New Jersey Bullies To Face U.S.’s Toughest Laws — About Time!

Bullying on IRFE in March 5, 2007, the first c...
It doesn't have to be physical! Emotional abuse is invisible and leaves scars just as deep. Image via Wikipedia

A few cases of bullying in the U.S. have — thankfully — received national attention in the past two years.

In New Jersey, two students at Rutgers, a local college, taped their gay room-mate in order to mock and bully him. He was so terrified of exposure and derision that he, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide. Only one of the students has been criminally charged.

In Massachusetts, a 15-year-old Irish girl, Phoebe Prince, made the fatal error of dating the wrong guy, and was soon targeted by girls in her school as a slut, mercilessly hounded. She hanged herself at home.

After her suicide, I spoke out against bullying in this USA Today essay, describing my own experience in a middle-class Toronto high school in the mid-1970’s:

I was 14, and also new to public school, having attended a private single-sex school in grades four to nine, with a year at a private co-ed school in grades seven and 10. Boys were an alien species. I had no idea how to dress fashionably, having just spent the past six years wearing a school uniform. I had pimples. I was socially awkward.

I quickly became the brunt of merciless, relentless public bullying by a small group of boys. They nicknamed me “Doglin” — a “dog” being the most vile name, then, one could bestow on a young girl. They barked and howled at me whenever I walked through the hallways, their taunts echoing off the metal lockers and terrazzo floors. One brought in a dog biscuit and put it on my desk in class.

I was terrified and traumatized. Like many bullying victims I and my worried parents felt helpless to stop it. I was lucky enough to make a few good female friends and to excel intellectually, appearing on a regional high school quiz show and helping our school reach its quarter-finals for the first time in years.

But the daily, visible, audible torture continued. In desperation, at 16, I started seeing a therapist, who recommended I take medication — I refused — to handle my anxiety.

Our teachers saw and heard it every day for years and did nothing.

I knew that I was taking a risk by speaking out in a national publication with more than a million readers. Americans, especially, pride themselves on mental toughness and self-sufficiency. Wimp! Wuss! Whiner! I knew these comments were possible.

Which was my whole point. Being bullied leaves you scarred for a long, long time. I have spoken twice as a keynote at two conferences, appeared on television a few times and routinely speak publicly — all to promote my new book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

But for a long, long time I was deeply uneasy when people, boys especially, would look at me, fearing the next volley of vitriol. I’ve also been bullied several times in New York jobs, with one trade publication manager who shouted curses at everyone and stood subway-close when she threatened me. Another had a red-faced shouting fit in my very small office. Maybe it’s journalism, or New York, but some of the most toxic people I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter work in my field in this city I chose.

Maybe everyone who’s been bullied emits some sort of magnetic force field attracting even more of it!

Only by speaking out, ideally as someone who had had some professional success and had, in some measure “made it” could I make clear that one can, as so many people do, survive bullying, but not everyone has the self-confidence or resources to handle it.

The thoughtless, knee-jerk response to bullying is always the same: just put up with it. Sort it out among yourselves. Suck it up.

Kids will be kids.

And cruel fools come in all shapes and sizes.

Tacitly allowing bullying to continue creates a whole pile o’ hells for the bullied:

we lose faith and trust in adults whose authority is to care for us and protect us

we lose faith in others, who stand by idly and do nothing

we lose faith in ourselves as we find ourselves powerless to stop such abuse

we withdraw from social, athletic and professional arenas requiring exposure, competition and confidence, feeling unloved, even despised

The New York Times ran a front-page piece today raising questions about the new responsibilities recent New Jersey laws, passed post-Clementi, will impose on teachers and school administrators:

But while many parents and educators welcome the efforts to curb bullying both on campus and online, some superintendents and school board members across New Jersey say the new law, which takes effect Sept. 1, reaches much too far, and complain that they have been given no additional resources to meet its mandates.

The law, known as the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, is considered the toughest legislation against bullying in the nation. Propelled by public outcry over the suicide of a Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, nearly a year ago, it demands that all public schools adopt comprehensive antibullying policies (there are 18 pages of “required components”), increase staff training and adhere to tight deadlines for reporting episodes.

Each school must designate an antibullying specialist to investigate complaints; each district must, in turn, have an antibullying coordinator; and the State Education Department will evaluate every effort, posting grades on its Web site. Superintendents said that educators who failed to comply could lose their licenses.

Of course, some educators are annoyed and say it’s too much for them to handle.

Try being bullied.

10 thoughts on “New Jersey Bullies To Face U.S.’s Toughest Laws — About Time!

  1. I’m from Dublin, Ireland but spent two summers working at an international summer camp in Switzerland where the staff members were predominantly American. It was an immensely talented and dedicated team and when it came to anti-bullying policy (eg name-calling like “you’re gay etc) they had a zero-tolerance policy. However, when it came to a little eleven-year-old boy, who was intensely home-sick and whose parents were going through a divorce their response was totally unsympathetic. He was labelled a “cry-baby” and”whinger” and laughed at in the staffroom. I was shocked by the lack of sensitivity and by the “suck it up” attitude they espoused. When I drew this to the group’s attention they told me I didn’t understand and that it was “attention-seeking behaviour”. When I retorted that this unhappy, devastated little boy in fact deserved and needed our attention they told me that he should go, because he wasn’t “into the programme”. He was picked up the following day and crept into the big dining hall to say goodbye to me alone and to thank me for staying with him while he cried. Bullying is so much subtler than buzzwords and “policies”. It’s all around us and often those supposedly enforcing anti-bullying policy are sufffering from a lack of insight and compassion themselves. These measures are certainly a step in the right direction though and I’m glad to hear of it. The point you make about ‘making it’ is interesting too: it’s as if, even into adulthood the victim has to justify him or her self in another capacity to ‘make up’ for the shortcoming in becoming a victim. Psychologically twisted.

    1. Red Skies At Night - Means the S-T-E-E-L-WORK FURNACES are pouring steel ...

      In a way it was thanks to Joe Louis, the world heavyweight boxing champion and another very famous middleweight boxing champion that I managed to stop the bullying at school, I was a quiet kid, who wanted to be a boxer, so I joined the local Council funded boxing club and soon discovered it was empty most nights, and the so called boxing trainer (sic) never appeared unless there was some ‘do on’. A ‘do’ being a boxing club publicity event- which the local Councillors attended in order to see ‘what their money was being spent on’. I enjoyed going to it because they had the best and only training equipment in the area, including such things has a ‘punch ball speed bag’ which I loved banging about on my own for hours. It’s no exaggeration to say I attended this club for around a year and only saw the trainer twice. The second time it was for a ‘parents evening show of amateur boxing talents, and being short of boxers I was chosen to fight the local champ from another club, mostly because we were both the same size. This youth held a number of local titles, and his reputation bothered me greatly (I was in awe of him), even so I had seen him fight and did not think he was that great, so assumed he was a star when it mattered in the ring.

      When the bell rung for the first round I can recall his mother- a huge fat lady- shouting out words to the effect of “Kill him Billy”, this angered me so much that because of what she had said; I stalked her son in the ring and each and every one of my punches struck home with some force. I soon discovered hitting a speed punch bag was a lot harder than hitting him, and bear in mind I had been hitting a punch ball for about 15 months. 4 nights each week. The fight was stopped in round 2, to prevent him getting injured. When the referee stopped the fight I honestly thought I’d made some kind of rules of boxing mistake. As crazy as it must seem – “I apologised to the referee for it”. I am certain that this referee did not know that this was my first ever fight, and that’s the reason why: “I was apologising for winning”. I was such a novice I thought you had to K.O. the opponent for a winner to be declared. What’s the connection with bullying, well I attended a local posh school I had won a free scholarship, and we were so poor my uniform was paid for by the Council, and I had each day “Free Schools Meals”, suffice to say I was a outcast, and quiet, and wore a white shirt and tie, and lived on the wrong side of the tracks, meaning the poorest section of town, and easy meat and a good target for the bullies, they soon found out I could fight for fun, and within 3 months one or two top class bullies got there just deserts. My one regret is this was real life, there was no Angelo Dundee’s about, nor was there was any famous boxing promoters who could discover ‘the nex-xt woil-rrd champe’ien of de world”, I lived in a rough steel town, it’s got worse, a lot worse in the last 50 years, and like they say in the film “I could-a-been-a contender”. For what it’s worth boxing a mugs game, and only fit for rabid dogs, beauty queen rapists, and ex-cons. So maybe I had a lucky escape, who knows?

  2. That little boy was so lucky, even being treated so roughly, that you had the wisdom, compassion — and guts! — act differently than everyone else. One of the many “lessons” one learns from being bullied is just how cowardly most people are, happy to watch someone being treated badly because they fear being turned on as well or also being told they, too, are a loser.

    It is very hard not to grow up bitter and angry.

    My “attention seeking behavior” got me tossed out of my boarding school and it was driven by some of the same things this little boy was facing.

    He will, I suspect, remember you for a long time and with gratitude.

  3. Phil

    Well written and a great read, as only articles that flow from deep within can do. I am always appalled from otherwise seemingly nice people to hear them write bullying off as some right of passage, some animal-like process necessary to establish the alpha of the group. As humans, are we not capable of rising above these most basic animal qualities? I don’t buy any of those excuses for bullying at all.

    I am not a teacher, but I have coached competitive sports for well over 20 years now. Like teachers, coaching puts me in a position to work directly with groups younger kids, and as such exposes me to a lot of the interpersonal antics in a team environment, including bullying – both between teammates and external bullying toward those not on the team. I appreciate that mentoring young adults is no easy task, but as the adult, it is my obligation to step up and do the right thing. If I’m going to demand extraordinary effort from my players, why would I then not put in extraordinary effort where it is needed? It is not as difficult as those wringing their hands with consternation would make it. The tragic thing is that it has to be legislated to begin with – you would think as adults that we would not allow this type of behavior to incubate from the outset.

    I will note that the preponderance of electronics has allowed bad behavior to go beyond the boundaries we once had as children. With all the social media online, and cell phones and texting, we have a fertile environment where bullies can ply their trade non-stop and to a wider audience. As connected as this all seems, it also tends to further isolate the victim and magnify the problems in their minds. Once again, I say the adults need to step up and be adults.

    I’m reminded of an old saying: “Only the strong are capable of showing mercy; the weak can only resort to cruelty.” Most bullies I’ve encountered were not strong people at all.

  4. Thanks for so long and thoughtful a comment. I sometimes wonder if teachers, bizarrely become inured to such childish cruelty and lazily dismiss it as normal when they are accessories to emotional violence. That is obvious to the child being bullied.

  5. Caitlin, This is an excellent piece and your reader’s comment are equally insightful and evocative. I live in Massachusetts and wrote several times about the Phoebe Prince ordeal because it touched such a raw nerve. I also felt incredibly depressed that it appears that culturally we expect bullying to happen and in this amazing modern age, it’s something that can happen with light speed and enormously crushing devastation on the bullied.
    I have no idea how tackle the problem with once simple solution because it’s so multifaceted: there’s a herd mentality when it begins; the bullied person so often feels they have no other option than to endure it–because it gets worse when he/she tries to make it stop; the education system now feels burdened with more parental responsibilities; parents don’t see it, won’t see it, are bullies themselves, don’t know about it….(there’s a long list there) and the new factor that makes bullying unmanageable when it starts: social networking. Whew! Where to start? Thank you.

    1. Thanks!
      You really see how complex it is….which is why it’s SO important that anyone inside that system (which is a system) do whatever they humanly can to fight back and protect the person being bullied. Too often, the person being bullied is seen as somehow deserving of it (?!) and then people shun them for fear of being bullied as well.

      The only way to stop bullying is to SEE it for what it is: emotional violence. I think it needs to be re-branded, seriously, to make very very clear what this is…I’ve written on domestic violence (a phrase which sounds so benign) and want to (based on my interviews with victims, advocates, cops and attorneys) call it “intimate terrorism.” Bullying is so damaging precisely because there is no visible proof of harm — no black eye or or broken tooth or bruises with which to arrest and prosecute for assault.

      It IS assault. Anyone who denies it is a selfish coward.

  6. Not sure how I stumbled across your blog, but what you have written is very insightful. It takes me back to grade school where I was bullied by another girl. Even to this day (and it has been quite some time!), I remember her hitting my head with her ruler as she sat in the desk behind me. My teacher, in an attempt to get her to stop, offered to take her up in her sea plane if she stopped. How misguided – the girl only proceeded to bully me more, making sure I didn’t tell anyone so that she was able to go in the plane!
    You made another interesting comment about people who are bullied and being a magnet – perhaps that is why I regularly feel bullied by my bosses. (I have changed jobs a number of times, not due to lack of success on my part, but by bossy bosses who make my life miserable!!!)
    I hope this new legislation is helpful to prevent bullying, or giving the teachers a way to deal with it. There is no call for bullying in kids – and there is definitely no call for them to grow up to be adult bullies.
    Thanks for an insightful piece. Certainly something to think about.

    1. I’m so sorry you’ve been bullied. I’m quite convinced that, once bullied, we’re more likely to experience it again. I’ve encountered it far too many times in my workplaces as well (not only publishing? Not only NYC?) and suspect that the previously bullied send out some sort of vibe (naturally) that elicits more of the same.

      I wish I’d had the guts to really stand up to more of these people. Their attacks (and that is what they are) are really scarring.

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