WILLIAMSVILLE, N.Y. — There was a time when officials and faculty members in schools across America bracing for the annual after summer break of their students worried about seemingly inconsequential issues.
The litany of concerns rattled off by one educator included having enough text books or locker assignments or getting their charges refocused on learning instead of horseplay and letting off steam. Now it seems, according to a high school teacher in the western New York township of Williamsville, who asked to remain anonymous, preventing adolescent death by suicide due to extreme bullying seems to be the prevalent challenge.
In the past several years an alarming trend surfaced into the national consciousness as parents, teachers, and elected officials are confronting what the U.S. Centers For Disease Control in Atlanta has termed a pandemic — adolescent and young adults killing themselves after enduring episodes of severe bullying. The victims come from every walk of life, socioeconomic, and ethnic background, but in a majority of the cases, they all share one common denominator, they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer questioning.
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On Sunday, Sept. 18, bullying claimed another life as a 14-year-old Williamsville teen, struggling with his sexuality, ended his torment with his death by suicide.
Jamey Rodemeyer’s grief stricken father Tim told a local television reporter, “To the kids who are bullying, they have to realize that words are very powerful and what you think is just fun and games isn’t to some people, and you are destroying a lot of lives. And I would say to all the other kids, if you see bullying happening, you need to rally for your friends and gang up on the bullies and tell them they’re wrong, to stop it.”
Jamey’s high school in the Williamsville School District refused to publicly comment, but did send home a letter to parents announcing Jamey’s death and information about grief counseling.
The Williamsville North High School teacher circumspectly noted that lack of acceptance of LGBTQ youth by their peers along with a lack of a more proactive and aggressive stance by officials to address bullying contributed to an atmosphere that led Jamey to see no hope in escaping what has become a highly toxic environment.
The problem of addressing bullying goes beyond the classroom according to the faculty member stating that social media sites such as Facebook and blogs such as the Tumblr blog that young Jamey published, share equally in the blame. There are absolutely no restraints in place to stave off inappropriate behaviors by users who more often than not are anonymous leaving cruel remarks and epithets in the comments of these sites directed at the victims.
“These kids are impressionable, immature, and ill equipped to deal with such raw naked hatred directed at them solely because they are gay or lesbian,” the teacher said. “Especially with blogs, there are no means in place to identify and cutoff the culprits or even to ban them.”
Pointing out that Facebook, which has become a monolithic presence in American culture, does not itself have means to take action immediately against bullying behaviors. Nor does Facebook have a means by immediate access to which its users can report bullies other than by filling out a form on the Facebook Help Center page.
“Teenagers live in the moment — there really is not a ‘future tense’ to them, its a state of immediacy.” the teacher said. “Convincing them to not act impulsively takes constant monitoring by parents and schools. These children cannot cope with bullies-there’s no escape, no retreat. This is a huge problem with them being so connected to each other with technology.”
The Gay and Lesbian Youth Services of Western New York’s executive director, Marvin Henchbarger, tells LGBTQ Nation that the responsibility for bullying prevention rests entirely with adults.
Henchbarger notes that until they turn 18 and move out, children need to have parents monitoring them at every stage of their development-especially their use of technology and particularly their kids on-line use.
“How many parents truly know what their kids are doing online? This is not a privacy issue at all, it is holding parents and children accountable for their actions,” she said.
Henchbarger points out that kids that are being bullied because they are perceived as being different by their peer groups, emphasizing that it was not solely queer youth coming under fire.
She remarked that until adults learn to quit pointing fingers in blame, instead work together sending a positive message to kids that they have value, she cautions these needless deaths will continue.
“Adults need to put a stop to “hurt words” when they hear them or see them. Stop the use of ‘That’s so gay’ or similar expressions teaching kids that words can in fact lead to deaths.
Adults need to realize that kids do not automatically or intuitively understand that adults may know about bullying and circumstances and need to question their children, looking for the signs of bullying- especially if their child suddenly becomes withdrawn or loses interest in favorite activities,” she said.
Henchbarger told LGBTQ Nation that in her opinion, the focus should be on all kids, not just solely LGBTQ kids, and that awareness must be focused on the solving the problem of bullying. She reiterated that parents need to find out what their kids are doing on their computers, cell phones, and work with their local schools to keep sending the message to young people that they care.
Former Buffalo resident, Nicholas Hirsch, wrote in the comments section of the Buffalo News‘ article about Jamey Rodemeyer’s death:
I have written about this elsewhere, but feel compelled to join the conversation. I grew up in Buffalo; I was fourteen, gay, and frustrated. I was bullied, too, and it scares me how much this story is my own. The sad truth is that I was lucky. The truth is that people around this boy were complicit. This was allowed to happen, and it’s not going to stop until people start holding themselves accountable for the stupid prejudices that are passed on to their children, until people stop pretending that bullying isn’t a serious problem that kills, and until people take control of their own actions.
I promise, you know a child who is being bullied, and you know a child who is a bully. These are both conditions, and they are both in need of guidance, love and understanding. No one stops being a bully without being called on it, and no one survives without hope. Bullies are not jealous; they are convinced of their own superiority, and their right to be cruel. Victims are not just “picked on”, they are made to feel like they have no place in this world, and without some countervailing force, the result is this.
Changing laws won’t do a thing if individuals don’t step up and do their part. If you know a child who is being bullied, help them. If you know a child who is bullying, stop them. Explain the significance of actions, and don’t soften it with platitudes. Children are only ever as safe as we make them, and assuming that it is someone else’s problem will only ever make it worse. You are the only one who can decide to be a positive influence on a child’s life, and people need to know that they are directly responsible for the well-being of those around them. This is what it means to be a human being.
“For youth between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death,” according to the Centers for Disease Control. Further, more young people survive suicide attempts than actually die. “Each year, approximately 149,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 receive medical care for self-inflicted injuries at Emergency Departments across the U.S.”
“Suicide is a serious public health problem that can have lasting harmful effects on individuals, families, and communities,” the CDC advises.
Warning signs of suicide:
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain;
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose;
- Talking about being a burden to others;
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs;
- Acting anxious, agitated or reckless;
- Sleeping too little or too much;
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated;
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge;
- Displaying extreme mood swings;
- Looking for a way to kill oneself;
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide:
- Do not leave the person alone;
- Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt;
- Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional;
Editor’s Note: Gay and Lesbian Youth Services of Western New York is located at 371 Delaware Avenue in downtown Buffalo and provides a safe place and a strong support system for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and questioning youth. You can contact Gay and Lesbian Youth Services by calling (716) 855-0221 or through their website. Other support numbers for youth include the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 and the Suicide Hotline at 1-800-784-8433.