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Published: Friday, 10/26/2007

Child victims of bullying suffer silently with often fatal results

A disturbing thread winds its way through many of the recent stories about kids killing kids. Frequently it is exposed in the labored aftermath of a school shooting or related violence. But occasionally, bullying is identified early on as a contributing factor behind the brutality inflicted by one child on another. Last Friday, a 15-year-old Cleveland girl, who was apparently bullied at length by another teen, was fatally stabbed by a group armed with stun guns and knives.

Demesha Sharp's 17-year-old tormentor was arrested on murder charges. But flip back to other cases of troubled kids who kill - the ones who are determined to get back at someone who did them wrong. From the notorious duo at Columbine to the tragic teen copycats who followed, many of the kids who snapped paid a high price for being different.

Peers remember them as weirdos, never quite fitting in. Chances are the misfits were marginalized, picked on, or bullied for being so unlike everyone else. Maybe they were dorks in hand-me-downs, easily ridiculed by the "cool" kids wearing the latest fashion. Oddballs make easy targets for name-calling, harassment, intimidation, or as punching bags.

And the tormented school kids have lots of company. According to a survey done earlier this year by researchers at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital and the Stanford University School of Medicine, 9 out of 10 elementary students report bullying by their peers. What's more, nearly 6 in 10 children surveyed said they participated in some kind of bullying themselves.

That's how widespread bullying is in American schools. It's not just an unpleasant rite of passage through childhood, say the experts. It's a huge prevailing problem that can start as early as preschool and cause devastating long-term effects. Kids who have been made fun of repeatedly by classmates for being too fat, too short, too tall, too awkward, too shy, too black, too white, too disabled, or too weak to fight back, can suffer silently for years.

For some the only indication of their hellish childhoods comes too late. Tortured young souls have been driven to commit suicide rather than face another day of hurt and degradation. Often all they leave behind are anguished letters that hint at their hopelessness.

A grade school girl who hanged herself with a dog leash left this message: "If I try to get help, it will get worse. They are always looking for a new person to beat up, and they are the toughest girls. If I ratted, there would be no stopping them. I love you all so much!" The sad fact is parents may be utterly unaware of the bullying their child has borne or how cutting it's become. Perhaps a family version of "don't ask, don't tell" discourages meaningful dialogue between parent and youngster about how to deal with mean kids. Or perhaps the child is just afraid to report the bullies, thinking nothing will be done and the bullying will even intensify.

But the danger of not talking about bullies or the victims of bullying is extreme, especially with the increasing use of violence to settle school-aged grudges. The fury once expressed by words and fists has manifested itself with a 15-year-old girl fatally stabbed on a Cleveland street, an alienated loner striding into school with weapons drawn, and an honor-roll student who left a seven-page suicide note saying he was killing himself because classmates who called him names like gay or faggot were unrelenting.

A kindergarten bully, who is a bully in grade school, high school, and beyond, may grow up to be a career bully prone to abusive behavior. Kids who were routinely victimized by teasing, put-downs, and punches may be prone to much higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts as adults than nonvictims.

It might be tempting to brush off rising concerns over the scope and impact of bullying today as nothing new. Kids have been teased and taunted forever, you say. Deal with it. If I hadn't seen the shunning and stigmatizing and isolation of first, second, and third graders myself, I'd probably agree. But I'm convinced, as are many in education, that kid-on-kid cruelty is worse now than it ever was.

From an absurdly young age, kids face intense pressure to succeed in school and to conform to the superficial. Failing to do so may mean being friendless, sitting alone at lunch, and, even before losing baby teeth, enduring the snickers or slights of your peers when the adults aren't looking.

It happens. According to a U.S. Justice Department report it happens in at least 26 percent of elementary schools, 43 percent of middle schools, and 25 percent of high schools. Without effective intervention both perpetrators and victims of bullying carry deep emotional scars into adulthood. If they live that long.



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