CNN special hosts bullying victims, experts on campus
Kyle, a student in the Anoka-Hennepin, Minn., School District, was urinated on in a school bathroom.
Damien, a straight student in the same district who has two gay parents and is on the gymnastics team, would often hear gay slurs when walking down the halls.
Dylan, who has been called a “he-she,” felt so harassed that he chose to be home-schooled.
“Kids made me feel like the grossest kid in the world,” Dylan said.
These were a few stories told during last night’s CNN special report on bullying, hosted by CNN reporter Anderson Cooper and filmed before an audience of University students, faculty and staff in the Livingston Student Center.
The “Anderson Cooper 360° Town Hall” conversation, “Bullying: It Stops Here,” was taped last week and included commentary on bullying from expert Rosalind Wiseman, Dr. Phil McGraw, talk-show host and mother of three Kelly Ripa and actress Jane Lynch, who is also raising a daughter.
It also featured clips from director Lee Hirsh’s eye-opening documentary on the subject, “The Bully Project,” which follows bullies, their victims, the affected families and the school’s response to the bullying claims — or lack thereof.
“It didn’t surprise me, and I think the scary part is that it didn’t surprise a lot of people,” Hirsh said of the prevalence of aggression in schools and inaction by administrators his documentary revealed.
CNN and sociologist Robert Faris of the University of California confirmed Hirsh’s claim in a study that interviewed 700 students from the Wheatley School on Long Island, N.Y., on aggression in their school.
The results showed that 65 percent were aggressors, victims or both. Meanwhile, 80 percent of incidents were never reported to adults, and no one intervened in incidents 77 percent of the time.
“We’ve uncovered some larger problems,” Faris said.
One major point the study revealed was that bullies — also called aggressors — are often also victims. They also use aggressive bullying behavior as a means to climb the social ladder, a technique called “social combat,” he said.
Wheatley’s Principal Sean Feeney, who has worked in a number of school districts with different economic and cultural climates, said he was surprised by the results but knows it is an issue not confined to his school.
“Kids are kids are kids, and unfortunately these sorts of dynamics occur in all places,” he said, adding that this does not excuse this behavior.
The study also revealed the dynamic of the intervener role, or the person who jumps in to stop aggressive acts, in the bullying cycle. Faris said the key is to gain more interveners to change student’s behavior.
“If you are friends with someone who is an intervener, you are more likely to intervene the next time,” he said.
Cooper said research also shows that bullying often does not work in improving one’s social status.
“By and large it’s true … it’s not working. Even more surprising, [aggressive behavior] increases the anxiety and depression the bullies themselves experience,” Faris said.
He said other students are often not impressed by overly aggressive behavior, and there are other ways to excel.
Ultimately, the experts said prevention comes down to teachers, administrators and parents.
McGraw and Wiseman said they would give legislators and administrators a low grade for lack of execution of tougher laws on bullying. Many do not have the resources to address the students’ concerns.
McGraw believes society should implement social skills training for both bullies and victims.
“[We need to] make it as much a part of the students’ day as history and math and science,” he said.
In the Anoka-Hennepin school district, which is Minnesota’s largest and under federal investigation for a string of suicides because of anti-gay harassment, teachers are not allowed to discuss homosexuality. In response to CNN, the superintendent of the district said it is because of the community’s split view on homosexuality.
Kyle, Damien and Dylan said they try to talk about their issues with teachers, counselors and administrators, but they often leave with the problem unresolved.
“I think if people understood what we’re going through … and if they would just listen to us speak and just meet us before they jump to conclusions, maybe this wouldn’t happen,” Kyle said.
School of Arts and Sciences junior Eric Thor, who attended last week’s taping, said the show was done well, but was disappointed with the lack of discussion on bullying in the transgender community.
“They didn’t mention trans [people] ever,” Thor said.
Thor also hoped to see more focus on the University but thinks the show will portray the University positively.
“I think it definitely puts us in a lot better light than last year,” Thor said. “Not equal, but close enough.”
CNN chose to host the program at the University after the almost one-year anniversary of the suicide of Tyler Clementi, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge when his roommate put his life on the Internet within his first month at college, Cooper said.
Maurice Elias, a University professor in the Department of Psychology, commented during the show.
“Rutgers has always valued the diversity of our student body, so what happened with Tyler was a tragedy and an incredible shock to us,” he said.
Since then, in addition to making more resources available for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, the University started a new program called “Civic Engagement.” It gets students together to work for those less fortunate in the community, with the goal of heightening awareness.
Cooper said he hopes this program, sponsored also by Facebook and the Cartoon Network, will ensure that these stories are remembered and that solutions are found to end bullying.
“This is a problem for all of us that all of us have to solve together,” he said. “Let’s not let our kids down.”
Visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website at www.afsp.org, for more information about suicide prevention.