Bullying and teen suicide: How do we adjust school climate?
Teen suicide attributed to bullying has educators and parents examining how school climate contributes to and can be changed to help the problem.
Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
A small forest of blossoming Bradford pear trees ushers students toward a cheery, single-story building of pale formstone and distinctive archways underneath a nearly fluorescent, pepper-green roof. In a grassy median in front, a jolly, metallic statue of the school's mascot, an Indian warrior, rises up in greeting.
If these features were meant to suggest a warm educational embrace, it is fair to say that they were lost on 17-year-old Tyler Lee Long. Whatever else he may have thought of Murray High, it was certainly not as a benign place. In his mind, the school might as well have been encased in barbed wire with gargoyles leering down at him from the facade. For Tyler, who suffered from Asperger's Disorder, Murray High was little more than a torture chamber, where – his parents say and students confirm – he felt himself subjected to unending humiliation at the hands of some of his fellow students under the indifferent watch of teachers and administrators.
Last October, two months into his junior year, Tyler could bear it no longer. He had brighter dreams of his future – he was two weeks from earning his black belt in karate, and he envisioned attending the University of Texas and one day designing the sort of computer games he loved playing. But none of that was enough to keep him going back to Murray High.
So on Oct. 17, after his family had gone to bed, he changed out of his pajamas into his favorite black T-shirt and jeans, strapped one of his belts around his neck, opened the louvered doors of his bedroom closet, and hanged himself from a shelf.
Tyler's suicide note does not specifically mention bullying as the reason for his action, but his parents, Tina and David Long, have no doubt why he took his life. "Tyler didn't want to be bullied any longer," Mrs. Long says evenly in the family's Colonial house about 35 miles southeast of Chattanooga, "and that is the bottom line."
In other words, say the Longs, Tyler committed "bullycide," a term increasingly finding its way into the educational lexicon as a result of several teen suicides that were attributed at least in part to bullying. Most recently – in March – the term pierced national consciousness when a Massachusetts district attorney indicted nine students on criminal charges arising from the suicide of a 15-year-old Irish immigrant named Phoebe Prince who also hanged herself after experiencing persistent bullying.
Also in March, the Longs filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Murray County School District and Murray High School principal Gail Linder for allegedly failing to protect Tyler despite many entreaties from his parents.
There are no reliable statistics that break out the number of teen suicides attributable to bullying. In most cases it may not be possible to definitively attribute a teen's suicide to a particular cause, be it bullying, a broken heart, a bad test score, or simply chronic depression. Nevertheless, the cases of so-called "bullycides" have drawn attention to the overall problem of bullying and the responsibility of schools to put a stop to it.
Certainly, the Longs believe the Murray County Schools had a responsibility to their son, and they intend the lawsuit to emphatically make that clear.
"They need to be held accountable for Tyler's death," says Mr. Long. "The reason we're speaking [up] is to protect these kids and make schools aware [that] when the parents or student tell you something, you don't turn the other cheek."
Through Atlanta attorney Martha Pearson, the Murray County School District and Ms. Linder deny the allegations: "There was no information that the district had surrounding this child's suicide that he had been subjected to repeated bullying. The school simply did not have that kind of information, and anytime Tyler had any problem associated with his disability the school was responsive."
In the wake of other deaths attributed to bullying, school districts similarly say the bullying occurred without the knowledge of school officials. But increasingly parents and educators are saying that isn't good enough, that schools cannot take a see no evil approach.
"Schools will say, 'Oh it's just kids being kids, it's a rite of passage. But it's an assault. We don't allow people to abuse the elderly or pets and we're not going to allow abuse when it's peer on peer, either," says Monica Thomas, who started an anti-bulling website when she felt she got no help from her son's Pennsylvania high school with her complaints that he was being bullied.
As tragic as the suicides of Tyler and Phoebe are, their deaths and other bullycides draw more attention to the subject of bullying and its consequences, which educators hope will lead to more prevention programs.
"This is going to give a whole new complexion to bullying and prevention here in the United States," says Marlene Snyder, director of development for an antibullying program used in many American schools. "The message that needs to get out is you need to pay attention to what the kids are doing and there are programs out there that can help."
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As any American teenager could tell you, bullying isn't rare. The National Center for Educational Statistics, in 2009, said nearly 1 in 3 students between the ages of 12 and 18 reported being bullied in school. Eight years earlier, only 14 percent of that population said they had experienced bullying.
The good news, experts agree, is that almost certainly some of that increase can be attributed to better reporting as a result of bullying prevention programs that encourage victims to confide in adults when bullied. The sobering news, though, is that one-third of American kids face bullying.
Increasingly, educators recognize that bullying has a detrimental effect on learning. "In schools where this behavior is allowed to run rampant, it damages the whole school," says Ms. Snyder. "It can ruin a school environment."
Conversely, says Jack Barnes, superintendent of the Sullivan County, Tenn., school district, diminishing bullying yields educational dividends. Sullivan County schools had such a serious, racially tinged bullying problem that in 2002 a federal court ordered it to implement a comprehensive, systemwide program to improve school climate and reduce bullying. Since then, incidents have decreased, Mr. Barnes says, and academic performance has climbed. He believes the trends are related: "If I'm a student and I feel confident and safe and good about the environment in which I'm trying to learn, I will probably achieve more."
Experts in the field say that addressing bullying means disabusing traditional notions on the subject. One of the most persistent myths is that bullying is an expected aspect of growing up, a normal rite of passage that is healthy to face and to face down. Not only is that thinking wrong, says Snyder, it is dangerous.
Bullying, she says, isn't a conflict between equals. It's intentional, persistent, humiliating mistreatment between peers, dished out by those more powerful than their targets by virtue of size, age, numbers, status, money, race, or other characteristics. It's not a debate, argument, or difference of opinion. It's an act of aggression intended to do harm.
"Kids who have been bullied have different facial expressions," says Snyder. "They look humiliated, devastated. That's not the result of conflict between people of equal power who merely have a disagreement."
Victims, by virtue of their age, aren't often equipped to let the impact of these incidents roll off their shoulders, she says. "Students don't have the life experience to know that this is going to change, that it won't always be like this."
Studies show that bullying often causes depression, further isolation, absenteeism, an aversion to risk-taking, and poor academic performance. Most of the time, the victim can't handle the problem without help. Another major myth – portrayed endlessly on film and television – is that standing up to the bully is an effective strategy, say experts.
For one thing, the bully usually has the advantage in size or numbers. For another, contrary to popular wisdom, bullies are usually not dummies suffering from low self-esteem. Studies show that bullies tend to have above-average intelligence and an excess of self-regard. They view themselves as entitled, an inadvertent outgrowth, says Stan Davis, an antibullying consultant in Maine, of a culture that stresses every person's specialness and uniqueness while perhaps giving short shrift to empathy. "We need to emphasize similarity," Mr. Davis says, "not uniqueness."
Expecting the targets of bullying to deal with it on their own – either by fighting back, ignoring it, or trying to appeal to the bully's sympathy, are not effective strategies and is unfair to the victim, says Davis. "You're basically telling the kid, 'Not only are you being mistreated, but it's your fault.' "
Increasingly, school systems – with the support of the Obama Department of Education – are turning to comprehensive, ongoing programs designed to improve overall school climate. The key to such programs, experts say, are school-specific surveys of students and staff to determine what is happening within that particular school and to devise a school-specific plan for addressing the problems.
In education circles, school climate refers to many factors seen as contributing to a positive learning environment: tolerance for differences, physical facilities, trust and respect among students and teachers, openness to ideas, presence of drugs and gangs. And the amount of bullying.
Many of the overall strategies for improving school climate – for instance, teaching empathy for all, no matter their differences or characteristics, and promoting open communications between students and adults – are seen as helpful in combating bullying. But experts counsel a number of strategies specific to bullying.
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Most important is that teachers and administrators take reports of bullying seriously rather than as something kids simply have to work through on their own. "Where bullying is bad," says Davis, "is in places where the culture has become horribly polluted, where people have been taught to accept an almost Darwinian system, that there will always be a pecking order, and there's not much you can do about it."
And most bullying experts list four other elements of an effective strategy. First, that adults must intervene on behalf of the bullying targets. Surveys show that students feel the most effective actions taken to address bullying occur when adults are involved. This includes physical presence – more adult eyes in places where bullying most often happens, such as bathrooms, hallways, and parking lots – and vigorous response when incidents occur.
Also important, says Davis, is "to get kids to understand that acting on behalf of others is a socially useful function rather than tattling." Bullying occurs where adults aren't watching, which means that student bystanders must be prepared to intervene.
Consistent and fair enforcement of those caught bullying is another strategy. And key to it, says Davis, is that it not be based on the intentions of the bully: "Punishment should not be based on who you are or whether people think you meant it. The point is, you did this and it had this effect."
Experts agree that to really have an impact, antibullying training must be continuous and involve the entire school community – administrators, students, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers.
"Schools have a tendency to put in a year and then think that it is done," says Snyder. "But you have to make a commitment to do this year after year, because kids change, parents change, teachers change. You don't have a consistent school climate change unless you have a comprehensive program to identify school bullying and how to prevent it year after year."
But those programs cost money, and many fear that improving school climate will be a luxury that many systems will determine they can't afford.
Those programs, though, have had a measurable effect. Surveys show that incidents of physical bullying are lessening across the country. At the same time, cyberbullying is rising, particularly among girls. It's easy to see why. Experts say technology removes inhibitions and cushions the perpetrator from the consequences of his or her actions.
"People whose empathy would deter them if they could see the pain in the other person's face, feel emboldened to do it when they cannot see that person's face," says Davis. "And in an instant, they can spread that damage across their entire electronic contact list."
Often cyberbullying is beyond the reach of schools, but, says Patti Agatston, an antibullying counselor in Cobb County, Ga., and creator of cyberbullying curriculum, says school programs should make clear that it is still bullying even when it isn't face to face: "We have to educate kids [so they know that] the way we treat each other on the Internet can be bullying." In some ways, she says, virtual bullying can be even worse. With face-to-face bullying, you can at least leave it behind when you go home. Not so with Internet bullying. Plus, the taunting from a bully on the Web can be witnessed by so many more than in a physical setting.
Like face-to-face bullying, cyberbullying often targets those who are different. Smaller kids. Minorities. Heavy-set kids. Kids with disabilities.
"My son had a little bit of a speech problem," says Mrs. Thomas, whose son Joey was harassed all through high school. Joey's words would come out slurry, almost as though he were drunk. He was also barely 5'3", had a bad case of acne, and was, by his own description, a bit of a goofball. All of that made fodder for taunting and worse – pushing and punching. "I had a lot of anger, hate, and depression," says Joey, now 20. "It made me think, 'Why am I even here?' " He thought about suicide.
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Tyler Lee Long also was different. As a young child he lagged far behind others in starting to talk and walk. In elementary school, he didn't make eye contact, hated to be touched, and was unable to connect with other kids. And he insisted on certain set routines. "At 3, he wouldn't eat anything but Burger King chicken and limeade Gatorade," says Mr. Long, a manager with a carpet manufacturer. "It got so every day we'd pull up to the window and they'd say, 'The usual, Mr. Long?' "
In sixth grade, Tyler was diagnosed with Asperger's Disorder, a milder form of autism. His cognitive abilities were normal – he took honors and AP classes in high school – but social interaction seemed beyond him. At the time of his death, his mother, Tina, a nurse, says he had no real friends, only virtual ones encountered on the Web. He enjoyed fishing, golf, and karate. "Karate is very structured, very literal, very ritualized," says Mrs. Long. "It fit in with the way he thought." And unlike at school, she says, the karate teacher wouldn't stand for kids picking on one another.
The bullying started at the end of fifth grade, Mrs. Long says, when a kid started taunting Tyler and pushing him around. From then on, it was almost ceaseless name-calling and shoving, she says.
Mrs. Long complained to teachers, administrators, and counselors in the middle school and high school. Some years they weren't responsive, she says, some years they were. In the seventh grade, a teacher was assigned to walk Tyler to the bus and through the halls, and to sit with him in the cafeteria.
Mrs. Long hoped that the bullying would lessen in high school, that the kids would mature out of it. What she found, she says, was that "they were sneakier."
The bullying merely intensified. Tyler's brother Troy and sister Teryn – twins two years younger than Tyler – often witnessed the episodes on the bus they shared. They tried to intervene. Sometimes it helped, but never for long. Neither, says their mother, did the complaints to school officials.
"The school would respond to Tyler and to us, 'Oh, they didn't mean it,' " says Mrs. Long.
" 'Boys will be boys,' " Mr. Long adds.
"Or, 'He just took it the wrong way,' " says Mrs. Long. If there was an antibullying program, she notes, "I was not aware of it."
At the beginning of his sophomore year, according to the Longs' lawsuit, Tyler was pushed down a flight of stairs. The suit claims the school took no action to punish the perpetrators or protect Tyler.
The bullying continued, but Tyler was less inclined to tell his parents. He was embarrassed, and he also no longer wanted his parents to try to intervene. "The more you call up there," he told his mother, "the worse it is for me."
But the bullying continued anyway. On. Oct. 15, last year, according to the lawsuit, a student taunted Tyler and chased him around a music class while the teacher was out of the room. The next day, the abuse resumed, and later, a student pushed Tyler's head into a locker. Another student spat in his food and told him to "hang himself." The harassment continued on the bus home that night, even after Tyler moved to the back to avoid his tormenters.
In its answer to the Longs' lawsuit, the Murray County School District denies that Tyler had been "constantly bullied" and takes issue with virtually all of the specific allegations in the complaint. "[N]o 'brutal and systemic pattern of bullying' of Tyler Long occurred," the school system says, reprising language from the Longs' lawsuit.
A police investigation also did not substantiate any of the specific allegations of bullying in Tyler's last days, and the Chatsworth Police Department chose not to file criminal charges.
The conflict sets up the probability that numerous teenagers will find themselves on the witness stand if the case reaches trial. Winston Briggs, the Longs' Atlanta attorney, insists that their testimony will resonate in schools across the country: "There's no question that this case and this issue has national implications and could reach a national audience and should reach a national audience so this type of tragedy is averted by some other family."
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If Tyler had been bullied in mid-October, his parents say they didn't know it at the time. By then Tyler no longer wanted them to know what was happening. Everyone went to bed as usual that Friday night, Oct. 16. Early the next morning, the cat woke up Mr. Long to be let out. As he always did, he poked his head into the kids' rooms to make sure they were all right. Tyler wasn't in bed. Alarmed, he stepped into the room and saw his son slumped in the closet. He began screaming.
All of Tyler's furniture has been moved out of the room, which is now an office. A large photograph of Tyler in his ROTC uniform looks over his former bedroom.
The room and the house were a sanctuary for Tyler, the place he felt safe and knew he was accepted. As for not having any real friends, Mrs. Long says, it didn't seem to bother him. "He didn't mind being alone. It was OK with him."
But the bullying that he perceived was not. He couldn't bear it, and he couldn't stop it, so he chose what he thought was his only option, she says.
"This," says his mother, "was his way of having peace."