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Bullying school deaths – nothing new, so why aren’t we doing more?

July 14, 2010

I’m supposed to be on vacation. But life has a funny way of impacting even the best of plans.

The cabin we’ve rented for the week has an amazing collection of magazines. This morning, as I was sitting down at the dining table to keep my kids company over breakfast, I happened to see a copy of Newsweek with the following headline: “Murder in the 8th Grade: A tale of bullying, sexual identity and the limits of tolerance.”  But what was surprising to me was the date on the magazine…

July 28, 2008.

Two years ago. 

Now, when you read the story, you realize this is a very complex tale, with many twists and turns.  In general terms, it talks about how young Lawrence (Larry) King was shot and killed by a fellow student, Brandon McInerney, in his class at E.O. Green Middle School in Oxnard, CA.  Part of the story involves a complicated mixture of a student who professed to be gay, and assumed the role in a very public and lavish way, administrators who may or may not have had a personal agenda that messed with their professional responsibilities, students who lacked or didn’t exhibit much tolerance or compassion…and it led to one student’s violent death, another who faced trial for killing him, and an entire community torn to the core.

This story could have been another in the series of bullying deaths or suicides filling the pages of magazines and newspapers this past year.  We all have heard about Phoebe Prince; many of us know about Michael Brewer, fewer know of Scott Walz…those of you know have been reading my blog for a while know many of the names that appear as a memorial of how we’re not doing enough to solve — really solve the problem.  Last year there were Jaheem Herrera and Carl Walker-Hoover; at least, these were the ones that hit the media.

But, here’s my point…Phoebe Prince made a huge splash as though this was so unique to make it horrific. But it happens all the time, all across the country.  Whether it’s an issue of anti-gay sentiments, anti-immigrant, anti-whatever, the underlying cause is the same.  Our children are losing their innate ability to feel empathy and compassion, to understand that we do not treat people this way because it’s wrong.

Too many of our school administrators believe they have done what they can because their have their federally-mandated anti-bullying policies, procedures or programs in place. They can check that box that says, “Do you have one of these?” in spite of the fact that our policies and procedures are not having enough of a positive effect on the problem. Do you think Sirdeaner Walker feels enough was done to protect her son?  How about Nancy Peterson Walz? Even parents whose kids are subjected to “ordinary bullying” in schools — teasing, taunting, harassment that doesn’t end in a child’s injury or death — frequently feel not enough was done by those who could have made a difference to solve the problem.

As long as we continue to treat bullying as a separate, distinct “problem” in our schools — something that only affects a few individuals — we’ll continue to see these problems.  Many of these victims suffered months or even years of taunting, harassment, even violence before their ultimate, tragic end. The changed schools, the got older, they tried interventions. Regardless of whether the victims had “issues” of their own, it doesn’t give other kids and staff to treat others with disregard or disdain. The “problem” will not go away no matter how much we like to hope, wish or pretend that it’s going to take care of itself.  Even putting laws into place to put the perps on notice that “this behavior will not be tolerated” isn’t a solution — it’s a defense mechanism.

At the end of the Newsweek article is a question about whether Larry King’s death could have been prevented.   A comment made in response reads, “Why didn’t the school have adequate funding to pay for social workers at the school to make sure students have resources?”  This is a typical response: “why doesn’t the school have more money?” But the reality is, it’s not about money. There is money — it takes money to fund anything at schools. But, is funding an adequate solution to anti-social behavior and character a priority?  We can always find money for things that are truly important — when it’s important to us.  I guess I just have this fundamental question: if we can’t keep our children safe and secure, does anything else we try to fund in education really matter?

I know bad stuff will always happen.  But there’s a discouraging trend here that shows no sign of reversing. Bullying in schools is a huge topic right now, but in light of all the information and research, why does it seem like we’re doing the same things over and over again, hoping for a different outcome? When will  we — as parents, as concerned citizens, heck, even just ask taxpayers — insist that we do not only more, but better? If not us, who will? Or do we want to wait for another horrific cover story — maybe another Columbine might do it.

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