I’m here to tell you, as a survivor and former perpetrator of bullying, why community-building and ending bullying is important – especially right now, in an increasingly divided world where hate crimes are on the rise, and fear of our neighbors seems to be a common thread that many of us share.
I’ll start with a few definitions and statistics to give a bigger picture of why we talk about bullying on its own specific day. Bullying isn’t just a bigger kid slapping the books out of a smaller kid’s hands. It’s also mean messages on Instagram. It’s sharing someone else’s deeply personal information without permission on the internet for everyone to see. It’s insulting the name, religion, or ethnicity of a classmate from a foreign country. It’s telling people that ICE is coming for them. It’s making people not want to walk alone in the hallways and streets. It’s a boss abusing their position of authority to sexually coerce an employee. It’s a romantic partner convincing their partner that nobody else would or could ever love them, so they should be grateful to be dating them – no matter how bad it is. It’s slow, repeated verbal put-downs by your own group of closest friends.
Bullies don’t always take the form of who we expect them to be, and bullying no longer necessarily stops once the dismissal bell rings, because of our constant connection to one another through social media. The bullying tactic may be obvious and big, or it may be insidious, taking a shape more similar to this: If a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in cold water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. I was once the boiled frog. No one told me that bullying could be from the very people who were supposed to be my cheerleaders.
For the rest of this piece, I’ll be focusing on school bullying and what people can do to make it stop – the bullied, bullies, bystanders, and trusted adults (teachers and guardians especially) alike. There were 1,064 hate crimes in the month after the election. This is especially bad news for students who typically get bullied far more than the average, including students who are LGBTQIA, disabled, and have bodies that are less valued and even despised – ones with skin colors that aren’t white, waistlines that aren’t miniscule, or are covered in special clothing that indicates a particular religion. Overall, one in five students says that they are bullied in person, and 34% of students say that they have been cyberbullied.
Before I get started with the words I have for people who are bullied, bullies, bystanders, and trusted adults, I want to say that people are often a part of more than one of these groups. There are messy overlaps. Know that you can be helped and helpful from more than one of these groups. You are not powerless. You have the ability to make a change.
Speak up. Talk about what’s happening and what it’s doing to your mind, body, and spirit. I don’t want you to become one of the people who think about suicide or even attempt it – you’re 2.4 times more likely to be thinking about it and 3.3 times more likely to attempt if you don’t speak up. Create a coping kit for yourself – I call this a “bad moment bag” – for moments you feel like you can’t go on. You’re not alone. I have been there. I know what it is like to feel hopeless. I know what it is like to wonder if anybody will ever treat you well or if you even deserve to be treated well. Your bullies and abusers are wrong. You deserve it more than you know. Speak up. Speak up. Speak up.
I also want you to put down the notion of fighting back as a way of showing your strength. I know what it is like to want to lash out in response. Two-thirds of students who are bullied become bullies themselves. I believe that you are destined for something better than that. Ask for help from a trusted adult or your peers. Go up the chain if you have to. You deserve to be treated fairly and lovingly. Do not become someone you do not recognize in order to “show people” that you are deserving of better. Stay soft in a hard world. Ask for help and know that you deserve it.
Put the mask down. You are scared. You are hurting. You are wondering if you matter. You do matter. You are loved. You have likely experienced being deeply hurt before by someone that mattered to you, and you are now inflicting the same on someone else. Talk about it with a trusted adult. Ask to see a counselor or someone else who can help you work through your feelings about this. Ask for help leaving or improving the hurtful situation that taught you how to hurt instead of to love. You are so much more than this. You have such a bright future ahead of you that could be ruined by your behaviors, and right now, you are certainly adding ruin to someone’s present. Apologize from the bottom of your soul and promise that it will never happen again. Tell them that they don’t have to accept your apology, but that you hope they understand that it’s real. They may not forgive you, and you may have to move on without that reassurance. You may get in trouble for admitting what you’ve done. It is better than to continue on the path you’re going on. Know that you are worth more than this. You have something to add to this world that isn’t more hurt.
There are many ways to get involved in the solution. The first is to speak. When bystanders intervene, bullying stops within 10 seconds 57% of the time. Why do we not speak? We may be afraid that we cannot make an impact, but the more we believe we can, the more likely we are to act. After the incident, the best thing you can do is to befriend the person who has been bullied – this is what people indicate is most helpful out of everything, to be supported in time, words, and actions of helping them get away if necessary. The second is to try to advocate for change in your environment. Schools that visibly advocate acceptance of minority groups such as the LGBTQIA community have lower peer victimization rates across the board. Learn about what certain populations are experiencing right now that are unique to them – learn about social justice and the intersectional feminism that must be our foundation of making it. Smile at everyone you see and learn about some of the little ways you can add kindness to the world.
Trusted adults (teachers and guardians especially)
Believe and name the bullying what it is: Bullying. Unacceptable. 60% of middle school students report being bullied at some point, but only 16% of staff believe that students are bullied in their school. 71% of teachers say that they intervene in bullying, but only 25% of students perceive this. This is a failure to listen, to pay attention, and to be a part of the solution. You must be proactive – only 36% of students will report bullying in the first place. Look for students who are starting to skip school more or act out in class. They’re likely experiencing something at home or at school that makes them scared and even ill – students who are bullied are twice as likely to have internalizing physical health problems like headaches and stomachaches.
According to students who are bullied, these are the most helpful things a teacher can do: Help to have an anti-bullying program implemented in the school because bullying reduces by 50% in so doing. Set up a classroom culture of respect. Teach what good conduct and community engagement looks like – you have no idea what someone sees as appropriate because of their role models (or lack thereof) at home. Name bullying what it is. Listen to a student who comes to you with concern and empathy. Check in with them periodically to see if the bullying has continued, and if it has, consider directly intervening or going up the administrative chain. Be careful that your actions don’t make it worse: Students say that telling them to solve the problem themselves, to stop tattling on their peers, and denying the problem’s realness can damage their chances of making it stop. In addition, some of the conventional advice for bullying that we’ve given for years – including the student telling the bully to stop because of how they feel, walking away, and pretending it doesn’t bother them – just doesn’t seem to work.
So, my dear friends, let’s stop reading statistics and start changing lives. Let’s be the encourager in someone’s story. Let’s be part of the movement to help the 160,000 students who stay home every day to avoid being bullied get the education and start in life that they deserve. Let’s move forward together. Let’s show love and grace to each and every person we see, for they are fighting hard battles that we know nothing about.
I believe in you. I believe in us.