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Staying Safe

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Bullying is a pervasive problem - but help is at hand

In 2011, five teenaged boys attending a West Hartford high school harassed a female student for weeks, made threats against her, and then showed up at her house. When the girl’s 19-year-old cousin went outside to confront them, one of the bullies shot him in the neck.

In 2016, a seventh-grade student at a New Haven magnet school was punched and knocked unconscious during class, the culmination of five years of abuse by his classmates. His mother sued the school district and city, saying she had repeatedly notified school authorities, but nothing was done.

In 2018, an elementary student who had moved to Cheshire from New Mexico five months earlier – and was constantly bullied in her new school because she was Hispanic – committed suicide at home two days before Christmas. She was 11 years old.

These are just some of the shocking bullying cases that have taken place throughout Connecticut in the past decade. While bullying is not limited to schools or school-aged children, educational settings have been a hotbed of this type of activity for many years – and it seems to be getting worse. A poll of more than 160,000 students by nonprofit YouthTruth revealed that about 30 percent of middle-school and high school students had been bullied in school in 2017, up from 25 percent two years earlier.

According to the Tyler Clementi Foundation, bullying is “widespread in schools and on campuses across the United States” but is often underreported because the victim is afraid that telling someone will only make things worse. The New Jersey-based foundation is named for Tyler Clementi, a college freshman who killed himself by jumping off a bridge after his roommate secretly videotaped him being intimate with another male student, and then posted it on Twitter.

Some recent statistics suggest that bullying is in a much bigger problem in other states than in Connecticut. For instance, a 2018 WalletHub report ranked our state 37th in the nation – far better than Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri, which garnered 1st, 2nd and 3rd spots, respectively, for the highest incidence of bullying behavior in the U.S.

But many Nutmeg state parents would argue that the prevalence of bullying here is still far too high. Responding to a survey that was conducted by and published in October 2019 as part of a multi-year reporting project, more than 330 Connecticut parents said they were extremely concerned about the severity and extent of bullying their kids had been subjected to, both in school and online. Nearly 90 percent of these parents said that one of their children had been bullied at least once, and more than 50 percent said their kids had been bullied frequently.

Moreover, parents reported that the impact had often been severe – including significantly lower grades, fear of going to school, anxiety, depression, and physical harm. Some children were forced to change schools; some teens dropped out of school altogether.

One Nutmeg state parent wrote that her daughter “cried every day, her entire school career. She went to a private [counselor] and still has no self-esteem. She was a happy little girl until the bullying began in second grade.”

Another parent wrote: “It’s had lasting effects on my son. He doesn’t trust any of his male peers, is afraid to even approach them, and he won’t participate in any social event where they may be present, which is most.”

Not a new problem

Alex Agostini can relate. Now a graduate student intern about to complete his Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and working with Nancy Martin, LMFT at Wellness Counseling in Farmington, Agostini was bullied growing up.

“I have distinct memories from back in elementary school. I still remember the bully by name. I know why he bullied me – because he told me flat out that it was easy and fun – but it really stung. The fact that he didn’t leave me alone all the way to middle school was atrocious. I don’t think I made as big a deal out of it as some other people [who were bullied] did. I thought, ‘I need to roll with him as long as I can.’ I took a very passive role,” he says. “Knowing what I know now, I wonder what his home life was like. I didn’t think about that then.”

It’s an interesting observation. Multiple studies have shown that bullies were often bullied or mistreated in childhood themselves, encountering mistreatment by peers at school, or domestic violence and/or sibling aggression at home.

Experts also say that parents who are quick to take issue with other people, instead of teaching children to be kind and respectful, may be unintentionally modeling behavior that children will emulate. It’s something to consider the next time you’re tempted to yell at that driver who cut you off in traffic, or make scathing remarks to a stranger on Facebook.

As Nancy Martin notes, “When we see this type of behavior or the repercussions of it, we ask, “Where is the bully getting the bullying behavior from?’ It often starts in the family of origin.”

Sometimes that’s not the case, but kids see poor behavior modeled regardless. “In a wider, systemic view,” says Agostino, “our culture is one where bullying is almost pervasive. People not only have to win; you also have to make sure your opponent loses. In many ways, I feel we’ve lost our spirit of cooperation.”

From common occurrence to crisis

Bullying has been going on for years. Many of today’s parents and grandparents were bullied themselves at one point or another, or witnessed it happening in school. But things have escalated dramatically, and many kids’ physical and emotional wellbeing – and even their lives – may be hanging in the balance.

For anyone tempted to dismiss bullying as a common if unfortunate part of growing up, it’s important to remember that for victims, bullying is not only painful but potentially deadly. Researchers have identified a strong correlation between bullying and suicide, and studies by Yale University show that young people who are bullied are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than their non-bullied peers.

Marie Osmond, whose son committed suicide by jumping from the balcony of his apartment building in 2010, said in an interview that he had called her a few days beforehand and told her he was depressed and had no friends. Osmond, who was away at the time, told him she would be there on Monday, and that things were going to be okay. In an interview with Oprah eight months after his death, Osmond said, “depression doesn’t wait ‘til Monday.” In October 2019, she revealed for the first time that her son was not only dealing with multiple other issues in his life at the time, such as his parents’ divorce, but had been repeatedly targeted by three bullies. “I’ve got the texts – I mean they’re horrendous, and … I believe that that was a high component in him just feeling overwhelmed and that he didn’t fit in,” she said.

Alarmingly, a report released last June showed that suicide among teenagers and young adults has hit a 20-year high. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate among 14- to 17-year-olds rose by 70 percent for Caucasian teens and 77 percent for African American teens in the 10-year span from 2006 to 2016. And numbers continue to rise, by roughly 8 to 10 percent a year.

Why the increase? Social media may have something to do with it. The advent of online social platforms now means that bullying can take place anywhere, at any time. And that means for victims, there is almost no escape. Even worse, what once was a relatively private source of embarrassment and angst now has the potential to go public – on YouTube, Facebook, or another social platform. When a humiliating video goes viral, for example, it can seem like the whole world is laughing at you.

Quite justifiably, young people often perceive that the public embarrassment heaped on them by their tormentors via social media will haunt them for the rest of their lives. In an age where negative videos, photos and commentary can be revived and shared by virtually anyone, even years after they were initially posted, the hurt and shame can seem endless.

Connecticut has had anti-bullying laws on the books for almost 20 years, defining what bullying specifically entails and setting out both remedies and penalties. As part of the original 2002 legislation, all school districts were required to create and implement a bullying policy, train their staff to address all of incidences of bullying, and report these incidents to the state.

Unfortunately, follow-through in identifying and effectively dealing with bullying behavior has varied greatly from one school – and school district – to another, according to published reports. In the Patch survey, many Connecticut parents said anti-bullying school policies are “poorly enforced, if they are enforced at all.” Some said the policies were inadequate, ineffective, or “a joke.”

Rather than try to get to the root of the problem, Agostini says, some well-meaning teachers or school officials may tell students who complain of being bullied that they’ll just have to learn to live with it. “Faculty may take a stance of telling a student who complains, ‘You’re too sensitive,’ or ‘It’s just part of life. If you don’t learn to deal with it, what are you going to do when you grow up?’ That may be objectively true,” he says, “but it makes victims feel they have even fewer allies to trust in the school system.”

Parents may send their kids a similar message, and school friends or acquaintances who witness bullying may be too afraid to step in, worried that they’ll become the bully’s next target. While one survey found that more than 70 percent of staff had seen bullying at school, and 41 percent said they saw it once a week or more, other studies show that just 1 in 10 of the victim’s peers will intervene, and only 1 in four adults will do so. “The rest – 85 percent – will do nothing.”

That can leave a child or teen feeling totally isolated, and even hopeless, says Martin.

Finding solutions

Past efforts to curb school-based bullying and its devastating effects have not been very successful. The problem continues even in Connecticut, where the state’s anti-bullying law has been updated and strengthened several times, and people engaging in threatening or intimidating behavior can be charged with either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the nature of the behavior and the circumstances.

Obviously, a dramatically different approach is required. But what?

The answer seems to be a proactive effort to get at the root of the problem, and to stop bullying before it starts.

In July 2019, Governor Ned Lamont signed into state law a bill that was passed unanimously by both the House and the Senate. In summary, the law – HB7215, An Act Concerning School Climates – requires boards of education to develop safe school climate policies, establish a “social and emotional learning and school climate council” in place of the existing safe school climate committee, and provide training on the prevention of, and intervention in, discrimination against and targeted harassment of students. The Department of Education was tasked with developing a “social and emotional learning assessment instrument” and a model safe school climate policy, and schools will have to assess their school climate and ensure they provide a safe environment for students.

Unlike the state’s previous legislation, which described bullying actions as behavior “repeated over time,” this law also includes severe single acts of aggression. Rep. Liz Linehan (D-Cheshire), who advocated for the new law, recounted how a group of high school girls once broke into her parents’ home and went from room to room, looking for her, while she hid in a closet. “They wanted to drag me out and beat me up,” she said. Linehan argued in the House that bullying “can be the smaller instances of poke, poke, poke … consistent picking on a child” but it can also be a more serious single action that “places an individual in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm or infringes on the rights or opportunities of an individual at school.”

A new school climate collaborative, meanwhile, will identify evidence-based best practices to deal with bullying and conduct a state-wide survey of schools every two years – with input not only from school officials and teachers but parents and mental health professionals.

Connecticut’s revised approach seems to be in line with recommendations from two leading experts on the topic of bullying prevention. Writing for the American Psychological Association (APA), Dr. Dewey G. Cornell and Dr. Susan P. Limber, both psychologists and professors, said that students and parents should be educated about bullying, and should be given access to anonymous reporting methods to make it easier to get help. (Several school districts in Connecticut, including West Hartford and Glastonbury, already encourage students to report bullying anonymously, using phone apps dedicated to that purpose.)

Drs. Cornell and Limber also say that when bullying does happen, schools should conduct “a prompt and thorough investigation,” and intervene immediately to protect the victim from additional bullying or retaliation. Parents of both the victim and bully – and the police, if appropriate – should be notified. Schools should mete out “graduated consequences” for bullying, and offer academic support and mental health referrals for both victims and bullies, they say, noting that these policies have been proven effective in improving school culture.

Also showing a lot of promise is an innovative national campaign launched by the Tyler Clemente Foundation. Dubbed #Day1, the campaign seeks to turn “bystanders” into “Upstanders” who promise to identify and intervene in bullying on the first day they witness it. (One study showed that when bystanders intervene, bullying stops within 10 seconds, 57 percent of the time.)

So far, hundreds of private and public schools, teams, colleges, organizations, workplaces, and individuals across the country – almost 700,000 people so far – have taken the #Day1 pledge. Teachers, parents and students can help by encouraging everyone to get involved, says Tyler’s mom and the foundation’s co-founder, Jane Clemente.

Meanwhile, in Connecticut, award-winning songwriter and producer Jill Nesi has teamed up with Christopher Zullo of the Spotlight Stage Company to produce an anti-bullying musical “showcase” that has been on a tour of the state’s middle schools. They hope to license this play to every middle school in the state and, eventually, the country, with local children performing in their own schools. A longer, more complex version that is geared to teens and adults, called “Stand Up: The Musical,” will have its world debut in October in North Haven. Parents can take their teenagers to see the musical, or PTO members can help school administrators bring the showcase version to their own middle school. (For related story, see page 30.)

Getting ahead of the curve

There are also things that parents can do at home to ensure their own kids aren’t being bullied – or being a bully, for that matter.

Experts recommend being proactive, instead of waiting for signs of a problem.

One of the best things parents can do is to have regular conversations with their children about how things are going at school, what they’re worried about, and if there’s anyone at school they don’t like, or don’t get along with. In addition to emphasizing the importance of treating other people well, and modeling that behavior, parents can explain to their children that bullying is a big problem, talk about the consequences, and reassure their kids that if they are being bullied, they are not alone. They can also explain to their children the importance of sharing any problems with trusted adults and peers who can advocate for them.

If your children or teens show signs of depression or suicidal thoughts (see box, above), get help immediately. Talk with teachers and school officials – even in confidence, if your kids beg you not to intervene. One useful place to seek assistance is an organization called STOMP Out Bullying; it offers resources for parents, teachers and young people, including a free and confidential chat line for youth who are being bullied and may be at risk of suicide as a result.

One-on-one private therapy can also be a lifesaver, especially if reaching out to the school has not resolved the problem. “Once children establish a connection and trust level with us, we help them to feel heard and teach them to problem-solve the immediate issue,” says Martin. “We’ll ask them, ‘What have you done already? Have your parents been involved? Do you think it would be a good idea for us all to talk together?’”

She adds, “We can also give them concrete suggestions. For instance, a lot of times, bullying happens in the cafeteria. For one person, we recommended bringing their lunch down to the counselor’s office and then using the time until the next class doing something else. When kids are bullied, they don’t have to sit there and take it.”

Also, says Agostini, “We try to encourage them to play into the strengths and qualities that they have, rather than what they perceive they lack. If you can encourage them to be all that they can be, they begin to see that they are special and that they can succeed. We give the victim a sense of power and strength about what they can do by pointing out the things they excel in.”

Dr. Joelle Santiago, 29, a chiropractor in Avon, found that type of counseling extremely helpful when she was bullied – not in high school, but in college, when people who had previously been friendly began treating her poorly.

“It made me feel very nervous, uncomfortable, panicked, and unsafe. Bullying really can happen to anyone, anywhere,” she says. “One of the things that I can’t stress enough is the importance of being able to talk to someone outside of the situation. I saw a therapist, which was the best thing I could do.”

Also, rather than allow the bullies to make her feel isolated and afraid, she limited her exposure to them by avoiding situations where they might be present and drew on her existing network of family and friends for support. “I had friends who made me feel safe and appreciated, and my mom was very, very proactive about it. She would drive to campus and take me out to lunch. Her priority was continual communication.”

Dr. Santiago also expanded her circle of supporters by explaining the situation to her teachers and by taking part in a variety of activities on campus. “The combination of having the support from friends, family and teachers, and participating in activities with new friends, was a really refreshing thing,” she recalls. “I was equipped with all the right things and people in my life to help me.” Coping with it on her own, she says, “would have been way too difficult.”

She also credits the Avon school system for raising awareness about bullying while she was a student there. This helped her to identify bullying when she saw it and realize that “maybe this isn’t about me.”

Today, she leads a happy and fulfilling life, and tries to help others whenever she can, both personally and professionally. “It really makes me feel good to give my friends advice, whatever the topic is,” she says. “I think some of my experiences have helped to shape me into a more compassionate person and given me a deeper understanding of the difficult things people can go through.”

And as someone coming from a long line of chiropractors – her grandparents, two uncles and her mother are also in the profession – “I’ve always had a huge interest in treating the entire person. Nothing feels as good as helping people. It’s rewarding and terrific.”