Commentary on Bullying: Are We Bold Enough to Protect Our Children?
In the past few months, bullying or the victimization of some of our youngest citizens, has dominated national headlines. You can hardly pick up a newspaper or turn on the evening news without hearing about a bullying incident. Interpersonal violence perpetrated by school-age children and youth has led to a rash of suicides, homicides and non-fatal injuries. The phenomenon of bullying supersedes race, class, and religion and has become a pervasive issue in the lives of children, families, teachers, and school administrators. For many children and their parents, bullying is a nightmare -- one that forces many families to seek legal action, relocate to a new school district, or move to another state in extreme cases. In many situations, parents exhaust all avenues to protect their children; however, there is a great need for schools to become more accountable for the bullying that occurs in their hallways and classrooms.
Just last month 13-year-old Nadin Khoury was hung from a fence in Upper Darby, a Philadelphia suburb, after being savagely beaten and kicked. Khoury, a young man from Liberia, was thrust among the ranks of thousands of children who are bullied and assaulted daily in public and private schools across the United States. In all, seven boys ranging in ages 13 - 17 were arrested and charged with kidnapping and a host of other offenses as a result of the incident. To add insult to injury, the boys videotaped their heinous exploits.
While the incident didn't happen on school grounds, it is essential that schools play a larger role in creating safe environments in and outside their buildings. Many would argue over the issue of whether a school can be held liable for incidents involving children that don't occur on school grounds. While this is certainly debatable, the reality is parents expect a much higher degree of safety for their children.
Bullying and the senseless loss of precious life has become a national epidemic. Many kids who are bullied eventually stand up for themselves, fight back, and the bullying stops. Some bullied kids involve their parents and school officials to get the problem resolved. Sadly, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an impressionable 11-year-old student at New Leadership Charter School in Springfield, Mass, hung himself in 2009 after enduring repeated bullying at school. Despite his mother's gallant efforts to intervene, young Carl was verbally abused on a daily basis. He was subjected to sexual slurs, taunted and called derogatory names. Seeing no relief in sight, Carl tragically took his own life.
Whether you are a young child who's now attending a public or private school in the United States, or whether you are an adult who finished school years ago, can you even begin to imagine what life was like for Carl? And can you imagine how Nadin must feel now that his savage beating has thrust him into the center of a national crisis in this country?
Conservative estimates and self-reporting data from youth suggest that nearly two out of three bully victims, or 66 percent, were bullied once or twice during the school year, while one in five, or 20 percent, were bullied once or twice a month. Likewise, that same data suggests that one in 10 were bullied daily or at least several times a week. That is unconscionable in a society that prides itself on Democracy and whose Declaration of Independence states, in part, "...All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
The above-mentioned estimates underscore the critical need for greater partnerships among schools, parents, law enforcement and mental health professionals to address the emotional and physical impact of interpersonal violence.
So I go back to Carl and Nadin. What could the schools and the larger community have done to ensure those two young men were safe in and out of school?
That question lies at the heart of any meaningful discussion about addressing school bullying. The nation has held endless Congressional hearings and policy briefings on bullying, but I maintain that is hardly enough. A new conversation that places children's safety at the forefront must emerge. It must emerge now!
The incidents involving Nadin and Carl should awaken the consciousness of our nation and prompt us to begin raising critical concerns about schools, communities, and the safety of our children. It is amazing to me that in 2011 a large percentage of our children are often victimized in and around the one place - outside of their homes - that should be their oasis. While many schools are doing exemplary work to address bullying and the problems it spawns, and while some of those same schools are also addressing anti-social behaviors, the sad reality is many schools are failing to provide adequate protection for our children.
Finally, at the end of the day, parents must continue to be their children's first line of defense. Greater communication between parents and children is needed to attack the vicious problem of bullying. We also need a better system to monitor the daily challenges our children face in school. There's no doubt the statistics I cited earlier in this commentary are alarming; however, the unfortunate truth is many more bullying incidents go unreported because children are too ashamed or afraid to disclose them. They don't report these egregious incidents because, in some cases, they don't have sober, responsible adults in their lives in whom they can confide in and who will know how to immediately step in to help rectify the problem. This speaks volumes about the need for adults to "step up" and become better parents and better advocates for children.
If we don't wrap our arms around this problem and truly begin to address bullying today, then the vulnerable children we are failing to protect now will be vulnerable adults within the next 20 years..It's time to wake up, America. Bullying has gotten out of control. The time for action - whether you're a parent or not - is now.
David Miller is Co-Founder and Chief Visionary Officer of Urban Leadership Institute, a social enterprise based in Baltimore.
Miller is also the Co-Founder of the Raising Him Alone Campaign, an effort to support single mothers who are raising male children.