The news of the suicide of a 15-year-old British Columbia girl has struck hard. I feel like my hands are tied, that I have nothing to offer, but I know that’s not true. I have to respond somehow.
Amanda Todd’s case was significantly different from many cases of bullying in that it was her beauty that was used against her. So often, it’s weakness - either physical or emotional – that’s at the root of bullying. And I suppose, beauty became Amanda’s.
It’s a tragic story of bullying and cyber-bullying. You can read what her mother, Carol, had to say here. The video she made over a month ago, telling her story, is also embedded in the article.
And I’m torn. On one hand, there’s been an outcry against bullying and a demand for anti-bullying education. There’s a petition to arrest the cyber-bullies “responsible” – despite the fact that according to Amanda’s mother, there have been many attempts, all of them unsuccessful, to locate the pedophile that originally took advantage of her daughter and haunted her the rest of her young life.
In a way, this is good – people are talking, people are recognizing that we have a responsibility to each other. But, on the other hand, it’s not enough.
As I’ve mentioned before, I was involved in one of the first anti-bullying programs introduced in the lower mainland of BC in high schools in 2001. It was called a “peer leadership” class, based on the concept that older, perhaps even popular, students in the schools could act as guides for younger students and new students, keep an eye out for improper behaviour and act as safeguards for targeted kids.
I don’t believe the program was very successful. Some of the students in the class – which was mixed between grade 11 and 12 students – were not very responsible. For example, the weekend before our class hosted a week-long anti-drinking and driving campaign, complete with a mock accident and displays from ICBC, one of the grade 12′s sideswiped a parked car on his way home from a party. He was drunk.
Even those of us in the class who were relatively responsible did not witness many students being bullied, though we put on numerous anti-bullying presentations for the various elementary schools. We had t-shirts that identified us as peer leaders and we were paraded in front of assemblies so kids could identify us and understand that they could come to us if they wanted or needed. If we weren’t outright ignored, we were teased for our shirts.
But what strikes me most, isn’t the abuse from the students. No, it’s the lack of support from teachers and principals and other adults. In a six-week period last year, three boys in Ontario took their life. The article about it describes how we have all these anti-bullying programs, but no data. Nothing to determine whether these programs are actually working.
I believe kids know what bullying is. I believe kids know that it’s wrong. I believe kids have the tools to prevent it, but they’re not doing it.
Because there are no adults to back them up.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard “Oh, if he picks on you, it’s because he likes you. That’s how boys show you they’re interested” or “All kids get picked on at some point in their lives, it’s normal, get over it“ and other excuses from the lips of parents – both when I was a kid, and now as an adult.
The tolerance level adults have for bullying is mortifying. And it seems the parents who actually care about their kids are often looked down on for being “too sensitive” or not teaching their kids to have a tough outer shell.
Anti-bullying programs should not start with kids. It should start with mandatory classes for teachers, principals and support staff in schools – at all grade levels - to help them identify behaviour both in the bullies and the bullied. It should continue with the education of students. And it shouldn’t stop with the identification of bullies, but continue with the education of the bullies and their parents about what kind of behaviour is acceptable or appropriate.
Finally, there needs to be real consequences for bullying. Not just a “kiss and make up” solution. There needs to be a system in place to warn bullies their behaviour will not be tolerated, and if they still continue their abusive behaviour, they need to face punishment. Either expulsion from the school, or criminal charges, or both or a combination of other consequences that will actually mean something more than just a slap on the wrist.
What’s so disconcerting to me about the events surrounding Amanda Todd’s suicide is that her teachers knew. They were targeted by her pedophile stalker and given the same information that her peers used to taunt her, degrade her and beat her. And yet, it appears they were powerless to stop the bullying.
If that doesn’t tell us the system is broken, what will?
On a more personal note, my sincerest condolences go out to the Todd family. I, too, hope this tragedy becomes a life lesson that we as a society can grow and learn from. And I hope it doesn’t take us too much longer to figure that lesson out, for the sake of thousands of kids in our province alone who face bullies on a daily basis.