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The battle against bullying

If you were asked to name a famous bully, who comes to mind? Depending on your age, it might be Eddie Haskell from “Leave It To Beaver,” Biff Tannen from “Back To The Future,” Sid from “Toy Story” or perhaps Regina George from “Mean Girls.”

Now, if were asked to name someone in your life who you consider to be a bully, could you? Could you also name someone who is, or was, the victim of bullying?

Almost everyone can.

Bullying has touched every single person in America. Whether it is you, a fellow classmate, a sibling, a relative, a friend – everyone knows someone who has been affected.

The anti-bullying movement is huge. School officials talk about it all the time. We see posters plastered all over the walls. Buses are smeared with anti-bullying campaigns. There are websites and programs everywhere you look. Our society has zero tolerance for bullying.

But, does it really?

According to teensuicidestatistics.us, 100,000 kids (that’s equal to the First Niagara Center filled five times) leave school each of year because of bullying and never go back. Another 160,000 skip school every day because of bullying. Approximately 4,400 kids ages 10-19 take their own lives each year in relation to bullying.

Yet, 96 percent of bullying goes unnoticed.

Does that sound like a zero-tolerance climate to you?

Tom Murphy, a former MMA fighter and co-founder of the organization Sweethearts and Heroes, is a leading authority on anti-bullying in schools.

He said he begins most of his presentations by asking students, “Can you name five people who you know that are bullied, and can you name five people who you think are the bullies?” Andhe says that “as fast as lightening – everyone always answers yes.”

So Murphy wonders to himself, “How is it possible that every kid knows that it’s going on, yet we have a zero-tolerance climate?”

It is obvious that not enough is effectively being done about it.

Murphy says that most anti-bullying programs are awareness-based. Kids know that bullying should not be tolerated. They are told to tell a teacher, another adult, or even call an anonymous hotline.

But do they? Typically not.

They are afraid of retaliation or of becoming victims themselves.

In Murphy’s presentations, he teaches kids how to intervene immediately, at the very moment when the bullying happens. “Peers intervene 10 percent of the time or less,” Murphy says, but “when a ‘hero’ intervenes within 10 seconds of the bullying action, it is successful 60 percent of the time.”

Murphy believes that children, not adults, will be the key in fixing the problem.

“Everyone has a ‘super power’ and may use different actions to do something about it, but the lesson is to not be a bystander.”

According to another of Murphy’s online videos, a recent study was done at the Michigan Institute of Social Research that shows that children today are 40 percent less empathetic than in 1979, with the greatest decline happening in the last 10 years.

“It is obvious that children care less and less about their peers,” Murphy says. “Where have all the sweethearts gone? Many kids just don’t care about other kids anymore.”

Murphy points out that only about 135 kids die in a fire each year, yet we teach almost 50 million students what to do if they potentially catch fire and die. What we do not do as often is teach them what to do when they experience bullying.

“Perhaps not all 4,400 kids were bullied,” Murphy says, “but the one thing that all 4,400 of them have in common is their lack of having a sweetheart or hero in their lives: people that are there when they need that help.”

For kids to embrace the Sweethearts and Heroes plan, he first sheds some light onto the people involved.

Just who are the bullies and victims?

“It is important to remember that bullies are created, not born,” Murphy explains. “They have their own self-esteem problems, their own difficulties at home, their own issues that make them the way they are. Usually bullies want to boost their social status or become more popular. Bullies want to hurt or damage people.”

Everyone has a weakness, and the bully knows the victim’s weakness. Maybe the victim is short, tall or shy. But a bully can even take a person’s strength and make it a weakness. Ironically, the victim allows it: for example, bullying someone for being pretty, talented or compassionate. These seem like wonderful qualities, yet bullies can quickly find a way to turn them into qualities to be ashamed of.

“Bullying is something that happens repetitively,” Murphy says. “It is habitual. It’s not a one-time thing. A child who might be called a name one day does not go home that day and do something drastic. But a child that is being called that name repetitively, and ends up feeling worthless, just might.”

Eric, 14, who attends a suburban public high school in Western New York, shared his story of being bullied.

“I was bullied in seventh grade and throughout middle school. It was by the same group of people, but by the end more people were joining in. They would push me into lockers and call me ‘geek’ or ‘nerd,’ made fun of my weight and called me offensive slurs and names,” he said. “I had cuts and bruises, and was even punched in the face. They even started attacking people around me. It came to a point where people I was friends with since kindergarten ignored me in the halls.”

This happened to Eric every day. He reached out to his parents, teachers and guidance counselors. Unfortunately, he did not get much help from the school. Eric said, “They’d say things like ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘they’re just kidding.’ 

“I just took the attacks because it was all I could do,” Eric said. “I had nobody standing up for me.”

Eric said that he has learned a lot about himself after going through all of that. He has changed schools and now has a good group of friends.

“Bullying is so common across America and little or none is being done to stop it. Putting a little ribbon on your Twitter picture doesn’t do much,” Eric said. “It takes courage to take it (bullying), but it also takes courage to stand by the people who are getting bullied. People that are going through this aren’t alone. We should all stand together.”

That is where training from Sweethearts and Heroes can make a huge impact. People have to stand up for these kids and not be bystanders.

Typically, when someone thinks of bullying, they probably think of Eric’s situation. According to erasebullying.ca, that type of bullying is known as physical or direct bullying. But there’s a much more insidious type of bullying that often goes unnoticed by parents and teachers. This type of bullying is known as relational bullying or emotional bullying. This involves social manipulation, such as excluding others from a group, spreading rumors, breaking confidences and getting others to dislike another person. Relational bullying can be very damaging, and some kids never recover. It is most common with girls.

Ally, 23, attended a private school in Western New York, was bullied for years. The bully, Jessica, told everyone she could that Ally was “weird” and to basically “stay away from her.” Ally spent most of her freshman year in tears, feeling isolated, alone and wanting to switch schools. Ally was not a shy girl to begin with, either. Yet, in her first year at a new school, she made no friends and had never felt so empty.

She spent many days and nights crying, wondering what she did wrong and trying to figure out why no one liked her.

She and Jessica had gone to grade school together, and their parents were friends. Ally did not even know that Jessica was sabotaging her. She could not understand why no one even gave her a chance to be their friend. Looking back, she realizes that, for years, Jessica had been sabotaging Ally’s potential friendships. It just became more apparent in high school. Finally, Ally got stronger and broke into a new group that she did not even think she had anything in common with. But, they gave her a chance. She joined some clubs also, and became more comfortable with her school and friends.

Ironically, Jessica left the school their junior year. After she left, other kids started coming around to Ally. Several people told her, “Wow, we had heard that you weren’t a nice person, but you really are!”

When Ally was in high school, there was very little social media. “Oh my gosh, if that happened to me with social media in the picture, I don’t even know how far Jessica would have taken it,” she said. “I don’t know if I could have handled that. It was hard enough without it.”

Luckily, Ally did not have to deal with much social media when she was being bullied. But now, it is everywhere. Almost every kid has an iPhone, iPad or smartphone.

The problem with this is that kids know everything that everyone is doing all the time. They spend all weekend reading their phones. They know who went to what parties, what events, who was with whom, and so on. They also know who did not go somewhere or who was not in on the action. Their perception of what others are or are not doing can be devastating for some kids. In this world of social media, kids have no escape anymore.

15-year-old Tori said girls she thought were her friends would exclude or ignore her through social media. She would be asked to hang out, then would be ignored while plans were being made, and they would go off without her.

“It really hurts to see pictures all over social media of them having fun together while they intentionally left me out,” she said. Tori would wonder, “What’s wrong with me?” It took her a long time to realize it was not her, but them. Many kids just do not care about each other’s feelings.

“They don’t care who they hurt, as long as they become popular or get what they want,” she said. “It’s sad.”

When kids are the victims of being bullied, physically or emotionally, they feel alone and hopeless. Sadly, they believe that they are the problem. They just want to be accepted.

They want to matter.

Murphy, when talking to groups, often quotes Albert Einstein: “The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

Don’t be a bystander. Be a hero. Be somebody’s sweetheart.

For more information on how to help, go to www.sweetheartsandheroes.org Camryn Clune is a sophomore at Mount St. Mary Academy.