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.

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    Accurately adjudicating these events is difficult — sometimes impossible — particularly now that insults can be delivered in nanoseconds via handhelds. One especially revealing study was presented last year at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, a nonpartisan think tank. A team led by Professor Robert Gable of Johnson & Wales University, which is based in Providence, R.I., found that 74% of seventh- and eighth-graders think of themselves as neither cyberbullies (a term defined in the study as online harassers who intend to hurt another person) nor victims of cyberbullying. Only 5% in the study said they were victims; another 6% said they were bullies. The remaining 15% described themselves as both victims and victimizers.

    That makes sense: there is a chicken-and-egg quality to bullying — you get hurt, and then you exact a price for it. And today, if you have so much as a Twitter account, you can exact that price in just 140 characters before any school official has a chance to talk you down. You post your worst thoughts in a heated moment, and the damage is done.

    Safe Sexuality
    All four of September's bullying-related suicides involved young people who were either out of the closet or were assumed to be gay. But bullying is also a problem for straight kids. In January, an Irish immigrant named Phoebe Prince used the scarf her sister had given her for Christmas to hang herself above a stairwell in her South Hadley, Mass., home. Prince had been dating a popular boy in school and was called an "Irish whore"; someone threw a can of Red Bull at her from a car. Some of Prince's tormenters posted obnoxious messages about her after she died. Three of her former classmates, all girls, are set to be tried later this fall for violating Prince's civil rights. But legal maneuvering might push the trial to next year or prevent it altogether.

    Tyler Clementi, 18

    Such cases get murky very quickly, not least when victims and victimizers are in close quarters. At Rutgers, young Clementi was said to be openly, contentedly gay to some and tightly closeted to others (a double life that many gay people recognize). When he arrived at Rutgers in late August, he found himself paired with a roommate who was uncomfortable with people who are openly gay, according to Robert O'Brien, a 43-year-old anthropology instructor at Rutgers who is the principal faculty liaison to the gay-student community. Clementi then complained to his resident adviser (RA) that he and his roommate weren't getting along.

    O'Brien says Clementi didn't get far. "Many students have told the administration here that they feel unsafe, and they have gotten no movement on their claims," says O'Brien. Rutgers has said that all of Clementi's complaints were taken seriously and that it's unclear what, exactly, Clementi reported to his RA. But the Prince and Clementi cases both raise a larger question: Why can't we recognize warning signs in bullying cases and stop it before the victim makes an irrevocable decision?

    One reason is a problem of research. "We just don't have great data," says Kevin Jennings, the director of President Obama's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. That office was founded under George W. Bush, but Jennings has given it a higher profile because he is a former gay activist whose appointment was opposed by a few Republicans. Jennings was a history teacher who founded the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, which registers and advises the gay-friendly school groups known as gay-straight alliances. According to Jennings, Massachusetts and Vermont are the only states that gather statistics on anti-gay bullying.

    Partly because of Jennings' efforts, the federal government has stepped into the data breach and is now collecting figures on all forms of bullying. But researchers still don't fully understand what determines who will become a bully and who won't. Home life obviously has something to do with it, along with relationships at school, but this constellation of factors isn't easy to reduce to clear lines of cause and effect. Are bullies sad or vindictive or — more likely — a bit of both? There has never been a single diagnostic definition.

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