Bringing Down Bullies: It Takes All of Us
“If you could have any last words or conversation with your child, what would it be,” I asked Kirk Smalley.
As he let out a heavy sigh, a tear came rolling down his face and he answered, “There are no words.”
Kirk says that there isn’t a day that has gone by that he doesn’t think about his son, Ty Smalley, who took his own life on May 13, 2010. Since Ty’s death, Kirk and his wife Laura have marked the thirteenth of each month with increased sadness and grief.
Ty, a fifth grader from Perkins, OK, had been tormented for years by other children because of his size.
“Ty was a sixth grader who had a body of a fourth grader,” Smalley said.
A group of kids had been bullying Ty for a number of years and, even though Laura Smalley tried countless times to get the school administration to do something about the problem, nothing was ever done.
Finally, Ty decided that he would stand up for himself, and he lashed out at one of the bullies, scratching the boy’s arm. Ty’s punishment for fighting was to be suspended.
“Of course the one who retaliates and stands up for himself is the one who gets caught,” Kirk said.
The day that Ty took his life, he and his mom were talking about going fishing and doing other things that they enjoyed together. While the Smalleys knew that Ty was upset about being suspended, they had no indication that Ty was considering such drastic measures.
Ty decided that he had had enough after his expulsion from school, and committed suicide with a gun in his own home. Ty was only 11 years old. That day was the start of Kirk and Laura’s worst nightmare.
Ty’s actions are not unusual. According to a study done by researchers at Yale University, kids who are bullied are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims.
Why Kids Bully
Ty was bullied because of his small size, but children are bullied for a variety of other reasons, such as their age, physical or cognitive disabilities, sexual orientation, religion or race. Sometimes, there’s no apparent reason for a child being bullied.
Reasons that children bully are many. Steve Hahn, primary prevention manager for The Parent Child Center of Tulsa, says that stress at home such as poverty and hunger can cause children to act out and bully other children.
“A lot of times kids bully other kids to feel powerful as well,” said Jacqueline Gallegos, coordinator and puppeteer for Kids on the Block, a bullying prevention program at The Parent Child Center.
Gallegos works with elementary age children to help them understand what bullying is, and to give them the skills they need to prevent them from becoming victims to aggressors.
“Don’t hand over your personal power,” she tells children, “because bullies look for easy targets.”
Ty’s tormentors saw an easy target in him because of his small size. “Children would cram him into lockers and trash cans, and he hated it,” Kirk said.
Hahn said that physical bullying such as Ty endured is often the result of aggressors who feel that they can easily hurt a smaller or less assertive person.
“If the [bullying] is in a physical situation,” Hahn said, “odds are very high that the reason a child is getting picked on is because he would get beaten up in a fight or physical altercation. There is no doubt in the mind of a bully that he can beat up the other child.”
While size can be the reason some children are bullied, others may be victimized because of their sexual orientation. Kelby Johnson, a 16-year-old from Tuttle, OK was one of the subjects in the recently released documentary “Bully.” The teen had a rough time throughout school because of her sexual orientation.
“I’ve been told that people don’t want to touch me,” she said.
As a result of the humiliation at school, Kelby became a cutter and tried to commit suicide three times.
According to bullyingstatistics.org, gay and lesbian teens are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than other youths. About 30 percent of all completed suicides have been related to teens that identify themselves as homosexuals. Students who are identified as gay are most typically likely to miss school because they feel unsafe after being bullied. About 28 percent out of those groups feel forced to drop out of school altogether.
Londa Johnson, Kelby’s mother, said she knew in her heart that her daughter was gay. Once Londa asked Kelby about her sexuality, Kelby started to cry while pleading with her mom to never stop loving her. Her mom as well as her dad could tell that Kelby was unhappy because of the hateful things people would say concerning her sexuality. Because of that, her dad asked Kelby if she wanted to move to a bigger city so they could get away from the negative remarks.
She simply replied, “No, because if I leave, then [the bullies] will win.”
Where once bullying was limited to classrooms and playgrounds, now technology has taken it to a new level. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as websites and smart phones that send texts and photos make it easier to bully. And, more often than not, the bully or bullies can remain anonymous.
According to cyber-bullying statistics from the i-SAFE foundation, over half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online, and about the same number have engaged in cyber-bullying.
Because bullying is so easy through technology, it takes strong commitment from parents, teachers and others who work with children to end it.
“You have to have the whole community to support you,” Gallegos said.
Although technology has caused bullying to spread, it has also helped make it easier to report bullying. Sites such as the Tulsa Public Schools website www.tulsaschools.org (click on the link “tips” under the Safe School button), allow students to anonymously report bullying, and have made it easier for children to access the help they need.
Tenna Whitsel, director of school counseling for Tulsa Public Schools (TPS), said that students can make a written report through the site, whether it’s about bullying or child abuse. The report is very effective, and there is only one other person besides Whitsel who has access to it.
The TPS bullying policy is also available on the website. Whether the bullying takes place at school or through cyber-bullying, TPS officials can and will take action against the bully. Parents and students alike should review their school’s policy on bullying.
“Whether it’s face-to- face bullying, cyber-bullying, or text message bullying, children can speak anonymously about anything if they just open their mouths,” Whitsel said.
How Schools Can Help
Gallegos said that there are techniques that schools and groups can use to help prevent bullying. Often, bullies will pick on weaker children or those who are different in some way. Teachers, counselors and school administrators can help students break down barriers by encouraging children to interact and get to know one another. By using some simple classroom activities, teachers can create a more cooperative, peaceful school atmosphere.
“Make kids sit in different spots in the classroom so they can get a chance to know everyone in their classroom,” Gallegos said. “Or spread the children out into different groups or give them special names such as all the ‘August’ people sit here, or all the ‘red’ people sit here. Or do some team building activities where the students all have to depend on each other to get the job done, and then they’ll start to learn that other kids really are ok and have feelings too.”
Gallegos and Whitsel both said that creating a diversion can be an effective way for children to stop bullying while it is happening.
“If you just stand there and watch, you’re helping the bully,” Gallegos said.
So instead of watching a child get tormented, bystanders can do something random to create a distraction.
For example, Gallegos said a student might yell, “Hey Jack! Come over here! We need another person on the basketball team!”
In this way, a child can stand up for another child without getting involved in an altercation.
When children understand what bullying is and how to advocate for themselves and their friends, they can speak out against it, which helps the environment of the entire school.
“What other kids can do is not stand there and be a bystander, but instead be an upstander,” Gallegos said.
How School Administrators Can Help
If students, teachers and administrators can learn ways to prevent and stop bullying behavior, the school environment can become a safe place rather than a place to be feared as it was for Ty Smalley and Kelby Johnson. Before Ty’s suicide, Laura Smalley tried to seek some type of help from Ty’s school counselor and principal. Unfortunately, the school did not take the bullying seriously, so the boy who bullied Ty continued to bully him. And, according to the Smalleys, he showed no sadness over Ty’s death and even expressed that he hoped Ty’s friend ended up the same way.
Kirk and Laura said that they were told on a daily basis by the principal was that “boys will be boys.” Now the couple is wishing they could turn back time and simply have their son back in their lives. Because school administrators didn’t follow bullying prevention policies to support Ty and his parents, Ty felt that his only recourse was to lash out at the bully.
Hahn says that having a policy in place and following through is the only way to end bullying. Ignoring the problem and hoping that it will go away or that children will sort it out by themselves doesn’t work.
“If we don’t have an intervention with children that bully others,” he said, “then they won’t grow out of it.”
Intervening in cases of bullying is not the only thing that educators can do. School officials and teachers need to learn about bullying prevention policies, and then make sure that students and parents also know those policies and the consequences of bullying.
“Some people in schools don’t even know their own policy,” Gallegos said. “You have to involve the community, school, classrooms and teachers. One person can’t do it all.”
School officials also need to take the time to listen to parents or students. What can seem like innocent behavior to adults may, in fact, be bullying if it is repeated day after day. And bullying doesn’t have to be physical. Social bullying, where a child is isolated or teased by his or her peers, is just as painful. If a child feels bullied, it’s important to listen to what he or she has to say, and to take action; otherwise, the child may come to feel that adults can’t be trusted and will take matters into his or her own hands.
Sometimes teachers and administrators participate in the bullying by becoming bystanders instead of “upstanders.” An example of this can be seen in the documentary “Bully” when the school’s principal makes no effort to stop a case of bullying. She seems to be listening to the parents’ complaints, but in response she tells them, “Those children [the bullies] are good as gold.”
Although some school officials don’t listen to parents, many others understand the serious nature of bullying and are working to create safe environments for students. Working for the TPS in a variety of capacities over the years, Whitsel feels strongly about ending bullying. She does not advocate fighting; instead she tells children to state their case, even if they are afraid, so someone can come to their rescue.
“Schools still can take action in any case,” she said. “If a child is afraid to tell a parent or teacher, he or she can anonymously report a case of bullying online. All written reports are anonymous.”
How Parents Can Help
According to the website www.thebullyproject.com, “Parents play a vital role in supporting their kids, promoting upstander rather than bystander behavior, and teaching and modeling empathy in the home.”
“Some kids are embarrassed to tell their parents that they are being bullied because they’re afraid that the parents are going to confront the other child’s parents,” Gallegos said.
In order to get kids to talk, parents can be proactive in their children’s lives, so that they’ll be more aware of changes in their children’s behavior if problems do arise.
“They can meet with teachers and ask about their observations,” Gallegos said. “They can get to know their children’s friends.”
Parents can establish a relationship where they listen to their children without judging them, and come up with solutions to problems together. Children will be more likely to talk if parents have listened to them in the past.
Parents, teachers and administrators can work together to help children who are having difficulties at school. When students see that parents believe in them and that teachers are working on their behalf to keep them safe, then the students learn to trust the adults in their lives.
Hahn said that if the teacher or parent doesn’t take action, then the child will believe, “I can’t trust an adult to help me. If I tell you, and you don’t do anything, then I’m not going to tell you anymore.”
Gallegos teaches children to keep speaking up for themselves even if no one, including an adult or friend, listens.
“If the first person you tell does nothing, then tell another one,” she said. “You keep telling your story until someone gives you some help, and don’t give up.”
“One of our initial responses is ‘don’t fight’,” Hahn said. “When we tell our kids, ‘you have my permission to fight’ it alleviates the adult’s responsibility, and now the weight is back on the child’s shoulders because we as parents are saying take care of it yourself. Kids come to us for a reason, because we are their helpers and advocates.”
When Ty Smalley had been told to stand up for himself, he got in trouble for doing just that.
“It took away all the trust from everybody who he had respected because he did what they told him to do,” Kirk said. “He lost faith in me and losing faith in his dad was more than he could take.”
As a result of his son’s death, Kirk now raises awareness about bullying by being an advocate for Stand for the Silent whose mission is to educate others about bullying.
“People often ask me if it gives me closure to visit with kids and relive my past, but honestly it doesn’t,” Kirk said. “We have to save our babies, and I chose to do just that.”
Stand for the Silent has become a platform for anti-bullying and has helped to raise awareness, but there’s more to teach kids in relation to bullying.
“We need to teach our kids that there is hope,” Gallegos said.
In the midst of being bullied, many children lose sight of the future. They lose sight of the fact that life can get better, and that, by speaking up, they can get help.
Bullies may not understand the damage they are doing and the fear they are creating in another child. As a result, children who are victims of bullying not only lose self-confidence but also hope.
“Never lose hope,” Gallegos said.
“Hope is that little light at the end of the tunnel that children do not often see,” Whitsel said. “Hope is what we all need.”
Editor’s Note: Thomas Jones is TulsaKids’ summer intern. He wrote our feature story on bullying in this issue. Thomas will be a senior at Oklahoma State University this fall. Click here to read “Behind the Story with Thomas Jones.”
You may also find “A Call to Stop Bullying” helpful. A big thanks to the kids at The Children’s Cancer Center in New Jersey for suggesting it to us.
Find more information and resources here.