People Skills

Social skills for kids and everyone else.

15 Year Old Suicide in Massachusetts : Why Aren’t We Teaching Respect, Part Two

Do we allow kids to drive each other to suicide?

I'm angry. A 15 year old hanged herself in South Hadley MA. She was unable to tolerate the constant hounding and attacks that made her life miserable for months. Faculty and administration in her school were aware of what was going on but didn't act. She was bullied in front of faculty and students in the library on the day she died, and nothing was reported until after her death. Some students and teachers tried to report the abuse, but most ignored it. This is not a situation unique to South Hadley.

My last blog addressed the role adults play in the increased acceptance of rudeness and intolerance. Many adults are abdicating their responsibility to teach children respect and empathy. How on earth could adults have known about these relentless attacks and not taken some kind of action to stop them? I can only imagine that they thought something like, "Kids will be kids," or "She'd better toughen up." These notions that victims of bullying need to learn to "handle" abusive behavior and that bullying is normal and an acceptable rite of passage are absurd.

Do some children need help learning to handle the "give and take" of peers? Yes. But normal "give and take" is different from a pattern of ongoing bullying. Adults, especially those whose job it is to understand children, should know the difference.Did anyone ask her how she felt? Bullying is toxic to the children and the school environment. It is destructive to both the victim (for obvious reasons) and the bully, who is at risk for more serious antisocial behavior. And what about the impact on the other children, who witnessed the torment and did nothing? What did they learn from the non-action of the adults? How do they feel now?

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Being a bully must be made to be "uncool.' Consequences must be clear and enforced. Often, even in schools with "zero tolerance" policies, it's complex. For many children, unstructured places such as the hall, lunchroom and locker room are open season for attacks. Bullying takes place out of the sight of teachers, and it's a "he said, she said" situation. Victims are afraid to report abuse out of fear of reprisal. This has to be addressed head on in community meetings, in mandatory parent involvement, and via increased awareness. Students should be anonymously surveyed about their experience of bullying in the school. There should be no "dead zones" of supervision when these problems are suspected. Victims and bullies need counseling. Adult reaction is the responsibility of every staff member. Bullying programs are often limited to a class or discussion. There is often no follow through in seeing how children are treating each other.

In South Hadley, nine students were indicted with charges ranging from statutory rape to criminal harassment. Where is the responsibility of the adults involved?

 

Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D., is an attending faculty in the Department of Psychiatry at Norwalk Hospital.

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