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Staying Safe

Many young people, especially LGBTQ youth, face regular bullying – but help is at hand

By Carol Latter

In 2011, five teenaged boys attending a West Hartford high school harassed a female student for weeks, made threats against her, and then showed up at her house. When the girl’s 19-year-old cousin went outside to confront them, one of the bullies shot him in the neck.

In 2016, a seventh-grade student at a New Haven magnet school was punched and knocked unconscious during class, the culmination of five years of abuse by his classmates. His mother sued the school district and city, saying she had repeatedly notified school authorities, but nothing was done.

In 2018, an elementary student who had moved to Cheshire from New Mexico five months earlier – and was constantly bullied in her new school because she was Hispanic – committed suicide at home two days before Christmas. She was 11 years old.

These are just some of the disturbing bullying cases that have taken place throughout Connecticut in the past decade. While bullying is not limited to schools or school-aged children, educational settings have been a hotbed of this type of activity for many years – and it seems to be getting worse. A poll of more than 160,000 students by nonprofit YouthTruth revealed that about 30% of middle-school and high school students had been bullied in school in 2017, up from 25 percent two years earlier.

According to the Tyler Clementi Foundation, bullying is “widespread in schools and on campuses across the United States” but is often underreported because the victim is afraid that telling someone will only make things worse. The New Jersey-based foundation is named for Tyler Clementi, a college freshman who killed himself by jumping off a bridge after his roommate secretly videotaped him being intimate with another male student, and then posted it on Twitter.

In fact, studies have found that bullying is an even more prevalent problem for LGBTQ, non-binary and transgender youth than for straight or cisgender young people – and the problem is often amplified when it’s a young person of color.

Following a 2016 national symposium on the subject of LGBTQ bullying – sponsored in part by Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital – a research team led by Dr. Valerie A. Earnshaw authored an article in the journal Pediatrics. Dr. Earnshaw noted that “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth, in particular, experience significant verbal bullying, physical bullying, and cyberbullying leading to physical injury, psychological distress, and even suicide … yet successful efforts to address LGBTQ bullying are lagging.”

She went on to say that “greater dialogue among pediatricians and other types of clinicians, medical and public health students, interdisciplinary researchers, government officials, school leaders, community members, parents, and youth is needed to generate strategies to prevent LGBTQ bullying and meet the needs of LGBTQ youth experiencing bullying.”

In 2018, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation and the University of Connecticut released the results of a nationwide surgery of LGBTQ youth aged 13 to 17. Of the more than 12,000 young people who responded:

  • 73% reported experiencing verbal threats because of their actual or perceived LGBTQ identity
  • 70% had been bullied at school because of their sexual orientation
  • 43% had been bullied on school property in the past 12 months
  • 30% of LGBTQ students and 50% of transgender girls had been physically threatened
  • Just 5% of students said that all of their teachers and school staff were supportive of LGBTQ people.

The state of the state

Some recent statistics suggest that bullying is in a much bigger problem in other states than in Connecticut. For instance, a 2018 WalletHub report ranked our state 37th in the nation – far better than Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri, which garnered 1st, 2nd and 3rd spots, respectively, for the highest incidence of bullying behavior in the U.S.

But many Nutmeg state parents would argue that the prevalence of bullying here is still far too high. Responding to a survey that was conducted by Patch.com and published in October 2019 as part of a multi-year reporting project, more than 330 Connecticut parents said they were extremely concerned about the severity and extent of bullying their kids had been subjected to, both in school and online. Nearly 90 percent of these parents said that one of their children had been bullied at least once, and more than 50 percent said their kids had been bullied frequently.

Moreover, parents reported that the impact had often been severe – including significantly lower grades, fear of going to school, anxiety, depression, and physical harm. Some children were forced to change schools; some teens dropped out of school altogether.

One Connecticut parent wrote that her daughter “cried every day, her entire school career. She went to a private [counselor] and still has no self-esteem. She was a happy little girl until the bullying began in second grade.”

Another parent wrote: “It’s had lasting effects on my son. He doesn’t trust any of his male peers, is afraid to even approach them, and he won’t participate in any social event where they may be present, which is most.”

Alex Agostini can relate. Now a graduate student intern about to complete his Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and working with Nancy Martin, LMFT, at Wellness Counseling in Farmington, Agostini was bullied growing up.

“I have distinct memories from back in elementary school. I still remember the bully by name. I think he bullied me because it was easy and fun, but it really stung. The fact that he didn’t leave me alone all the way to middle school was atrocious. I don’t think I made as big a deal out of it as some other people [who were bullied] did. I thought, ‘I need to roll with him as long as I can.’ I took a very passive role,” he says. “Knowing what I know now, I wonder what his home life was like. I didn’t think about that then.”

Multiple studies have shown that bullies are often bullied or mistreated in childhood themselves, encountering mistreatment by peers at school, or domestic violence or sibling aggression at home.

Experts also say that parents who are quick to take issue with other people, instead of teaching children to be kind and respectful, may be unintentionally modeling behavior that children will emulate.

As Nancy Martin notes, “When we see this type of behavior or the repercussions of it, we ask, “Where is the bully getting the bullying behavior from?’ It often starts in the family of origin.”

Sometimes that’s not the case, but kids see poor behavior modeled regardless. “In a wider, systemic view,” says Agostino, “our culture is one where bullying is almost pervasive. People not only have to win; you also have to make sure your opponent loses. In many ways, as a society, I feel we’ve lost our spirit of cooperation.”

From common occurrence to crisis

Bullying has been going on for years. Many of today’s parents and grandparents were bullied themselves at one point or another, or witnessed it happening in school. But things have escalated dramatically, and many kids’ physical and emotional wellbeing – and even their lives – may be hanging in the balance.

For anyone tempted to dismiss bullying as a common, if unfortunate, part of growing up, it’s important to remember that for victims, bullying is not only painful but potentially deadly. Researchers have identified a strong correlation between bullying and suicide, and studies by Yale University show that young people who are bullied are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than their non-bullied peers.

Marie Osmond, whose son committed suicide by jumping from the balcony of his apartment building in 2010, said he had called her a few days beforehand and told her he was depressed and had no friends. Osmond, who was away at the time, told him she would be there on Monday, and that things were going to be okay. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey eight months after his death, Osmond said, “depression doesn’t wait ‘til Monday.” In October 2019, she revealed for the first time that her son was not only dealing with multiple other issues in his life at the time, such as his parents’ divorce, but had been repeatedly targeted by three bullies. “I’ve got the texts – I mean they’re horrendous, and … I believe that that was a high component in him just feeling overwhelmed and that he didn’t fit in,” she said.

Alarmingly, a report released last June showed that suicide among teenagers and young adults has hit a 20-year high. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate among 14-to-17 year olds rose by 70 percent for Caucasian teens and 77 percent for African American teens between 2006 to 2016. And numbers continue to rise, by roughly 8 to 10 percent a year.

Why the increase? Social media may have something to do with it. The advent of online social platforms now means that bullying can take place anywhere, at any time. And that means for victims, there is almost no escape. Even worse, what once was a relatively private source of embarrassment and angst now has the potential to go public – on YouTube, Facebook, or another social platform. When a humiliating video goes viral, for example, it can seem like the whole world is laughing at you.

Quite justifiably, young people often perceive that the public embarrassment heaped on them by their tormentors via social media will haunt them for the rest of their lives. In an age where negative videos, photos and commentary can be revived and shared by virtually anyone, even years after they were initially posted, the hurt and shame can seem endless.

Speaking at the Connecticut state capitol in 2017 following the loss of three Connecticut transgender teens to suicide in just three months, Tony Ferraiolo, an activist and transgender man, said he has visited youths after suicide attempts many times, and found it incredibly distressing to “sit in front of a child who looks you in the eye and says, ‘I just want to die. Why should I live? The bullying is not going to stop.’ It is heartbreaking,” he said.

Connecticut has had anti-bullying laws on the books for almost 20 years, defining what bullying specifically entails and setting out both remedies and penalties. As part of the original 2002 legislation, all school districts were required to create and implement a bullying policy, train their staff to address all of incidences of bullying, and report these incidents to the state.

Unfortunately, follow-through in identifying and effectively dealing with bullying behavior has varied greatly from one school – and school district – to another, according to published reports. In the Patch survey, many Connecticut parents said anti-bullying school policies are “poorly enforced, if they are enforced at all.” Some said the policies were inadequate, ineffective, or “a joke.”

Rather than try to get to the root of the problem, Agostini says, some well-meaning teachers or school officials may tell students who complain of being bullied that they’ll just have to learn to live with it. “Faculty may take a stance of telling a student who complains, ‘You’re too sensitive,’ or ‘It’s just part of life. If you don’t learn to deal with it, what are you going to do when you grow up?’ That may be objectively true,” he says, “but it makes victims feel they have even fewer allies to trust in the school system.”

Parents may send their kids a similar message, and school friends or acquaintances who witness bullying may be too afraid to step in, worried that they’ll become the bully’s next target. While one survey found that more than 70 percent of staff had seen bullying at school, and 41 percent said they saw it once a week or more, other studies show that just 1 in 10 of the victim’s peers will intervene, and only 1 in four adults will do so.

That can leave a child or teen feeling totally isolated, and even hopeless, says Martin.

Finding solutions

Past efforts to curb school-based bullying and its devastating effects have not been very successful. The problem continues even in Connecticut, where the state’s anti-bullying law has been updated and strengthened several times, and people engaging in threatening or intimidating behavior can be charged with either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the nature of the behavior and the circumstances.

A dramatically different approach is required. But what?

The answer seems to be a proactive effort to get at the root of the problem, and to stop bullying before it starts.

In 2019, Gov. Ned Lamont signed into state law a bill that was passed unanimously by both the House and the Senate. The law requires boards of education to develop safe school climate policies, establish a “social and emotional learning and school climate council” in place of the existing safe school climate committee, and provide training on the prevention of, and intervention in, discrimination against and targeted harassment of students. The Department of Education was tasked with developing a “social and emotional learning assessment instrument” and a model safe school climate policy, and schools will have to assess their school climate and ensure they provide a safe environment for students.

Unlike the state’s previous legislation, which described bullying actions as behavior “repeated over time,” this law also includes severe single acts of aggression. Rep. Liz Linehan (D-Cheshire), who advocated for the new law, recounted how a group of high school girls once broke into her parents’ home and went from room to room, looking for her, while she hid in a closet.

A new school climate collaborative, meanwhile, will identify evidence-based best practices to deal with bullying and conduct a statewide survey of schools every two years – with input from school officials, teachers, parents and mental health professionals.

Connecticut’s revised approach seems to be in line with recommendations from two leading experts on the topic of bullying prevention. Writing for the American Psychological Association, Dr. Dewey G. Cornell and Dr. Susan P. Limber, both psychologists and professors, said that students and parents should be educated about bullying, and should be given access to anonymous reporting methods to make it easier to get help. (Several school districts in Connecticut, including West Hartford and Glastonbury, already encourage students to report bullying anonymously, using phones apps dedicated to that purpose.)

Drs. Cornell and Limber also say that when bullying does happen, schools should conduct “a prompt and thorough investigation,” and intervene immediately to protect the victim from additional bullying or retaliation. Parents of both the victim and bully – and the police, if appropriate – should be notified. Schools should mete out “graduated consequences” for bullying and offer academic support and mental health referrals for both victims and bullies, they say.

Also showing a lot of promise is an innovative national campaign launched by the Tyler Clementi Foundation. Dubbed #Day1, the campaign seeks to turn bystanders into “Upstanders” who promise to identify and intervene in bullying on the first day they witness it. (One study showed that when bystanders intervene, bullying stops within 10 seconds, 57 percent of the time.)

So far, hundreds of private and public schools, teams, colleges, organizations, workplaces, and individuals across the country – almost 1 million people so far – have taken the #Day1 pledge.

Meanwhile, in Connecticut, award-winning songwriter and producer Jill Nesi has teamed up with Christopher Zullo of the Spotlight Stage Company to produce an anti-bullying musical “showcase” that last year toured the state’s middle schools. They hope to license this play to every middle school in the state and, eventually, the country, with local children performing in their own schools.

A longer, more complex version that is geared to teens and adults, called “Stand Up: The Musical,” was scheduled to have its world debut in May in North Haven. Due to COVID-19, the play is on hold until it is safe for live theater. However, the first episode of a filmed version is now available online. Visit standupspeakoutct.com for details on how to view it.

Getting ahead of the curve

While the problem of in-school bullying may have been paused by some towns’ hybrid approach to learning during the pandemic, parents are advised not to let their guard down. Even students who are attending school for just a few days a week may continue to encounter bullying behavior – and bullying can also occur online.

Fortunately, there are things that parents can do at home to ensure their own kids aren’t being bullied – or being a bully, for that matter.

Experts recommend being proactive, instead of waiting for signs of a problem.

One of the best things parents can do is have regular conversations with their children about how things are going at school, what they’re worried about, and if there’s anyone at school they don’t like or don’t get along with. In addition to emphasizing the importance of treating other people well, and modeling that behavior, parents can explain to their children that bullying is a big problem, talk about the consequences, and reassure their kids that if they are being bullied, they are not alone. They can also explain to their children the importance of sharing any problems with trusted adults and peers who can advocate for them.

If your children or teens show signs of depression or suicidal thoughts, get help immediately. Talk with teachers and school officials – even in confidence, if your kids beg you not to intervene. One useful resource is an organization called STOMP Out Bullying; it offers resources for parents, teachers and young people, including a free and confidential chat line for youth who are being bullied and may be at risk of suicide as a result.

One-on-one private therapy can also be a lifesaver, especially if reaching out to the school has not resolved the problem. “Once children establish a connection and trust level with us, we help them to feel heard and teach them to problem-solve the immediate issue,” says Martin.

She adds, “We can also give them concrete suggestions. For instance, a lot of times, bullying happens in the cafeteria. For one person, we recommended bringing their lunch down to the counselor’s office and then using the time until the next class doing something else. When kids are bullied, they don’t have to sit there and take it.”

Also, says Agostini, “We try to encourage them to play into the strengths and qualities that they have, rather than what they perceive they lack. If you can encourage them to be all that they can be, they begin to see that they are special and that they can succeed. We give the victim a sense of power and strength about what they can do by pointing out the things they excel in.”

Dr. Joelle Santiago, a chiropractor in Avon, found that type of counseling extremely helpful when she was bullied in college, after people who had previously been friendly began treating her poorly.

“It made me feel very nervous, uncomfortable, panicked, and unsafe. Bullying really can happen to anyone, anywhere,” she says. “One of the things that I can’t stress enough is the importance of being able to talk to someone outside of the situation. I saw a therapist, which was the best thing I could do.”

Also, rather than allow the bullies to make her feel isolated and afraid, she limited her exposure to them. “I had friends who made me feel safe and appreciated, and my mom was very, very proactive about it. She would drive to campus and take me out to lunch. Her priority was continual communication.”

Santiago also expanded her circle of supporters by explaining the situation to her teachers and by taking part in a variety of activities on campus. “I was equipped with all the right things and people in my life to help me,” she says. Coping with it on her own, she adds, “would have been way too difficult.”

She also credits the Avon school system for raising awareness about bullying while she was a student there. This helped her identify bullying when she saw it and realize that “maybe this isn’t about me.”

Today, she leads a happy and fulfilling life, and tries to help others whenever she can, both personally and professionally. “It really makes me feel good to give my friends advice, whatever the topic is,” she says. “I think some of my experiences have helped to shape me into a more compassionate person and given me a deeper understanding of the difficult things people can go through.”

And as someone coming from a long line of chiropractors – her grandparents, two uncles and her mother are also in the profession – “I’ve always had a huge interest in treating the entire person. Nothing feels as good as helping people. It’s rewarding and terrific.”

Carol Latter is a writer and editor of Seasons Magazines. She lives in Simsbury.


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