Opening Statement: The Kids Aren’t All Right

Vol. 38 No. 1

Chair of the Section of Litigation

“I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens. What do I have to do so people will listen to me?” Ten days after Jamey Rodemeyer—age 14—wrote that on his blog, he took his own life. Fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince hung herself in the stairwell where her family lived. Ty Field-Smalley, age 11, used a gun to take his own life. So many children lost: Tyler Long (17); Darren Steele (15); Paige Moravitz (14); Haylee Fentress (14); Roger Hillyard (13); Kelly Yeomans (13); Kelly Farrar (13); Stephen Woodhall (12); Daniel Overfield (12); Alistair Hunter (12); Ashlynn Conner (10); Jevan Richardson (10); Marie Bentham (8).

Kyle is alive, but he is tormented relentlessly. When he went into a bathroom stall, some other kids went into the next stall and began to urinate on his head. It was another horror Kyle faces at school. He hides under the seats of the school bus. And he prays that he doesn’t “have to go back to school.” Alex, age 14, has been punched and choked. He worries about what will happen when he returns to seventh grade. Kelby, age 16, came out as gay and was sexually assaulted. When her classmates used a car to run her down, Kelby’s head punctured the windshield.

Time after time the stories of bullying, abuse, and acts of violence against children—by strangers and family, by adults, and other children—shock us, as they should. But it is not enough to be shocked. We have to stop this from happening.

 

What can we do?

We can take ABA policy on anti-bullying to our state and local bar associations and ask for their help. ABA policy encourages developing “programs to assist teachers, parents, and children in identifying victims and enhancing appropriate interventions” and “affording institutional protections, particularly for those children at risk of these acts resulting from actual or perceived characteristics such as race, religion, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity.” To translate that policy into action, we should partner with others and work together to change our schools.

We can refuse to avert our eyes to the suffering of children. Let’s force ourselves to read the news reports, however painful, about the next child who has taken her own life or suffered depraved cruelty. Make a point of watching the incredibly powerful investigative reporting in specials, such as Anderson Cooper’s series “Bullying: It Stops Here” and Lee Hirsch’s film, The Bully Project. As members of the Section of Litigation, you can subscribe for free to the Children’s Rights Litigation newsletter, with compelling articles, such as Sarah Biehl’s “School Expulsion—A Life Sentence?”

We can speak up when we see or hear someone who is being bullied. It is estimated that 77 percent of the time, no bystander intervenes to help the victim. We also can listen and ask. If a child tells you that she is being bullied, that is a red flag. But we can’t wait for the child to raise the topic. We must ask.

We can volunteer to represent kids who need our help. Many of the youth at risk are, sadly, already part of the judicial system—in child welfare, truancy, or delinquency proceedings. Children’s law centers and bar associations around the country have programs where lawyers can volunteer to take a case. Some law firms have started their own programs. If you want to get involved but don’t know where to start, the Section’s Children’s Rights Litigation Committee can help you find local programs or start your own.

What shouldn’t we do?

Let’s not give our kids dangerous advice. “Stick up for yourself” may seem like good advice, but be sure you know what dangers the child really is facing. If you are thinking that a child who fights back may be shoved around in the bicycle area after school, you may not know the very real dangers the child faces.

Let’s not let our outrage keep us from fashioning constructive and compassionate responses. When children bully other children, some urge that schools adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards bullies, suspending or expelling them from school. But kicking bullies out of school means that the bullies, also children, are exposed to even more unstable and destructive forces. ABA policy opposes:  “(1) inappropriate referral of youth to the juvenile justice system for acts of bullying and student-on-student harassment, and (2) inappropriate use of expulsion and out-of-school suspension for such acts.” We know that a suspension is more likely than any other factor to cause a child to drop out of high school. And we know that children who do not complete high school are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested as adults. High-school dropouts comprise more than 80 percent of the adult prison population. When we suspend or expel a student, we have increased dramatically the odds that he later will enter a prison—what has been dubbed the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Let’s not feed the bullies into that pipeline. We have better tools to control bullying behavior. For example, programs such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (www.pbis.org), a prevention-oriented framework for school personnel to follow, can increase safety and decrease student drop out. Programs that address only bullies may not succeed, but more comprehensive programs involving a schoolwide commitment to end bullying can produce dramatic results. Let’s urge our schools to use research-based policies that have been shown to improve school safety while keeping kids in school.

Allow me to ask this of you: Can we try to imagine, however tough it may seem, that the bullies were our own kids? Can we think of both the victims and the bullies as deserving our caring and compassion?  If one of your children was a bully, you wouldn’t allow the bullying to continue, but you wouldn’t put your bully child out on the streets. You would protect other children from your own bully child, and you also would do everything you could to save your bully child from himself. You would do that as a responsible parent, because you would know it was the right thing. And if you knew the statistics about how bullies feel about themselves and how they fare later in life, you would be terrified for your bully child.

We cannot accept as inevitable the horrors we read about in the newspapers and see on television. We can’t simply wring our hands in despair. There are things we can do to make a difference, and there are things we shouldn’t do, even when our outrage tempts us. Let’s be wise enough to know the difference. The kids need our help, and it isn’t an option to look away.

 

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