By Walter G. Meyer
November 24, 2011 (San Diego) -- How many people have been bullied at school? When Councilman Todd Gloria asked that question of adults during a screening of the film “Bullied” at Lestat’s West in Normal Heights, the vast majority raised their hands.
How do we reduce bullying and protect students from assault? Should bullies receive counseling instead of merely punishment? These were among the questions raised—and answered--at this event in which I participated as a speaker.
As the author of Rounding Third, a book addressing bullying problems, I proposed the event focused on bullying after attending discussion groups at other Community Film Series at Lestat’s hosted by Joe Vecchio. I introduced the movie and gave a presentation. Other speakers included Councilman Todd Gloria and San Diego School Board member Kevin Beiser, who was instrumental in getting the school district to pass a comprehensive anti-bullying policy.
Because my novel deals with that timely topic, I have received numerous requests to speak and write about the bullying crisis. East County Magazine reviewed Rounding Third when it was first published: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/2580. In March, I was asked to speak at Arizona State University and as part of that evening’s events, I was asked to introduce “Bullied” and to lead the discussion afterward.
I hadn’t seen the movie before, but in Rounding Third I had unknowingly made reference to the landmark legal case that the film documents. In the novel, which was published in 2009, I had presaged many aspects of the bullying crisis.
One of the teens who gets bullied in the book is told, “It gets better,” by a nurse who treats him after the young man’s suicide attempt. This foreshadowed the “It Gets Better” video campaign in which everyone from President Obama to major league baseball teams have participated. And in the book, a teacher who starts standing up for a victim of bullying tells the principal that although the administration may not care about protecting students, they do care about money and school districts have been sued for failing to protect their students. When I wrote that, I didn’t know the specifics covered in the case, chronicled in the movie.
Seeing the strong show of hands from audience members who had been bullied during their school years, Gloria said it was unacceptable that so many had suffered such torment and that we had to change the climate in our schools so that they’d be a safe environment for all students. Beiser said he was very happy that Gloria attended because it helps create “a united front” of government, schools, and the community uniting to stop bullying.
Beiser said one of the obstacles the District is working to overcome is the outdated notion that “boys will be boys” and that fights and bullying are an inevitable part of school. He has pushed for a policy that treats hitting or kicking another student as what it is: assault.
In Rounding Third there is a scene where a teacher asks police officers, who have been summoned to arrest students for attacking another student, if there is something in the law that excuses assault if it happens on school grounds. They answer that of course there is not.
Beiser also said that a key component of the San Diego policy, which is often lacking in other guidelines, is to provide counseling for the bully. Often when teachers or administrators sit down with the bully, they find out that he is simply replicating the violent behavior he encounters at home.
In the film “Bullied,” one of the main bullies ends up in jail because clearly his own upbringing is lacking in proper guidance and support. By counseling rather than punishing the bully, educators can often get to the root of the problem. Too often, the bully is only punished then blames the victim for the punishment, which leads the bully to attack the victim again. As one audience member said, recalling a teenage experience, telling the school authorities made things worse, not better.
Beiser is pushing the school district to have an 800-number for both victims and students who witness bullying to make anonymous reports of incidents. Some schools, such as the one at which Beiser teaches in National City, are not waiting for the 800 number, but have established their own hotlines for taking reports.
I counted 45 people at the event, only a few of whom I knew. It was gratifying to have so many turn out to learn more about the issue and I was honored to have Gloria praise my anti-bullying efforts and my book. Many in attendance identified themselves as teachers and some were actually taking notes during the event.
I am pleased to do my part to educate the public about this problem. I don’t think anyone should have to endure what I, the guy in the documentary, and so many others had to endure at school every day. The more awareness we can create, the better we can educate the public (parents, students, teachers, and the community at large) about the issue and what can be done to stop it.
It breaks my heart every time I read that another young person has taken his or her own life because he or she just couldn’t bear to go to school and face the horrors another day. At the event, I mentioned the British mathematician, Alan Turing, who was badgered into suicide for being gay--one of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century killed off by ignorance. How many other brilliant minds are we losing? Tyler Clementi was on his way to becoming a talented musician when his life was cut short.
After one speaking engagement earlier this year, someone offered what has too long been the attitude: we just need to teach our kids to fight. We need to “toughen them up for the real world.” I asked what real world he was talking about. In the real world if you punch or kick someone, you get arrested. If you wrote a racist or homophobic slur on a co-worker’s desk, in the real world you’d get fired.
Last month I spoke at State University of New York in Jamestown after a teen killed himself in nearby Buffalo. As long as these tragedies continue to occur, I will continue to use my book as the vehicle by which I can address the issue.
Walter G. Meyer is the author of the award-winning and critically acclaimed novel Rounding Third and a contributor to ECM. You can contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org