It’s now part of the national conversation.
Headlines from coast to coast have forced it there.
Two Columbine High School students in Littleton, Colo., shoot 13 classmates before turning their guns on themselves.
A 13-year-old Missouri girl who hangs herself after being cyberbullied by the mother of a classmate.
A Rutgers University freshman jumps off the George Washington Bridge in New York City after a secretly recorded video of him kissing a guy is posted on the Internet.
Three teenage boys – one in Houston, another in Greensburg, Ind., and the third in Tehachapi, Calif. – commit suicide within a matter of weeks in 2010, all after being bullied.
Sadly, these stories are not unique.
Bullying is happening everywhere, including Illinois.
About three hours southeast of Morris, a 10-year-old girl named Ashlynn Conner committed suicide last year because she was being bullied.
“She had been hurt by her classmates and neighborhood kids ... They called her fat and they called that little girl ugly,” said Rachel Plasch, a member of MWAH! Performing Arts Troupe – Messages Which Are Hopeful – to the students at Marseilles Elementary School, Marseilles, Monday, Sept. 10.
Ashlynn had begged her mom to home-school her, but her mom didn’t understand why, so she didn’t allow it, Plasch continued.
The very next day, on Nov. 11, 2011, Ashlynn’s eighth-grade sister found Ashlynn’s dead body. Ashlynn hanged herself with a knitted scarf in her bedroom closet all because she had been bullied and didn’t know how to cope.
Even closer to Morris, about an hour north, in Batavia, a 15-year-old high school freshman named Dylan Wagner also hanged himself.
According to published reports, Wagner’s mother told the audience at a previous MWAH! presentation she and her husband came home after taking a walk to find a note from their son on the kitchen table and his body in the basement.
What is bullying?
Researchers traditionally have defined bullying as a repeated pattern of aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power and purposefully inflicts hardship or harm on those who are bullied.
Leading research on bullying indicates that there are serious and long-term consequences to bullying, such as increased depression, substance abuse, aggressive impulses, and school truancy.
“When I was growing up, I got bullied and it was a rite of passage, but we didn’t have the degrees of violence that we have now,” said CJ Harmer, a peer intervention specialist with Pioneer Center for Human Services in McHenry.
“I think we’re just noticing it more now because we choose to look at it.”
Bullying also is getting more attention with high-profile documentaries like “Finding Kind” and “Bully,” formerly known as “The Bully Project.” More and more celebrities are admitting that they, too, were once bullied and are speaking out against it now.
When he was still alive, Jamey Rodemeyer’s idol was Lady Gaga, according to Plasch.
After Jamey, a 14-year-old boy from Williamsville, NY, committed suicide because he couldn’t handle being taunted anymore, Lady Gaga tweeted that bullying is a hate crime and it should become illegal, Plasch said.
“All of us here need to respect each other for our differences, whether it’s racial, religious, sexual orientation or physical and developmental challenges,” Plasch continued. “Nobody deserves to suffer or die because of ignorance.”
But when does bullying become more than just kids being kids?
It’s a fine line between harmless teasing and bullying, said Judy Freeman of Glenview, author of “Easing the Teasing,” a book and program that many schools across the country have adopted.
There is teasing when no one’s feelings are hurt, in a sort of affectionate or harmless way, like laughing with somebody, Freeman explained. But there also is cruel and hurtful teasing, such as insults, name-calling or embarrassing someone.
As bullying moves along what Freeman calls a continuum, it becomes more aggressive. There’s exclusion, or the “you can’t play with us, or you can’t sit here” mentality, known in psychology circles as “relational aggression.”
“Kids typically use relationships rather than their fists,” Freeman said, explaining that is often referred to as “mean girl” behavior, but she acknowledged that boys, too, can exhibit such behavior.
These behaviors are more subtle – gossiping, glares, stares. And moving along the continuum, hostile teasing becomes more abusive.
It becomes bullying when the behavior is intimidating, threatening or abusive, typically verbal but it also can be physical, Freeman said. Bullying is repeated, persistent and characterized by a power imbalance.
“A lot of these kids acting in these aggressive ways feel pretty darn good about themselves,” Freeman said. “They can be the smart kids, cool or popular kids that are just getting pleasure out of this. That is very scary.”
The Internet and social media websites ushered in a whole new arena for torment – cyberbullying, and with it came new and dangerous dimensions to conventional ideas about bullying.
“What used to happen in the schoolyard or cafeteria can go global in a few seconds,” Freeman said.
Hank Nuwer is a professor at Franklin College in Indiana. He has written several books about bullying and hazing.
“It’s a whole different kind of bullying today than people were used to 20, 30 years ago,” Nuwer said. “It’s the ganged-up type of behavior. People cannot only [bully] you in the halls, but also online. Students feel like they have a [constant] target on them.”
Are we overreacting?
But with bullying suddenly thrust into the national dialogue, some are asking – are we overreacting? Is society labeling normal childhood behavior as bullying?
“We as a community, as a society, I think what we need to do is really understand that there are differences in bullying so we don’t drown out that particular term,” Harmer said. “Because it is a serious issue. Saying everything we’re doing is bullying won’t have the effectiveness that it needs to have.”
In a society where everybody gets a participation trophy, are children simply getting weaker?
“I’m talking about young children specifically, I see that they have weaker coping skills now than they did 15 or 20 years ago,” Freeman said. “They don’t get a lot of experience to cope with experiences that are not going their way. They may have more meltdowns if things don’t go their way.
“Some of this has to do with parents rescuing kids very quickly and not letting them work things out themselves,” Freeman continued. “As parents, we don’t want our kids to have heartache or pain, we want to kiss it and make it better.”
But the statistics don’t lie.
An alarming 39 percent of middle school administrators and 20 percent of elementary and high school administrators reported that bullying took place on a daily or weekly basis, according to a student survey by the National Center for Education Statistics. Ninteen percent of middle schools and 18 percent of high schools reported daily or weekly problems with cyberbullying, either at a school or away from school, the study found.
As the incidents of bullying get more serious and more commonplace, school administrators are often charged with finding ways to curtail it.
“I don’t think there’s ever going to be a time that bullying is not going to be around,” Harmer said. “... But I think we can make it harder for bullies to be bullies.”
Following Wagner’s death, MWAH! troupe members reached out to his sister.
“She wanted us to tell you guys that we need to understand that dark moments and sad thoughts do not last forever,” Plasch said. “And that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.”
Marseilles Elementary School Social Worker Stacy Brannan encouraged the students in her school to speak up for themselves, to tell an adult.
“If you are being teased so much that you are having trouble eating, trouble sleeping, you’re upset and hate school and don’t want to come, tell somebody,” Brannan said.
She also encouraged Marseilles students to tell a second or third adult if the first one doesn’t act.
“We all really, really care about you,” she continued. “We will take care of you if you tell us something is wrong.”
At the same presentation in Marseilles, State Representative Pam Roth told the students to be themselves.
“If you love you and you are you, then everyone else is going to love you, too,” Roth said.