A recent rash of bullying by teens that has resulted in deaths and suicides appears to be something new and disturbing, inflamed by the Internet. Everyone is trying to find someone to blame - teachers, administrators, the victim, but I feel strongly that the greatest responsibility lies with the teens who did the bullying and their parents. And this is nothing new, although the Internet can add to the frequency and intensity of the bullying.
In 1968, I was bullied for reasons apparently similar to the girl in South Hadley, MA., who had recently moved from Ireland. At the beginning of my senior year of high school my family moved from Southern California to a small town in New England, a culture shock for sure (think Doors-West Coast v. Young Rascals-East Coast, mini-skirts v. Villager print dresses to the knees, and on and on). My new experience was a weird mix of boys immediately being interested in taking the new California girl to the movies (read that "parking and drinking beer and...") and girls refusing to let me join their clubs, groups, and parties. I had come to the school as a student body officer, cheerleader, and student play director - confident and happy, and because of heartless humiliation and backstabbing (what did I do? I wouldn't go "parking" - what a snob!) by January I had lost all of my confidence, was miserable, and actually started stuttering for the first time in my life!
Who was at fault? While I didn't have thoughts of suicide, I had certainly backtracked and was very sad. 40 years ago I blamed my fellow students, maybe their parents, but certainly not the teachers and administrators - they had little idea about the intensity of my problem. Did I tell my parents? No. I was a typical teen protecting my privacy, blaming myself, confused. Luckily for me I found a group of great kids who were also 'different' and found my way. Peers were the problem and the solution!
35 years later, my introvert son went through a very similar experience at his large high school. After 8 wonderful years at a small private school, my son, a little geeky, a little shy, found life challenging at a large upper middle class public high school. He didn't fit in and was bullied terribly, became very depressed, and desperately needed help. Yet, even though I was aware of his state of mind and got him help (outside of school) I had no idea until he matured and told me the stories, just how horrible his daily life at school was.
We have to stop blaming teachers and administrators for everything that happens to kids just because those kids spend several hours each day in their care (6 hours out of 24!). Instead we - as a society - should be looking at what is causing the irresponsible behavior of mean kids - what makes them so unhappy, insecure, and aggressive? Why doesn't the silent majority of kids help those being attacked? Are they modeling their parents' behavior?
The key is human behavior and social behavior are complex, and simply blaming the teachers is a cop-out, when even parents don't know what is going on with their children, both the bullies and the victims. Let's start a dialogue about compassion and taking responsibility for each other - at home, in schools, and in communities. And it wouldn't hurt to have a zero tolerance policy for disrespect in schools either (among students, teachers, and administrators), it just can't be the only solution.