By Kymberly Breckenridge
Illustration: Tatyana Starikova
The word bullying conjures up either feelings of panic or power depending on the role you played as a youth. Bullying has been part of the childhood experience since we lived in caves, but never before has society been more aware of its painful consequences. According to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children (ASPCC), 28 percent of children ages 12–18 report being bullied. To say that bullying is not happening in the Hudson Valley is naive. There is no one single factor that puts a child at risk, although sadly, certain groups such as LGBT youth, youth with disabilities and socially isolated youth have a slightly higher chance of attack. What’s most terrifying is the standforthesilent.org statistic that victims are two to nine times more likely to commit suicide from bullying. “We personally have a list of over 55,000 children that have taken their lives in the last seven years due to being bullied. To break that down…that is 8,000 per year, or 22 per day. Almost one child per hour for the last seven years has ended their precious life due to a bully.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has found that the majority of bullying takes place at school, with one in three U.S. students reporting that they have been bullied in our educational facilities. However, the fact that the majority of bullying takes place on school campuses does not excuse us as parents and concerned citizens from becoming involved in the fight against bullying. Schools have become responsible not only for the intellectual development of our children but their physical and mental welfare as well. Our “hands-off” approach is not working, and we need to cooperate with the schools to prevent bullying.
I recently read a fascinating article in kidpower.org that urges parents to coach children through role-playing on how to handle a bullying situation. The biggest take-away for me was the idea that walking away from a bully is an option. In my mind I always envision being frozen in front of your attacker, where your only option is a saucy retort. But “leaving in a powerful, positive way” is your child’s best choice for avoiding an attacker. The article begins with an assertion that children (and adults) “are less likely to be picked on if they walk, sit and act with awareness, calm, respect and confidence” (https://www.kidpower.org/library/article/prevent-bullying/). With practice, these are lifelong skills your children can use at job interviews, college admissions or anywhere that requires strength of character.
Kidpower.org also encourages parents to role-play, suggesting this is a vital tool to help children be prepared for the inevitable bully. Run through various scenarios your children may encounter and have them practice phrases they can use to help diffuse situations and protect them from emotional or physical harm. This may feel silly, but practice moves information from short-term memory into long term and allows us to access needed knowledge quickly and confidently.
We personally have a list of over 55,000 children that have taken their lives in the last seven years due to being bullied. To break that down…that is 8,000 per year, or 22 per day. Almost one child per hour for the last seven years has ended their precious life due to a bully.
At stopbullying.gov, they offer an essential guide for parents to spot warning signs if your child is being bullied. If you are like me, the only answer given to my cheerful “how was your day at school” is a mumbled “fine.” And this is in kindergarten and second grade! Not all children will ask for help when dealing with a mean classmate, so we must step in although we might be loath to get involved. The government website urges parents to look for changes in your child’s behavior, such as:
Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics or jewelry
Frequent headaches or stomachaches, feeling sick or faking illness
Changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating. Kids may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch
Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork or not wanting to go to school
Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem
Rhinebeck High School, like many Hudson Valley schools, has a clear policy in place for “bullying, discrimination, hazing and harassment” with a designated Dignity Act Coordinator. The regulation says that the student who is reporting the bullying will be treated with respect and held in strictest confidence. “All complaints of bullying, discrimination, hazing or harassment shall be taken seriously and a review of the complaint and an appropriate investigation shall be conducted to the extent possible.” This is in line with a statewide mandate that all N.Y. public schools are required to have a bullying/harassment policy in line with the Dignity for All Students Act.
Dr. Ed Davenport, principal of RHS, is also the designated Dignity Act Coordinator, and he feels that “it is important to have a great partnership between parents and school; good communication back and forth. Parents are reluctant to report suspicions of bullying, as they might not want to be the cause of punishment, but open lines of communication are vital to protecting our students.” Knowing who to approach if you suspect your child is being harassed and cannot take care of the situation on his or her own might be confusing. Dr. Davenport suggests “parents should reach out to any school official or staff member they feel comfortable talking with who in turn will report to the Dignity Act team to review and decide if there is a violation.”
We as parents are not alone in protecting our children, but we need to make sure our school systems are also not alone in the fight against bullying. Give your children the tools they need to navigate tricky social situations. Monitor their media usage and their behavior for warning signs. And do not be afraid to talk to your school about your concerns so we can work together as a society instead of passing the buck and hoping someone else deals with it. Although bullying may be a natural phase in the growing-up process, we all still deserve to live with respect and dignity, at any age. █