We make the rules as a society. Blacken that behavior.
Two recent sickening events in a long line of sad and tragic incidents have brought bullying once more to the forefront, a place we would rather it not be. We like to ignore the issue when possible. In the national spotlight, Karen Klein, a 68-year-old bus monitor, was tormented to tears by demented middle school students in Greece, N.Y. Closer to home, a bully brutally assaulted a 16-year-old kid at Ringgold High School during summer school.
Bullying at Ringgold High School is a long tradition as consistent as the baseball program, and more successful than some of the other sports. If there were awards for bullying, RHS would have to build one hell of a trophy case. As a graduate of the RHS Class of 1992, I lived four years in an environment where bullying was a common part of everyday life. The hulking behemoths and pocket-knife wielding sociopaths were intimidating, and the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were littered with broken heads and broken spirits at Ringgold High School.
I was bullied in school. I was tormented in occasional bursts, particularly by this one redneck delinquent. I was booked (the practice of knocking books out of someone’s hands as they walk down the hall), made fun of, and physically assaulted at times. I was quiet and shy. When a bullying incident happened, my self esteem and self-image plummeted and I constantly struggled with the pain as I tried to reconcile that I was OK. I made lists of bullying incidents and tried to figure out why they happened so I could come to a conclusion that there wasn’t anything wrong with me. Sexual abuse victims reason through their experience in a similar way.
As painful as bullying was for me, for other students it was a (expletive) wonder they didn’t kill themselves or others. Cold-hearted, self-absorbed kids tortured sad, offbeat kids to the point where they would scream, “Just leave me alone!” and swing their backpacks in a circle to ward off the laughing brood. A pack of people treating someone like they are nothing more than an amusing playtoy would be horribly difficult for an adult to handle, much less for a kid struggling just to feel they aren’t worthless.
Many teachers and administrators at Ringgold High School knew about the bullying and knew which kids were primary targets, but did little. They laughed it up with the popular kids and ignored those students that struggled to get out of bed and survive another day of public education. They passed out tests, they wrote on the chalkboard, and they filed their reports, but failed to make a substantial attempt to make the school a safe, comfortable place to learn.
I’ll give you a taste of the mentality and selective blindness of some educators that could have cared less about the bullying. During my senior year things were pretty peaceful and no one really bothered me much, and I had made the decision that I would not take crap from anyone. The bully I mentioned earlier, who had made fun of me many times in the past, slapped me in the back of the head as I was going down the stairway and he was coming up. I fumed for a bit and then sprinted back up the stairs and confronted him outside English class. I shoved him, cussed him and challenged him to a fight, right there in the upstairs hallway. I think because he was already in trouble for previous skirmishes, he restrained from fighting and told me he’d meet me after school. A teacher broke it up and sent us both to see an administrator, who proceeded to praise the bully and swallow the story that he didn’t hit me. At the end of the meeting, the bully told the administrator he should have knocked my teeth down my throat. The administrator lightheartedly admonished the bully and sent him back to class. He paddled me.
Here’s a taste of the mentality of some of the students back then. A student shot and killed himself outside the public library next to the RHS campus during school hours. I don’t know if bullying had anything remotely to do with his death, but I remember the attitudes of other students. They said bad things about the dead child and called him names. It’s terrible to be bullied even after you are dead. I remember being in the school’s library the next day when an official asked over the intercom that a moment of silence be observed. A student a few tables over kept talking and when other students laughingly said he should be quiet, he said he wasn’t going to because he didn’t like the kid when he was alive. Public education brings in all types and that’s the kind of environment it could be; bullies thrived there like disease in a Petri dish.
I’m not sure of the current environment and attitudes at RHS. One Ringgold student assured me that no one really gets bullied much anymore, but then directed me to a YouTube video of a fellow student’s cardboard confessional about being bullied. Her message was inspiring and her pain heartbreaking.
Educators have made many positive changes in schools across the country, but it’s horrible that it took suicides and school shootings to finally make educators pay attention and realize the problem they ignored for decades. People began to get pro-active with programs to curb the evil that bullying is — not primarily because they cared about the kids who were going through a living hell, but because they didn’t want to get shot. Don’t get me wrong, violence is sick and no kind of answer, but school officials only began to take real action after the violence, when a concentrated effort to stop bullying should have been spurred decades earlier by the grief and terror of millions of kids.
There are many martyrs of bullying, like Tyler Long, a 17-year-old autistic kid. Scum at Murray County High School tormented the poor boy, spit in his food, told him he should die, and struck the special needs child. They raped his spirit to the point where he could not go on living. Tyler hung himself in October 2009. Tyler’s parents say school officials ignored the bullying.
There’s a lack of empathy in people. They only care about themselves and really can’t understand what it feels like to have people mistreat you. Georgia has weak anti-bullying laws, and schools have weak programs to combat bullying. Until our society decides that bullies are revolting, like sex abusers, many more kids and adults will suffer and die.
For more information on preventing bullying
Help the Long family
Tyler Long and his family are featured in a beautiful and painful anti-bullying effort, a documentary movie called “Bully.” If you can, watch this movie with your kids. Visit thebullyproject.com for more information. Also, Tyler’s parents have filed a lawsuit against the Murray County School system, which is currently in the appeals process. To donate to the Longs’ effort, visit indiegogo.com/projects/129071?contribution_success=true.
Kevin Cummings has been a newspaper editor, publisher, reporter and columnist for more than nine years in Oregon, Georgia, Tennessee, and North and South Dakota. He is a past National Newspaper Association award winner for best serious column. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.