Bullying has gone beyond the days of scrapes at a bus stop
On the morning of Sept. 29, 1998, Jared High called his father at work to say goodbye.
While on the phone with him, Jared shot and killed himself - just six days after his 13th birthday.
In the weeks prior, his family says, Jared had been bullied at his middle school in Pasco, Wash., culminating in an assault in the gym. He began suffering from depression, lack of sleep and exhibited emotional outbursts. Overcome by it all, he took his own life.
Bullying has gone far beyond the days of scrapes at a bus stop. Thanks to technology, bullying can flood into every aspect of life, drowning its victims through cyberspace and cell phones 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Anti-bullying initiatives are sweeping through schools and state legislatures across the country. Even the federal government has weighed in, establishing a website, stopbullying.gov. But what is bullying in the 21st century and how has our definition evolved through recent decades? And how do parents recognize warning signs that their child is being bullied, or if their child is the one doing the bullying?
According to stopbullying.gov, bullying is defined as "unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or imagined power imbalance." Bullying is further broken down into three types: verbal, social and physical (See "What it means" for more).
The warning signs for both bullies and those being bullied are varied. Unexplained injuries, lost or destroyed possessions, faking illnesses, declining academic performance and loss of friends or avoidance of social situations could be signs a child is being bullied. Increasingly aggressive behavior, trouble at school, unexplained extra money or possessions, and a pattern of blaming others for problems could indicate a child is doing the bullying.
"If not acted upon, bullying can affect the school climate by creating an atmosphere of fear and disrespect," said Stanley Bragg, Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education guidance specialist. "Children may perceive that the adults do not have control, and cannot handle the situation, or simply do not care about them."
Bragg said children who are bullied tend to suffer from depression and anxiety. They have problems sleeping and maintaining a healthy appetite. Their academic performance, as well as their health, tend to suffer in the wake of being bullied.
And bullying can have long-term effects, reaching into adulthood.
"Some of the physical, mental and academic issues that kids who are bullied experience may translate into adulthood where they can have depression and anxiety," said David Esquith, Director of the Office of Safe and Healthy Students with the U.S. Department of Education. "There can be significant physical ailments that lead to taking medications to address these issues. They are at risk to drop out of school, and their academic problems could continue into college. Kids who bully are more likely to have traffic citations, engage in early sexual activity, be more violent, and are also at risk for substance abuse and psychological problems."
Bullying has become such a problem for today's youth that, at DESE's urging, the Missouri Legislature passed a law in 2006 that defined the act and set guidelines for each school district's handling of the situation. Each school district was required to have an anti-bullying policy in effect by September 1, 2007.
Bragg said legislation provides "statewide consistency" in applying rules, while still allowing districts to maintain a level of local flexibility in handling bullying.
Bragg noted there is also a school violence hotline (1-866-748-7047) parents can contact. Reports, including the school name and city, can also be made via text message to the hotline by texting the word "reportit" to 847411.
All experts agree taking immediate action is critical. It's something Jared High's mother, Brenda, preaches as she advocates against bullying in speeches around the country as part of BullyPolice.org.
High calls what happened to her son "bullycide" and created a website, www.jaredstory.com, which since 1999 has attracted over two million visitors looking for information on bullying, depression, suicide and healing from the loss of a loved one.
"Kids will immediately ask you not to intervene," High said, "but my belief it is will get worse if you don't do something. Take your child and talk to the principal in a positive way. The bully has a problem, too, as they want to hurt someone."
"Parents can be very helpful in talking to and listening to their child," Esquith said, "giving them advice when needed, and talking to the school. Kids can be reluctant to talk to the school. Parents have an important role in supporting their child and the school has a responsibility to take care of the issue when it occurs."
An expansion of state legislation was pursued in the 2013 legislative session in the form of House Bill 134. This legislation, which failed in committee, sought to include cyberbullying as a specific infraction in school policies. It would have also made it mandatory for staff at a school to report any instance of bullying reported to them by a student. Furthermore, the bill sought to make the anti-bullying policies state specific responses to bullying, and added a clause which would stop retaliation against anyone who reported about bullying.
Had the legislation been passed by both chambers and signed by Gov. Jay Nixon, DESE would have had sample policies to member districts by September 2014.
"Document what is happening to you," High said. "We have to bring bullying into the light. This issue affects all children, both the bully and the victim."