She didn’t respond to the taunts, the name-calling, the anonymous Facebook posts, the whispered insults or the drama. She didn’t fight back. She kept her mouth shut, believing the other girls would get bored and eventually leave her alone.
It only got worse.
While she was a junior attending a Calhoun County public school, Amy, who didn’t want to give her last name, became the target of a group of girls who bullied her mercilessly.
“It was the girls I did not even talk to,” said Amy, now 17. “They would say I’m ‘a whore,’ ‘a slut,’ ‘ugly,’ ‘messy,’ ‘fake,’ ‘two-faced.’ That I needed to ‘Watch it before I got beat up;’ ‘Don’t let me catch you around.’ That I sleep with a lot of guys or messed around with them. Stuff like that.”
Normally quiet and shy — unless she’s around friends — Amy likes scrapbooking, singing and listening to music. She was in the marching band from seventh grade through ninth grade, where she played the marimba.
She loves little kids and dreams of one day becoming a kindergarten teacher, maybe writing a novel or traveling the world.
Amy is a typical teenager. She’s also a victim of bullying — which also makes her typical.
For Amy, it got so bad that she left high school completely, choosing instead to be homeschooled her senior year.
“I could not take all the drama and bullying anymore. I wanted to be home-schooled because I did not learn anything and had no friends,” she said.
“Some days, I wish I wasn’t home-schooled because I get bored, but when I get on Facebook, I’m so happy I made that choice.”
Bullying — in particular, cyberbullying, verbal aggression via the Internet, e-mail, text-messaging, Facebook, etc. — has become a tremendous concern in school systems across the United States. And yet, being publicly associated with the topic makes school officials nervous, fearing backlash from parents.
More than a dozen public school principals and guidance counselors in elementary, middle and high schools across Calhoun County were contacted for this story, including six scheduled interviews — all of which chose not to participate.
“It’s a very, very touchy subject,” said one middle school counselor who did not want to be identified. “We know it happens. It happens everywhere. We’re doing all we can to stop it, and we’re proud of the efforts we’ve made. But parents are so focused on the negative — even if it’s a positive story — all they’ll read is ‘Bullying … and the name of our school.’”
Make no mistake, bullying is a reality in every school, explained Sue Canter, counselor for The Donoho School.
“Unfortunately, bullying-type behaviors are very common,” she said. “However, many young people today have become desensitized to the ridicule, name-calling and putdown language that are so prevalent today.”
While they may not fit the mold of the typical schoolyard bully, girls can be just as bad … and in some ways worse.
As a prevention specialist with the Agency for Substance Abuse and Prevention, Denyse Spruill travels to Calhoun County schools delivering anti-bullying programs. She’s heard the stories and understands the kind of indirect bullying that young girls are capable of.
“It’s cut-throat,” she said. “Girls … can be rough. They’re really trying to hurt each other in the worst possible way.”
For boys, bullying is as much about physicality as fitting in — the age-old hierarchy of cool kids versus nerds. It’s an almost genetically predisposed pecking order that’ll be carried out in ways great and small through high school until college, when individuality takes the place of mob mentality.
For girls, it’s a subtle violence. Girls are more manipulative. The pecking order is terribly unstable; the bully one day is apt to be the victim a week later.
“For girls, it’s all an emotional-type thing,” Spruill said. “Where boys are loud and physical, girls can be sneaky, doing things teachers can’t see and are hard for the victims to explain.
“Teachers really can’t tell a group of girls to stop ignoring someone.”
Friendship as a weapon
Girls’ aggression isn’t openly violent — it leaves no bruises or black eyes. Instead, this form of bullying ruins reputations, crushes self-esteem and casts friends aside, according to Rachel Simmons, author of the seminal book Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls.
“Girls use backbiting, exclusion, rumors, name-calling and manipulation to inflict psychological pain on targeted victims,” Simmons writes. “Unlike boys, who tend to bully acquaintances or strangers, girls frequently attack within tightly knit networks of friends, making aggression harder to identify and intensifying the damage to the victims. In this world, friendship is a weapon and the sting of a shout pales in comparison to a day of someone’s silence.
“There is no gesture more devastating that the back turning away.”
Cliques and social isolation are considered to be more common among girls. As early as kindergarten, girls are becoming aware of trendy fashions aimed at young consumers and of invitations to social events and play-dates, Canter said.
“Very young children are openly critical by nature,” she said. “If they are not taught by example to respect the feelings of others, their innocent remarks become a bullying characteristic.”
For girls, isolation is especially terrifying, because their social capital is measured almost entirely by their relationships. Popularity and acceptance cut to the core of their identities.
To most girls, there is nothing more painful than the thought of standing alone at recess or lunch, which is why many girls put up with bullies — or are willing bystanders to someone else being bullied — for fear of becoming the next target.
The fact that girl bullies are likely to be the most socially skilled in a group complicates matters.
“These girls are mature and worldly,” Simmons writes. “Less often discussed, however, is their intensely charismatic, even seductive aura. Girls like these have almost gravitational pulls on their victims. The friendship is mesmerizing, and often the victim is gripped by dueling desires to be consumed and released by her friend.”
Everybody is responsible
What makes a bully?
“In some cases, bullying behaviors fill the bully’s need to feel superior,” Canter said. “Often, bullies have been victims themselves, and they become part of the unhealthy cycle.
“The bullying may begin so subtly that the victim thinks it’s their fault, and tries harder to be accepted.”
Amy felt that no one at her school cared about what was happening to her. So she took matters into her own hands.
“I stepped up and they stopped completely,” she said. “A majority told me I should have done it right away, but when I stepped up, a lot of people were proud of me.”
No matter the cause — or whether it takes place among boys or girls — everyone involved is responsible for stopping bullying.
“Everybody has a role,” Spruill said. “You’re either a bully, a victim or a bystander. And until we teach everybody that bullying is wrong, people will continue to look the other way.”
Schools are taking the issue of bullying seriously.
Donoho offers character education lessons throughout the school year, a program that includes role-playing in bullying situations and guest speakers who talk to students about cyber-bullying and other bullying behaviors.
“There are fabulous counselors in our schools,” Spruill said. “They are no longer turning a blind eye. But how can they be expected to police an entire student body? The real responsibility falls to the students.
“They are the problem. They’ve got to be the solution.”
As for Amy, she’s moved on, learning some valuable, if painful, lessons along the way.
“I am more aware of who I’m friends with, how and what I say,” she said. “Girls who get bullied, like in my situation, need to step up and tell their school counselors and parents to make it stop. I will never get my four best friends back because of this stupid bullying.”
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The rise of cyberbullying
More than half the students in a recent survey said they had been affected by cyberbullying. The nonprofit group i-SAFE, an organization devoted to online safety education, surveyed more than 1,500 students ranging from fourth to eighth grade across the country.
• 58 percent of kids said someone has said mean or hurtful things to them online.
• 53 percent of kids admitted having said something mean or hurtful to another online.
• 42 percent of kids have been bullied while online.
• 58 percent of kids have not told their parents or any adult about something mean or hurtful that had happened to them online.
The group offers these tips for students who are being cyberbullied:
• Tell a trusted adult and keep telling them until they take action.
• Never open, read or respond to messages from cyberbullies.
• If it is school-related, tell your school. All schools have bullying solutions.
• Do not erase the messages. They may be needed to take action.
• If bullied through chat or IM, the bully can often be blocked.
• If you are threatened with harm, call the police.
• For more tips, visit isafe.org.
What parents should know about bullying
Some advice from K.A.R.M.A (Kids Against Ridicule, Meanness and Aggression), an anti-bullying site based in Auburn. For more information, visit www.thekarma.org.
• If children suddenly loses an interest in school work or going to school, if their grades start to suffer in specific classes (usually where the bully is present), or if they express a fear of going to school, they may be a victim of bullying.
• What can you do? Communicate. Talk to your child. Allow them to talk openly without negative reaction. Talk to their teachers and counselors.
• When children complain about a bully, listen. Many times adults ignore “he says/she says,” but that is often where bullying hides.
• If another parent, a teacher, a coach or a school official contacts you and informs you that your child is a bully, do not stick your head in the sand. Ignoring the issue will not make it disappear.