When Bullying Turns Deadly: Can It Be Stopped?

In the past four weeks, four teenagers killed themselves after being harassed by schoolmates. Technology is quickly changing how kids bully one another. Here are some ways to stop the problem

  • Jason Fulford for TIME

    At Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on October 3rd, classmates remember Tyler Clementi.

    Bullies can be anywhere, but there's no place they show up more than in schools, and no time more than in September. Once the academic year starts, the complicated social hierarchy of a campus — popular kids, nerdy kids, ADHD kids, nerdy ADHD kids who are popular because they sell Adderall — gets reinvented. But this fall the casual brutality of the schoolyard seems particularly bitter. In the past few weeks, at least three teenage boys — one in Houston, one in Greensburg, Ind., and one in a small central California city called Tehachapi — have committed suicide after being bullied. And, on Sept. 22, a freshman at Rutgers University, Tyler Clementi, threw himself from the George Washington Bridge in New York City. His roommate had secretly recorded a video of Clementi kissing a guy; the video went up on YouTube. On Facebook, Clementi offered a final status update: "jumping off gw bridge sorry."

    Seth Walsh, 13

    All four communities have been torn over whether they could have done more to protect their sons. On Oct. 1, 600 people crammed the First Baptist Church in Tehachapi to remember Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old who liked Pokémon, dance music and reading the Bible — and who had (somewhat reluctantly) acknowledged to understanding family members and friends that he liked other boys. Seth had been teased relentlessly; it started when he was in fourth grade, according to his grandmother Judy Walsh. "By sixth grade, kids were starting to get mean," she says. "By seventh grade, he was afraid to walk home from school."

    Seth hanged himself in his backyard on Sept. 19. His mother Wendy, a 44-year-old beautician, found his body. Seth was unable to extend her the mercy of dying quickly: a helicopter came, and he was on life support for nine days.

    The four cases tumbled onto one another so quickly that they caught school officials across the country off guard. The education system has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in antibullying campaigns in the past decade. At least 42 states have passed laws against bullying — most since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, where two troubled boys killed themselves and 13 others. The U.S. Department of Education opened its Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools in 2002, and just last month Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hosted a Bullying Prevention Summit in Washington, where he noted that, even in this economic climate, President Obama had asked for a 12% increase in funding for antibullying programs.

    The trouble is, the technology of bullying has advanced much faster than efforts to stop it ever could. If you have a cell phone, you can post to your entire school that a girl is a slut or a boy is a fag — and you can attach an unflattering photo or video of them to try to prove it. At least bullies of previous decades had to hold you down before they could spit in your face.

    Researchers have a hard time measuring how common bullying is because there's no single definition. Is bullying only verbal, or does there have to be a physical act? If you hear a schoolyard taunt that you know how to brush off, were you bullied or just annoyed? Does it have to be repeated behavior to count as bullying, or can it happen just once? Does it have to disrupt a whole class, or can it affect only one or two kids? None of this is clear to those who study and make laws to prevent bullying. Most state laws differ on the precise motivations and consequences required for a harassing event to count as bullying. If one 12-year-old boy taunts another, most state laws wouldn't call it bullying unless there is both demonstrable harm — the victim is injured (at least psychologically) — and demonstrable intent. In other words, for a bully to be a bully, he can't have just been any insensitive kid. He had to want to hurt his classmate.

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