Early in September, a 13-year-old middle-schooler committed suicide while on campus. Wendell Middle School released the students due to a “medical crisis,” and all the students went home. All except Austin Pendergrass, who died that day.
Austin’s mother talked with the media about how Austin was “a victim of bullying at school.”
As I read this, a mental image of Butch in the “Our Gang” comedies came to mind. Butch was the stereotypical schoolyard bully. Hat askew. Scowl on face. Butch took winning through intimidation to a new level.
A little shoving. A little pushing around. A little verbal assault. Put downs. Embarrassment. Teasing. Lies spread.
Bullies do their work unashamedly, because the warp of the bully is that by putting you down “I look like the big guy.”
The other thing I thought when I read Austin’s story is that those who were doing the bullying knew who they were. Their parents likely knew who they were. And all those people have to live with the consequence of Austin’s death for the rest of their lives. Bullies never win in the long run.
AARP, in its September 2022 issue, wrote a piece about the scope of the crisis of young people who are at risk in a “system designed to support them that is in tatters.” America’s young people live with such anxiety, depression, and bullying, that suicide has become the second-leading cause of death in people 10 to 18 years old.
Bullies walk among us. Everyone of us likely has been bullied in one way or another. The problem is not just on the playground anymore. We carry the problem around on our iPhones and laptops. It’s hard to get away from the bully. Denigration of the tender spirits among us is a cheap shot when done in the relative anonymity of Snap Chat and Instagram.
The pandemic exacerbated the situation. Kids were doing school online at home. Some of them forgot social skills. Having had children and grandchildren, even when they are all in school, form exclusive groups. They ice out the people they don’t like. It’s like “Mean Girls,” if you have ever seen that play. The head mean girl finds hanger-on-ers and off they go to the game of torturing.
I remember one time in my life at school. I was elected to something another person wanted and did not get. She stomped into the room where I was and proceeded to chew me out. She was a bully, and I was silent in her attack. For all that, I was still the one elected, and she embarrassed herself before a whole classroom of her peers. Sweet justice. But this instance points out that person-on-person bullying reveals the weakness of the bully. The bully who hides online is more insidious.
The AARP article suggests that “we have essentially given every kid a self-destruct-o device.” Social media “amplifies anxieties, nearly normalizing suicide.” The article points out that sometimes social media helps people feel better. Young people “find it a place to talk about mental health.” Following that discussion was acknowledgment that we have a serious mental health crisis among American kids.
The article heads a section titled, “Nowhere to Turn.” It’s the same old story, no resources, fewer residential treatment centers, fewer guidance counselors in schools. AARP quotes a statistic. “Of the estimated 4.1 million adolescents who suffered an episode of major depression in 2020, 58.4% received no treatment. Among the 2.9 million whose depression resulted in ‘severe impairment,’ 53.1% of those kids went untreated.” Some of our most recent young shooters were 18. Somewhere there is connection between bullying and harassment and violence – either to self or to others.
Jo Ann Jenkins says in the article, “Legislation can change this. The proposed Platform Accountability Act would allow researchers to get insight into how social media algorithms operate, as well as how they target our kids.” Accountability plays a role in every aspect of this story. We are accountable for the most vulnerable among us. We are accountable for knowing who our children interact with. We need to know what is on their phones and watch platforms like Facebook and Instagram enough to see if harassment and intimidation are happening to your kids.
There are federal and state laws that address bullying in schools. Most school districts have helpful policy statements. Wake County Public Schools has a whole section devoted to helps regarding bullying, signs to watch for and how to report. Their statement is that there is no room for bullying in Wake County. Information, awareness and enforcement of existing policies are the work on our end, we who are parents, teachers, and administrators.
Unchecked bullies don’t just cease and desist on their own. If they perceive that bullying is a way of winning, they grow up with a reinforced notion that they can push people around, push people out. We see that in some of the high-profile bullies around us. Doug Ducey, governor of Arizona said it like this: “Being bullies is not the path.” Those to whom he was speaking shall remain nameless, but we all know who they are.
I don’t know the Pendergrass family, but I know that they, and many other families around our state, have an empty seat at the dinner table because we can’t figure out how to address this issue. May tender souls who become victims of the cruelty of the bully find healing and peace.
Lib Campbell is a retired Methodist pastor, retreat leader and hosts the website: avirtualchurch.com. She welcomes comments at email@example.com.