We all have encountered bullies, some more than others.
In Dixfield this week, educators at Dirigo Middle School confronted the problem of bullying with an assembly to talk about the harm of name-calling and other forms of harassment.
As part of that work, blank posters were hung in hallways on Tuesday so that, on Wednesday, students could write down some of the names they’d been called at school. It was a good idea that went awry because of — well — bullies.
Instead of a lesson in awareness, the posters became platforms for vandals to jot down racial slurs, vulgarities and any derogatory name a middle school student can think to call another. There are a lot, and all of them are unsuitable for print in this newspaper.
The name-calling wasn’t limited to students, and included grossly indecent language describing teachers and others.
Educators designed the project to find out what bullies are saying so they could confront the ugliness. It worked, but the result was much more repulsive than teachers and administrators could ever have anticipated. And, of course, parents were shocked.
They shouldn’t have been.
Name-calling and school-age harassment is an ugly rite of passage, even in the most civilized cultures. That doesn’t make it right.
And, at least in recent years, this “rite” has turned deadly in the form of homicide and suicide as intimidation becomes more graphic and personal with expanding social media becoming the preferred platform to convey insults, rumors and lies.
Suicide among young people who have been bullied has become so common that it now has a term: bullycide.
According to a 2010 Yale School of Medicine study, suicide rates among adolescents have grown more than 50 percent in the past three decades in the United States. It is the leading cause of death among children 14 years and younger.
Brandon Bitner is among those dead.
In November 2010, according to the Patriot-News, “rather than endure another four years of being called a ‘faggot’ and ‘sissy,’” the 14-year-old straight-A student-musician at Midd-West High School in Pennsylvania “stepped in front of a tractor-trailer rig” and killed himself.
Last April, 14-year-old pals Haylee Fentress and Paige Moravetz hanged themselves at Moravetz’ house after months of being bullied at their school in Indiana.
Last November in Illinois, 10-year-old Ashlynn Conner hanged herself in her bedroom closet after enduring aggressive bullying at her elementary school for the previous three years.
And, in the case of South Hadley High School’s 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, nine Massachusetts teens were indicted in 2010 for the bullying and cyberbullying that allegedly drove Prince to kill herself by hanging.
The Yale study reports that 160,000 students — that’s 15 percent of the entire U.S. student population — miss school every day because they’re afraid of being bullied when they get to class, and that one in every seven students in kindergarten through grade 12 is either a bully or has been victimized by a bully.
Statistically speaking, that’s “2.7 million students being bullied each year by about 2.1 million students taking on the role of the bully,” according to Yale.
That’s a lot of pain and fear in our schools, and it’s most intense among fourth- through eighth-graders.
On Monday, Maine’s Education Committee voted unanimously to pass LD 1237, an anti-bullying bill.
We urge the full Legislature to support this measure.
The legislation won’t make bullying disappear, but it will hold bullies accountable for their actions — school by school.
Schools will be responsible for writing and enforcing their own policies, based on a model policy drafted by the Department of Education, with input from parents, teachers, administrators, students and members of the community, so each policy will be tailored to the community and the people it serves.
If passed, Maine will join 47 other states that have passed such laws.
It’s a sad reflection on our society that we need to force schools to write and enforce anti-bullying policies, but if the episode at Dirigo Middle School is any indication, it’s clear that bullies aren’t going to police themselves.
We have an obligation to protect victims of intimidation and harassment in our schools. If we don’t, the lessons they learn there will carry into adulthood.
At Yale, researchers found that “among students of all ages, homicide perpetrators were found to be twice as likely as homicide victims to have been bullied previously by their peers.”
That cannot be the legacy of Maine schools.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.