One of the most striking images of the fight for racial equality in the United States occurred in Arkansas in 1957, when the group of Black children known as the Little Rock Nine entered the all-White Little Rock Central High School as students breaking the barrier in a racially segregated school system. Flanked by federal troops, the students were escorted into the school past raging, racist protesters. Bullying on steroids, if you will.
Once inside the school, they were targeted daily by other students intent on carrying out mental, emotional and physical acts of violence.
The bullying these students experienced resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder for at least one, 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford who, for years after, suffered a lost life including twice attempting suicide. Her reaction is not uncommon. As fallout from her trauma, one of her two children was fatally shot. Eckford characterized her son’s death as ‘suicide by cop’.
Consider taunting, abuse and ongoing aggressive behaviour directed toward someone based on that person’s race as one more aspect of bullying. Consider that the effects of this anti-social behaviour can be lifelong, both for those who are targets and, let’s not forget, those who are bullies.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford in declaring this week Bullying Awareness Week acknowledged that as a youngster he was the target of aggression because of his weight. Of being bullied, Ford recounted, “It bothers you,” and “it’s not good growing up”. That is an understatement about the reach of the resulting trauma in the lives of many others.
The Little Rock Nine experienced bullying during school hours, but the reach of bullies today extends into social media, an electronic record in cyberspace that can be accessed day or night, and remains for all time. So, while sticks and stones can break bones, cyber-bullying can lead to permanent emotional damage or suicide.
Educators are being trained in how to make students aware of what constitutes bullying and in creating classrooms where students learn to treat each other with respect by practicing respectful language in their conversations with each other and learning appreciation of differences. This work has to be ongoing.
Work also has to be done to protect students when bullying crosses the line from taunting and name-calling into escalated intimidation that common sense says is criminal behaviour.
There are already laws in place to prosecute assault, criminal harassment, stalking and threats. They do not, however, broadly apply to juveniles.
There has been some public discussion about renaming bullying acts and to criminalize them under strict criteria. However, there is also the concern that this could mean a return to the ‘Zero Tolerance’ days of the Mike Harris era when Black students attending schools across the Greater Toronto Area were expelled in droves for the kind of transgressions that White students frequently got away with. Yet, for the sake of all students, the supervising institutions must not look the other way and leave it up to one or two news cycles to carry the weight of this life-threatening problem.
We know that it must be tackled among the young because bullying behaviour does not end at high school. Ford himself has been called a bully. And, certainly, after passing legislation to freeze teachers’ wages and to prevent them from striking, Ontario’s Liberal government has been accused by the teachers’ unions of bully tactics in the contract negotiations currently taking place.
How can we help? Young people must be given the tools to respond to bullying should it arise, whether they are the target or observers of bullying. They must also be assured that parents, teachers and the justice system will stand up for them. On the other side of the problem, this anti-social behaviour must be curtailed with the aim to create remediating outlets for the anger or aggression that goes along with bullying, because bullies also need to be protected from themselves. Unchecked, their coping skills are carried into the adult world, in the workplace and within homes.
And let’s not forget highway bullying. That too can be fatal.