by Sue Ann Rybak
Bailey O’Neill, 12, who was an honor student at Darby Township School in Upper Darby, died March 4 after an alleged bullying incident at his school. According to numerous news reports, on Jan. 10, Bailey was jumped by two classmates, one of whom hit him in the face numerous times, fracturing his nose. His father, Rob O’Neill, said that after the vicious beating Bailey began having seizures that got worse and worse. Finally he wound up in a medically-induced coma and then died. The horrific incident is being investigated by authorities, although no one has been arrested as of this writing.
Tragedies like this one are the reason about 100 parents, students, alumni and faculty gathered in Yarnell Auditorium at Germantown Friends School (GFS), 31 W. Coulter St., on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 24, to hear GFS alum Emily Bazelon discuss the pain of bullying in her new book “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.”
Bazelon graduated from GFS in 1989 and grew up in East Falls, where her parents still live. One of her sister’s children now attends GFS. She is an accomplished journalist — senior editor at Slate, regular contributor to the New York Times magazine and a Truman Capote Fellow for Creative Writing and Law at Yale Law School. Her 2010 Slate coverage of the aftermath of the suicide of bullying victim Phoebe Prince was the basis for “Sticks and Stones.”
According to stopbullying.gov, bullying is “repeated, unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally and excluding someone from a group on purpose.”
Almost everyone has had some experience with bullying; we have either been bullies, victims of bullying or bystanders to bullying. Bazelon recalled getting “fired” from her friends in eighth grade at GFS. “I had a group of close friends, and as girls that age often do, they turned on me,” said the author. “I think this is a way in which girls have a tendency to use friendships against people. It was a pretty painful moment, and I spent a lot of time crying. One of the things my parents did that was really helpful is that they really listened to me about it. It helped me feel like I wouldn’t be hated forever.”
Her parents also encouraged her to find new friends, an idea she opposed at the time. “It was a good lesson because the new friend I made that year is someone I have stayed friends with for life,” Bazelon said.
Contrary to what many of us might think, Bazelon insists that bullying is not on the rise, although it is not receding either. “When you look at studies in several countries in the last 25 years,” she said, “it’s pretty steadily held that between 20 percent to 25 percent of kids are involved in bullying as victims, bullies or bystanders.”
She believes, however, that the media often reports these cases only from one point of view. Bazelon used the example of Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts high school student whose suicide by hanging was linked to bullying. The local district attorney eventually brought charges against nine teenagers in the case. Two boys, 17 and 18, were charged with statutory rape. Several girls were charged with a range of crimes including criminal harassment, assault, stalking and civil rights violations.
“In reporting the story (in her new book) my goal was not to blame Phoebe or her family in any way for what had happened. It was just to understand the whole dynamic … No one seemed to be thinking about what was happening to them (the bullies) as a result of all this.
“To me the story sort of stands with the narrative which implies that a few kids essentially killed another child. And as bad as bullying can be and while I do think it was a trigger for what happened that day, it’s also a dangerous oversimplification. And all the attention on bullying meant there was never a real conversation about what mental health services should had been available, suicide prevention or whether adults had missed warning signs…
“On social media sites, they (bullies) are in a position to do a lot of damage thoughtlessly. There are a lot of kids who are lashing out without understanding what they are doing. They are not in a face-to-face situation where they might be more likely to moderate what they are doing based on someone’s reaction. They may have a real sense of anonymity depending on what site they’re on.”
Bazelon said schools should create a culture where it is not acceptable to bully. “It doesn’t mean you eliminate it forever, but there are some schools where you clearly advance by being really mean … Some of the kids may have even regretted it. but they also wanted to be ‘powerful people.’”
It is also crucial to form relationships between adults and students; in one recent survey kids were asked if they had ever told an adult when they were bullied. Most said no. “It’s hard,” Bazelon said. “My 13-year-old son does not want me looking over his shoulder, but I feel like when he first gets on these sites I want to walk him through it. This is a new mode of communication, and I don’t want to just set him loose in the same way that I would not open the door at midnight and tell him to go for a walk.”
Bazelon has been very disappointed with social media companies like Facebook and their failure to monitor kids’ behavior. “Companies like Facebook set the default settings for kids, which means that you share everything you write not only with your friends but also with their friends, and for teenagers that can easily be a few thousand people … Kids are really being encouraged to habituate themselves to this widespread sharing and loss of privacy. That has a link to how bullying plays out and how easily a moment of cruelty can go viral.”
Studies show that kids intervene by standing up to the bullies only about 20 percent of the time, but when they do step up, they stop the bullying half the time. “You can also go up to the victim afterwards or send them a text message,” Bazelon said. “You don’t have to decide to be their best friend to make a huge difference for them.”
For more information about her book, visit emilybazelon.com/books/sticks-and-stones/