I hated school.

I begged my mother to let me stay home and sometimes I pretended to be sick. She knew I was lying and we even joked about my “fakeitis.” But the reason I wanted to stay home wasn’t a laughing matter.

From the ages of 9-12, I endured the most intense victimization of my life. I was spit on, kicked in the throat, shoved and hit. Once, I painfully sat down on a device fabricated by a classmate out of spiral notebook wire and pins.

The worst part, though, was the incessant taunting. Occasionally, a teacher tried to help but it usually made things worse. Most just ignored it. I don’t remember if I told my parents, but even if I had, it didn’t help because until recently schoolyard bullies were viewed as an inevitable part of the school social order and their behavior as a “rite of passage” to be endured by those unlucky enough to catch a bully’s attention.

Thankfully, this is no longer considered an acceptable stance for educators and others who work in school settings.

Bullying is a repeated pattern of intentionally aggressive behavior directed toward a less powerful individual. Bullying is often physical, but victims also report verbal, psychological, as well as sexual abuse. The prevalence of bullying for American school children can range from as high as 30 percent to the low teens. I do not believe that bullying has necessarily become more prevalent. What has increased is the attention paid to bullying by the media and policymakers.

Since 2006, The National Center for Bullying Prevention has designated October as National Bullying Prevention Month. This more intense focus on the effects of bullying is a recent phenomenon due in part to a 2002 U.S. Secret Service Report that concluded that bullying has played a role in many school shootings. Regardless of whether or not there is a link, bullying has devastating consequences for victims, including lower academic performance (due in part to more frequent absences), low self-esteem, depression and a higher risk of suicide.

Currently, most states have anti-bullying legislation. With only 37 words, Minnesota Statutes §121A.0695 is considered one of the weakest anti-bullying laws in the country. During the 2013 Minnesota Legislative Session, The Safe and Supportive Schools Act was introduced to replace the current law, but it did not pass. One of the voices urging defeat was the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which opposed the legislation because the bill specifically mentioned “protected classes” – including “sexual orientation” and “gender identity and expression.” The MCC is opposed to bullying but argues that including these groups would grant so-called “special rights.”

“Otherness” increases the risk of being bullied. Besides sexual orientation and nonconforming gender identity expression, being overweight, having a disability, being socially isolated, less popular and coming from a less affluent family also increases victimization risk. In my case, my parents couldn’t afford the clothes that the popular kids wore and I had the added stigma of having a special needs sibling.

Defining bullying as well as the classes of children often victimized is two of several components recommended by The U.S. Department of Education for ideal anti-bullying legislation. Naming frequently targeted groups raises awareness among school officials but still provides remedies for all students as long as the legislation defines the prohibited behavior. When other classes are enumerated (e.g. race, religion, disability) but sexual orientation or gender identity is excluded, this can be perceived by some as a license to ignore the victimization of sexual minority youth.

School administrators that want to prevent or at least reduce bullying will find that there are a variety of effective anti-bullying programs designed for a variety of grade levels. Technology, including social media, allows users to remain anonymous and shielded from experiencing the impact of bullying. Because of this, we are starting to see anecdotal evidence that even popular kids are not immune, and that social media may be a tool used by those with less power to leverage against their peers.

Bullying is anti-Catholic because it violates the dignity of the human person. It took me years to overcome the damage to my psyche and to start treating myself as a person of worth. No child should have to endure this, and it is my hope that in 2014 the Minnesota Legislature will pass a bill that empowers school administrators to effectively respond to the bullying that occurs within their districts.

Regardless of personal views on controversial issues such as homosexuality, protecting all children and not just one’s own children, should be something we can all agree on.

Editor’s Note: Lisa Waldner is professor and chair of the Sociology and Criminal Justice Department. “The Weigh-In” is a commentary series that focuses on current events. The content represents the views of the author.

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6 Responses

  1. Angela High-Pippert

    Thank you, Lisa, for this powerful piece. The critical idea of “protecting all children and not just one’s own children” is the cornerstone of public policy. As citizens, we need to demand better legislation.

  2. Gene Liffs

    As Dr. Brady knows perfectly well, the Minnesota Catholic Conference and other Catholic organizations strongly support all efforts that would curtail bullying, and agrees emphatically with both the Catechism and the late Pope John Paul II. It supports MN121A.0695, which accomplishes this to an appropriate extent at an appropriate level. It also supports legislation based on North Dakota’s highly-rated anti-bullying law, HB 1465.

    The MCC opposes the proposed legislation not because it protects GLBT youth (who are, sadly, especially targeted by bullies even today), but because: (1) it “imposes its mandates and [significant!] costs on private schools” who are, for a number of prudential and state constitutional reasons, normally exempt, (2) its definition of bullying is so broad that it poses a serious threat to the First Amendment rights of students to speak freely and practice their religions, and (3) “the bill enumerates certain types of students and characteristics that count as susceptible to bullying instead of creating a program that protects all kids from harassment and abuse. People should be protected from bullying because they are human beings, not because of a particular trait.”

    We should all hope, with Dr. Waldner, that the state of Minnesota finds some opportunity this year to curtail bullying, especially in schools. I, too, was bullied — though not nearly as severely as Dr. Waldner — and I would not wish it on anyone. But supporting anti-bullying efforts is not synonymous with supporting H.F. 826 “The Safe and Supportive Schools Act.” People of good conscience may disagree with it without — as Dr. Brady suggests — rejecting the human dignity of our GLBT children.

    • Lisa Waldner

      I certainly concede that there may be other reasons not to enact the “Safe and Supportive Schools” act as currently written and also concede that this specific piece of legislation may increase costs for all school districts, public and private. But better legislation is needed to protect students. Minnesota can and should do better. Any bill that passes should list classes of students and besides race, religion, disability, and other categories, this should include sexual orientation. And while I agree with Mr. Liffs that people should be protected “because they are human beings, not because of a particular trait” then why not drop all categories from legislation including race, disability, and religion? No one wants to do so precisely because we know kids are targeted for abuse because they either have a particular trait or are perceived as such. If it is perfectly fine to list race and other traits to protect kids from abuse, then sexual orientation should be listed as well. Not because everyone agrees on the morality of homosexuality, but because we do agree that bullying is something no one should endure for any reason, period.

  3. Bernard Brady

    That the MCC would lobby against Mn 121A.0695 is a shock to me. Bullying is wrong – period. It is a violation of the basic rights of persons (I could quote innumerable passages in the official teaching of the Catholic Church, but for brevity, I site the Catechism of the Catholic Church-see below) and it is an example of a “torment of inflicted on the body or mind” that Pope John Paul II labeled as an intrinsic evil (Verities splendor, #80).

    Mn 121A.0695 is a reasonable, just, and appropriate response to this wrong.

    From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
    1930 Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it.
    1931 Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that “everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self,’ above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.”
    1932 The duty of making oneself a neighbor to others and actively serving them becomes even more urgent when it involves the disadvantaged, in whatever area this may be. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
    1933 This same duty extends to those who think or act differently from us.

    If you think that homosexuals are some how excluded from being persons having dignity and basic rights requiring respect and reciprocal duties of Catholics read on.

    2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. They do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.

  4. Dede

    It seems that we all should be giving a call or e-mail to our Minnesota lawmakers. No child deserves to be treated this way. Good article, Dr. Waldner.
    Thank you.

  5. Catherine Fairchild

    Thank you, Lisa, for tackling this important topic. Any of us who were bullied know that it’s a memory that never fades away. We definitely don’t want this for our kids!