Guest blogged by Rachel Marcus
Last week, the story of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman who killed himself after his roommate secretly filmed him in an intimate situation with another male via his laptop web cam and broadcast the episode to other students, became the latest incident in a series of highly publicized suicides occurring among children and teenagers who have been bullied by their classmates and peers. On September 23, a Houston eighth-grader shot himself after enduring taunts about his homosexuality. Four days before that, another gay middle-schooler in California hung himself, reportedly after teasing from his classmates became unbearable. In January of this year Phoebe Prince, a high school freshman in South Hadley, MA and recent émigré from Ireland, hung herself after the bullying from a group of juniors and seniors at her school who tortured her for months and reportedly called her, among other insults, an "Irish whore", became too much for her to bear.
The media attention has portrayed this recent spate of tragedies as an epidemic, spurring a frenzy of discussion about enacting anti-bullying legislation. In response to Phoebe Prince's suicide, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed into law a broad measure to crack down on bullying in schools that requires anti-bullying education for all students and teachers, mandates that all bullying incidents be reported to parents, and most sweepingly, outlaws "the repeated use by a perpetrator of a written, verbal, or electronic expression, or physical act or gesture . . . directed at a victim that causes physical or emotional harm or damage to the victim's property; places the victim in reasonable fear or harm to himself or of damage to his property; [or] creates a hostile environment at school." Any behavior deemed as bullying by the school principal must now be referred to criminal law enforcement agencies.
At present, forty-five US states have passed some form of anti-bullying legislation. Although the intentions behind these laws are admirable, the question remains as to whether these measures will have any real effect toward stopping the incidence of a type of behavior seen by many as a natural part of childhood socialization. Bullying, as anyone who has attended grade school or indeed who remembers his or her childhood can attest, is not a new phenomenon. Almost everyone has, at some point in his or her life, had an experience with a bully, or perhaps even acted as a bully. The vast majority of bullying victims do not end up as suicides, and bullies often grow out of their callous behaviors. Most people leave behind their childhood bully-related memories on the playground or in the high school lunchroom, only to perhaps look back wincingly every now and then.
When I was in grade school, it was an issue rarely addressed and largely ignored by teachers and other adults, unless some kind of blatant verbal or physical altercation occurred. The general sense was that bullying was an expected, even accepted, mode of behavior--being bullied was a rite of passage, a means of building the kind of character and thick skin needed to succeed in the unfair and often harsh adult world. As for the bullies themselves--well, they were simply acting their age, expressing a type of childish cruelty that would likely fall away with maturity.
As it turns out, the repercussions of childhood bullying are potentially serious and can extend well into adulthood. Studies published in 2005 linked bullying to depression, criminal behavior, and substance abuse later in life, for both perpetrators and victims. Some bullies go on to become even more diabolical adults--take for instance the 2006 case of Megan Meier, a 13 year-old Missouri girl who struck up a budding romance over MySpace messages with a person she believed to be a 16 year-old boy named Josh. At first the Josh seemed sweet, showering her with compliments and insinuating that he would like her to be his girlfriend, until he suddenly turned on her, hurling insults at her and even going so far as to say that "the world would be a better place" without her. Soon after she read that last message, Megan hung herself in her room. "Josh", as it turns out, was not a teenage boy but a fake profile created by Lori Drew, the mother of a classmate and former friend of Megan's, with the sole purpose of inflicting psychological torture on the girl. Drew faced criminal misdemeanor charges of violating Internet privacy regulations, which were later dropped. With no direct line of causation between Drew's cruelty and Megan's suicide, Drew escaped any legal culpability.
The problem of man's inhumanity toward man is a dilemma as old as human society itself, and stricter anti-bullying laws are unlikely to prevent people from acting cruelly toward one another--if moral legislation ever had the power to change this fundamental fact of human nature, we would certainly be living in a very different world--but that is not to say that we should simply declare futility and let these incidents go on unaddressed.
It is a difficult task to create anti-bullying laws that do not also infringe on free-speech rights. Prosecuting the bullies with serious criminal charges and castigating them in the media, as is currently happening in the Clementi and Prince cases, is likely to punish the bullies in those individual cases, if not with actual jail time then with the public shame that will follow them for the rest of their lives, but it is unlikely to incite behavioral change on a large scale. It is a visceral, almost lynch-mob form of revenge, but ineffective in targeting the wider phenomenon of bullying.
Effectively addressing the problem of bullying in schools would require nothing short of a transformation in cultural attitudes about acceptable behavior between people. Educational programs, such as the anti-bullying classes introduced in Massachusetts schools, is a start. Incorporating issues of sexual orientation into the standard diversity awareness curriculum in schools would help as well, since GLBT students make up a large portion of the victims in these extreme bullying cases. Cultural sensitivity training programs have their detractors (witness the PC movement backlash that has become a centerpiece in contemporary US political culture wars) but they do promote a change in the general sense of accepted morality, which in turn trickles down to affect individual behaviors. In recognizing that bullying is unjust and destructive, we are taking the first step toward breaking down the cultural attitudes that allow bullies to continue inflicting pain on other people's lives.
Rachel Marcus is a graduate of Rice University, a blogger, and researcher, honing her skills at the Houston bureau of the New York Times. She was also the researcher for Disaster on the Horizon, Bob Cavnar's new book about BP's deepwater well blowout. This is the first of what we hope are many contributions to the collective works on The Daily Hurricane.