Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

April 5, 2012

Bullying is a serious problem that impacts lives, and it should be addressed

By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— Everybody in the news business has to deal with the grief and anguish of other people sometime. We saw it after the shootings at Virginia Tech and the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va. Sometimes we see and hear it at crash scenes. One time I was at a scene when a victim’s mother arrived and learned that her daughter had died in a car crash. That scream of anguish and horror isn’t a sound you easily forget.

In other instances, the grief is expressed quietly, but it’s no less moving. Grief was evident during a candlelight vigil Monday for Dalton Lee Walker, a Princeton Middle School student who died last week of a self-inflicted injury. Apparently, he had been bullied repeatedly at school.

With the grief came the resolve to do something about bullying, a problem seen not only here, but across the country.

Bullying has been around ever since there have been schools. Kids who show any sign of being different are singled out for taunts and abuse. I know because I was one of them. If you’re different in any way, you’re going to be picked on. And today the abuse can be even worse because it might not end when you’re home. Kids can get on email or deliver the taunts on Facebook.

What can be done to combat bullying? Back in my school, the best remedy was consequences for the bullies. I’m sure more than one had after school detention and D Hall as we called it because I myself and others spoke up. But there were other times when I didn’t speak up simply because I didn’t want to be a snitch and other times when I didn’t want to look weak.

Still speaking up — multiple times, if necessary — helps as well as making sure there are consequences for the perpetrators. And I mean suspensions that are unpleasant.

I spent almost two years as a high school teacher in Henry County, Va., and I saw the effects of consequences that were not consequences. We could suspend kids who misbehaved, but too often this meant sending them home to be alone all day while their parents worked. As a result, kids saw suspension as a vacation instead of a punishment.

One day I was doing hall monitor duty when I overheard a boy saying to his girlfriend, “I just came off a nice three-day suspension.” I was told that suspensions were real deterrents in the past because students couldn’t make up their work. They would then fail classes and be forced to remain behind while their friends advanced by a grade. That was embarrassing, and embarrassment is a powerful factor among teens.

Unfortunately, this deterrent was gone when I arrived at that school. Kids could make up their work and suspension was a break from school. I’m sure more than a few students acted out deliberately just so they could get out of class. One day two boys in my class had a fight. They rolled across the floor, chairs flew and two other teachers had to help me break it up. Both the boys were given three days suspension and they came back the best of friends. To this day, I’m sure they staged the whole mess just to get out of school.

While I was studying to be a teacher, I was told that children’s minds, right up to the teen years, may not have matured to the point where they can appreciate consequences. I have to admit that I’ve seen kids get hurt doing crazy stuff, only to be dumbfounded to discover that they could actually get hurt.

That’s why it is important to hold kids accountable for their actions. If they are not held accountable, how can that vitally important part of their minds form? Learning there are no consequences for bad behavior can’t be good.

If the community as a whole can impress upon its young people the idea that bullying is a behavior that is not acceptable and will not be tolerated, then the goal of stopping it can go forward. Kids who grow up thinking they can and should be able to get away with anti-social behavior cannot expect a good future. Eventually, they have to deal with law enforcement and the legal system. That is when they learn that anti-social behavior doesn’t always result in nice three-day suspensions. The result is being judged by people who don’t have the kids self esteem or future in mind. Then it’s time for going before a judge who will decide their fate while they head for shackles and a jail cell.

Bullying should not be considered just something kids do. It’s a serious problem that impacts lives, and it should be addressed. If the current methods are not enough to handle all cases of bullying, then other methods should be employed. I’m not sure what those methods would be, but now is the time to start working on them.

Greg Jordan is the Daily Telegraph’s senior reporter. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com