behavior later in life. Many victims contemplate suicide. In the most severe cases, victims actually take their own lives–a form of suicide called bullycide.
One of the first cases to receive national attention was that of Ryan Halligan of Essex Junction, Vermont. Halligan committed suicide on October 7, 2003, at age 13 after middle school classmates threatened, taunted, and insulted him, both in person and online. On June 29, 2005, Jeffery Johnston of Cape Coral, Florida, committed suicide. Johnston had also been bullied in school and online. On October 9, 2006, 17-year-old Rachael Neblett of Washington, Kentucky, took her own life after being threatened with violence over the Internet. Just eight days later, 13-year-old Megan Meier hung herself after receiving a series of cruel messages on MySpace. A neighbor and the mother of Meier’s classmate was later indicted for her role in the bullying.
On August 23, 3008, Alexa Berman, 14, of Brooklyn, Connecticut, hung herself three days before she was to have started high school. On July 3, 2008, Jessie Logan hung herself in her bedroom after her ex-boyfriend sent nude pictures of her to other students at her high school in Cincinnati. In a similar case in September 2009, 13-year-old Hope Witsell of Ruskin, Florida, hung herself after photos of herself topless that she had sent to a boy she liked were distributed to a far wider audience. In October 2009, Tyler Lee Long, who had Asperger’s syndrome, hung himself after having endured years of torment at school, much of it before the indifferent eyes of administrators.
Bullycide received a great deal of attention in 2010 due to a spate of well-publicized incidents. On January 14, 2010, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince hung herself after being bullied by classmates in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Nine students were indicted in the case. In September 2010, three teens committed suicide after suffering severe bullying: 15-year-old Billy Lucas of Indiana, 13-year old Asher Brown of Texas, and 13-year-old of California either identified as gay or were perceived to be gay. Tyler Clementi, age 18, a Rutgers University freshman, jumped off the George Washington Bridge in New York after his roommate secretly recorded him with another male student, then broadcast the video online. In October 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke out about bullycides, as did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
A multifaceted approach is needed to reduce bullying and to prevent bullycide. Schools must put in place, and enforce, anti-bullying policies. These policies must be inclusive of the variety of forms bullying takes, and should include services for victims as well as training for educators, parents, and students. Bullying often requires the intervention of adults, but because incidents usually occur in front of witnesses, students must be motivated to speak out when they see such events. Additionally, schools must work to create positive climates in which all students feel valued, have a voice, and are empowered to step up when they see or hear someone being mistreated.
Both inside of schools and in the broader culture, experts recommend addressing the continuum of masculinity and femininity. The majority of bullying victims are harassed because they look or act in ways that diverge from traditional notions of masculine or feminine. With greater sensitivity to the many unique humans who constitute society, bullying and other forms of harassment and mistreatment can be reduced. Radio talk show host Dan Savage, joined by many politicians and celebrities, began the It Gets Better Project to help LGBT students see a positive future for themselves. Celebrities filmed a series of short videos discussing life as gay adults and described how to obtain help if needed. Information and videos are available at http://www.itgetsbetter.org/. Visitors to the site are encouraged to take a pledge to treat everyone with respect and to stand up to bullying and intolerance. Additionally, teaching young children about peace, justice, and human rights can help them build empathy and understanding.
- Chen, S. (2010, October 4). After student’s death, a weeklong look into bullying. CNN. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/10/04/bullying.special.explainer/index.html?iref=allsearch
- Coloroso, B. (2009). The bully, the bullied, and the bystander: From preschool to high school–how parents and teachers can help break the cycle. New York: Harper.
- High, B. (2007). Bullycide in America: Moms speak out about the bullying/suicide connection. Darlington, MD: JBS Publishing. This book is an electronic book available at http://www.bullycide.org/
- Ollove, M. (2010, April 28). Bullying and teen suicide: How do we adjust school climate? Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2010/0428/Bullying-and-teen-suicide-How-do-we-adjust-school-climate
- Powers, R. (2010, October 22). Obama “shocked and saddened” by gay bullying suicides. MSNBC. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/39800008/ns/us_news-life/
- Simmons, R. (2010, October 5). Responding to the bullycides: How we can stand up and honor their memories. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rachel-simmons/responding-to-the-bullyci_b_747806.html