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Op-Ed: Coming of Age in a Culture of Bullying

Kate MacHugh | February 25, 2013

The Anti-Bullying law is a large step forward, but educators who resent filing forms and investigating incidents are not helping our children heal.

I grew up in a small Jersey Shore town, much like any other town that dots the coastline. I was fortunate enough to have two loving and supportive parents. Parents that asked: where I was going, who would be there, when I would be home. They raised me to believe that I was beautiful, smart, and worthy. They did everything good parents should do. They sent me to a school that they believed would be a safe and nurturing environment. But they could not have planned for what would happen when I got there.

“You should just kill yourself already!” “Everyone hates you, why do you even come to school?” “You are so disgusting!” These were the messages I received from my classmates over the computer, on the bus, and in the lunch line. I was harassed, physically assaulted, and the subject of vicious rumors. The bullying started the first week of 7th grade and lasted until I packed my bags for college.

The girls that bullied me were often pretty, popular, and well liked by teachers. They were leaders in the student government, soccer stars, and teachers' pets. When I recounted their bullying behavior, I was met with disbelief. The school authorities discounted their behavior and minimized the issue. I quickly learned that reporting the bullying did not yield any results, and the bullying continued. I suffered for six long years at the hands of peers. I contemplated suicide often; it seemed like the only way to end the torment. My classmates made me believe that killing myself was a better option than coming to school.

I never shared with my parents what was happening at school; I was too embarrassed. How could I come home and tell my mom that there was a rumor going around school that I had slept with the wrestling team? That I was pretending to be sick again because I knew that there was a girl waiting to beat me up after lunch? So I suffered in silence. It is typical for parents to be unaware if their child is being bullied. Parents often to do not recognize the warning signs: grades slipping, frequent illnesses, low self-esteem.

Flash forward to 2011. Gov. Chris Christie signs New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act and the school climate in New Jersey changed dramatically. The law requires schools to have a policy in place regarding harassment, intimidation, and bullying to protect its students. Schools must open an investigation into bullying and notify parents when it occurs. The law has been hailed as the most stringent and strict in the country. It is the hope of the law to reduce bullying and subsequent suicides by prevention, reporting, and response to bullying incidents in New Jersey’s schools.

When I speak at schools, inevitably a student will always pose the question: “Why didn’t the school do an investigation?” Many of these non-bullied students cannot recall a time when they were not protected by the law. It has become ingrained as part of their education. Bright colored signs bearing “Be a Buddy, Not a Bully!” and “Bullying is Not Cool!” decorate their hallways and classrooms.

When I tell the students that there was not a law when I went to school and that the term “bullying” was not used they are shocked. I was in the middle of “girl drama” or the bully and I were “having an issue” with one another. This terminology inherently states that I was a willing participant in my victimization. I was making a conscious choice to be shoved into lockers, embarrassed in the lunch room, and to be called a “slut” and a “whore.”

This culture of victim blaming that was so often seen in schools before the law has long-lasting emotional and psychological effects on the victim. I was made to believe I was responsible for what was happening at school, on the bus, and online. It was not until I began to work through the trauma and start healing myself did I realize that I was not to be blamed. The girls that told me to kill myself, that called me ugly, that destroyed my self-worth -- they were the ones that deserved the blame.

Not all educators are in support of New Jersey’s law. There has been a small pushback from school administrators about the new policies. All possible bullying incidents must now be investigated in a timely fashion. The accused bully, victim, and witnesses must be pulled from class and interviewed about what occurred. Forms need to be filled out and sent to both parties’ parents informing them that their child is now involved in a bullying investigation. It is a long and grueling process that some educators do not have the time or desire to deal with.

Students who report being bullied are met with eye-rolls and sighs as the person informed sifts through the paperwork to find the right form. What message are we sending to our students when we do not take their trauma seriously? When we minimize their victimization because there are more-pending matters on our desks? Regardless of an educator’s stance on the Anti-Bullying law, we need to listen with our ears and hearts to our students who are taking advantage of the protections it offers them.

As social workers, we are trained to identify and fight against social injustice in our communities, locally and globally. I see bullying as abuse and injustice of the highest order. It is a growing issue that is just now being paid the attention it deserves. We cannot rest solely on a solitary law to protect our students against the anguish of being bullied. We need to talk to our children about good digital citizenship and online responsibility. We need to encourage our students and children who are being bullied to seek help and no longer allow them to suffer in silence. When we encounter a child who is bullying others, we need to help them see the error of their ways and ensure they do not grow into hateful, angry adults.

It is my hope that children in New Jersey will no longer think about taking their own lives because of the words of their peers and that all students attend school without the fear of what will happen when they get there. As parents, educators, or citizens this should be your hope as well.

Kate MacHugh is completing her master's degree in social work at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. She is the author of Ugly: The Story of a Bullied Girl and has spoken about bullying at schools and conferences across the country.

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