Once again, the news is filled with the story of a teen suicide because of bullying – this time of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer who lost hope after being bullied repeatedly and took his life. Our hearts go out to Jamey and his parents and sister, who are courageously speaking up so that other kids won’t have to go through this kind of torment.
In a NBC Today Show interview, Tracy and Timothy Rodemeyer describe how their son Jamey faced homophobic bullying in middle school, got counseling, seemed to feel much better, came out as gay, did an interview for the “It Gets Better Project”, and then took his life nine days after starting high school. Ten days after his death, interrupting an expression of support from friends for Jamey and his sister at a homecoming dance, 3 kids repeatedly shouted obscenities and said that they were glad he was dead before finally running off.
We cannot bring Jamey back – but we can take lessons from his suicide and look at what could have been done differently to protect him in order to prevent the next tragic “bullycide” from happening.
Here is what we need to do to help protect kids like Jamey:
1. Parents must know to insist on knowing what is happening with their kids in their online lives and their school lives as well as their family lives so that they can take action to protect their kids from harm. Jamey’s parents kept asking him if things were okay, but, as they said in their interview, they were confused because he seemed fine and “put on a brave front.” They wish they had known that he might try to hide his misery to protect them. Teens can get discouraged and feel incredibly alone, thinking that, “Even though I spoke up and got therapy and help for a while, I am still getting awful things said to me and still feeling terrible, so it’s hopeless.”
Teens also often have very volatile feelings that might change in an instant from empowerment from talking with people who care to despair from cruel comments from which there seems to be no escape. When kids get older, they often want to be more independent and not count on adults to solve their problems. However, parents still need to stay connected with their kids in respectful ways, insisting on staying aware of their online life and involved with their school activities.
The consistently repeated message from parents must be, “You deserve to feel safe and respected at school, even if you are different in some way, and you are responsible for helping other kids feel safe and respected, even if you don’t like them. We want to know if anything happens at school that is unsafe or disrespectful so we can find solutions together.”
Kids who have become deeply upset or depressed because of bullying at school need protection from further bullying. This means that parents must insist that either the situation at school has to change for the better or their child goes to a different school. Kids who have been traumatized by being bullied are most likely to recover if they have support from their families, join new peer groups where they can have positive relationships, and have professional counseling both at the time and, as a preventative measure, when they change schools.
2. Adults who are trusted with the care of kids must take responsibility for knowing what these kids are doing so they can provide supervision and, when necessary, intervention to address disrespectful, unsafe behavior effectively and immediately. We should not have lower standards for our schools than we do for our jobs. A workplace communication where someone said or wrote even once, “I wish you were dead!” would lead to an immediate, strong consequence.
Where were the adults supervising the school dance when the taunting started from the kids who had bullied Jamey? If adults are clustered in a corner talking with each other, they cannot hear what is going on and cannot supervise adequately.
Adults in charge of young people at school are responsible for knowing what is being said, texted, and shown and for taking action to stop threatening or demeaning behavior. Policies, laws, and programs must address all forms of bullying including taunting about differences such as being gay, of a different culture or religion, or having a disability - whether the form of delivery is in person, through others, or through technology. Parents must be held responsible for insisting that their kids behave safely and respectfully at school towards both school staff and students and for participating in finding solutions if there are any problems.
If a student complains about bullying, adults at school need to take it seriously. The consistently repeated message should be, “You deserve to feel safe at home, at school, and everywhere you go. I promise to listen to you with respect, to protect you from retaliation, and to help you to find solutions and positive ways to protect yourself.”
If kids are bullying someone, both parents and educators need to take responsibility instead of making excuses for any reason. Kicking kids out of school for bullying should be a last resort, after other solutions have been tried.
Instead, kids who are using their power unsafely in ways that harm others should be given opportunities to make amends by apologizing in writing and in person; doing something socially useful such as picking up trash, writing a paper on the damage caused by bullying, or volunteering in a homeless shelter; and practicing how to stay in charge of what they say and do even if they feel annoyed, bored, or provoked.
An appropriate consequence for misuse of technology is to remove privileges such as use of the Internet and cell phones at school and at home until this young person shows a commitment to being a responsible digital citizen.
3. Everyone must have skills for recognizing unsafe behavior and taking action to stop it. Effective programs such as Kidpower focus on teaching adults how to stay connected with young people as they become more independent, how to stay aware of what’s going on, and how to intervene to stop bullying. We prepare adults to teach children and teens to use their own power to build positive peer relationships, set boundaries, assess the safety of different situations, move away from trouble, speak up or get help when they see something hurtful happening, overcome discomfort to reach out to someone who is being bullied, protect their feelings, manage their emotional triggers, and be very persistent in getting adult help even if it is difficult and embarrassing.
Our free five-minute “Walk in Another’s Shoes” video was created by teens for teens. It has been used to address bullying around the world – and specifically includes anti-gay bullying along with other forms of hate language and cyber bullying along with other kinds of bullying.