It's been 43 years, but Ellie Holmes still remembers the teasing she got at the bus stop on her first day in first grade. “They called me ‘wee-no’ and picked on me for my homemade plaid dress and cat-eye glasses with rhinestones,” says Holmes, 49, who works in real estate in Indianapolis.
Gilson Viator, 28, a school bus monitor in Austin, Texas, still replays high school bullying memories in his head. “I cannot let go of the memories,” says Viator, who was verbally and physically bullied for his unusual name, his long hair and anything else the students came up with. “I think about how I could have changed things if I had the brain I have now. I can't sleep sometimes because it bothers me that people could remember me as someone who was weak.”
Often, bullied students are so accustomed to defending themselves from attacks that they become bullies themselves. After years of being told by his teachers to “take it like a man, and not to be a wimp,” Viator worries that he has become the bully. “Sometimes I worry if I have anger issues, that I'm ready for a fight at the smallest thing,” says Viator. “I worry that now I'm being the bully, that I have too much anger.”
Like Viator's experience with unsupportive teachers, many victims say that their schools did not protect them from bullies. “People in power didn't do enough to stop it,” says Thomas Hamer, 20, a student in Albuquerque, N.M., who was teased for being smaller than his classmates. “The school was not strict enough, and there was no anti-bullying policy. It was so frustrating to try and figure out what I could do to stop it.”
Danielle McCoy-Pendelton, 27, a deli clerk in Atlanta, says she left her Miami magnet high school after administrators ignored her troubles with bullying. “The teachers would see me depressed, but nobody asked anything. They never checked in to see if I was OK,” she says. “It felt like the whole school was targeting me — they made fun of my clothes, my looks and my voice. They even made fun of me when I wore red lipstick.”
Despite current efforts to stop bullying in many schools, students are critical of what they see as a lack of real caring from school administrators. “The school seems to think they're doing a lot — they're having meetings, making presentations, handing out surveys,” says Rachel Copans, 16, a student in Salem, Mass. “But I don't think they're doing it right — the school is teaching ([anti-bullying]) because they have to, not because they want to. They need more outside sources, or someone closer to our age, something more interactive than a PowerPoint presentation.”
Fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself in January after alleged bullying at her high school in South Hadley, Mass. (Springfield Republican/Family Photo)
In some cases, caring adults do help to stop the bullying. Kyle Tarnowsky, 25, who composes music for movies in Los Angeles, was teased and physically harassed in seventh grade. Tarnowsky told his parents, who then told school administrators about the bullying.
“I went to make an appointment to see the guidance counselor, and the assistant principal was there,” says Tarnowsky. “He said, ‘I'm glad you told us, we want to help.’ They wanted to make sure I felt safe.” After mediation by the guidance counselor, the bullies mostly stopped. “There was much less in eighth grade, and by high school it was only a little,” Tarnowsky says.
As Tarnowsky's story shows, confronting bullies can have an effect. But usually the bullying stops only after the victim or the bully leaves the school. For those in small schools, this means the bullying can remain nonstop from kindergarten through high school graduation. “It happened as far back as I can remember, even in kindergarten, but it really peaked in high school” says Cassandra Stoddart, 26, a college student in Jamestown, N.D. In her class of 16 students, she says, she was singled out from the beginning. “We didn't have other groups; you were either in or out.”
In one of the worst exchanges, Stoddart remembers how in her junior year, some of her classmates blew a packet of rose hips onto the back of her neck, making her itch and break out into a rash. “They had a good time watching that,” Stoddart says.
Some bullying victims have managed to channel their negative experiences into helping others. “From all the harassment, I built myself up,” Hamer says. “Now my dreams are to become a personal fitness trainer and also an anti-bullying counselor to help others.”
Copans started an online support group, Stand Up Speak Out: On a Mission to End Bullying (www.standupspeakout-endbullying.com), where victims can find strength in sharing stories. “This is about everyone who has had a problem with bullying. We need to say something,” she says. Copans was especially motivated to start her group after the January 2010 suicide of Phoebe Prince, 15, who lived just 100 miles away from Copans' Salem home. “I think there is also a realization that you just lost somebody in your own state. Who's going to be next? Could it be a kid that I know in my school?”
Tarnowsky advises reaching out to anyone, even if it's not a parent or teacher. “Don't bottle it up — let someone help — for your family, friends, your future. It really does get better.”
— Maggie Clark