Patricia Nell Warren

School Bullying: A National Pandemic Disease

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | October 02, 2010 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living

A lot of people are jarred by the recent explosion of LGBT school suicides. suicide.jpgFive in the last three weeks -- notably the horrific bullying and bridge-jumping death of Tyler Clementi at Rutgers University. LGBT rallies and protests are happening. One current petition demands that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan add gender identity and sexual orientation to current anti-bullying programs.

But LGBT bullying won't end if we separate it from bullying suffered by other students. With Gay History Month starting, it's a good moment to put our demographic suicide problem into a bigger perspective. School bullying is a contagious social cancer that is invading America's whole body. Now that we know cancer can be caused by viruses, we can say that bullying is a national pandemic, no less lethal than AIDS or a fulminating flu. The suicides it causes are threatening the lives of thousands of young Americans, regardless of orientation.

The United States is a country where suicide is viewed through a lens of hypocrisy. On the one hand, suicide is officially condemned as a moral and religious issue. On the other hand, our growing youth suicide rate is unofficially condoned -- largely because of our society's widespread refusal to fix the social problems that drive people to suicide. Schools and government have waffled on the psychopathic bullying that now rules the hallways in education.

CDC statistics on suicide date back to 2007, but I'm sure that recent figures will show a hair-raising spike. Two years ago, the U.S. was only 41st on the world suicide list, with a rate of 17.7 suicides per 100,000 -- compared to Belarus, which led the world with 63.3 deaths per 100,000.

But today, as our country boils over with stress and political strife of all kinds, I'll bet the new numbers will show that we're zooming up the list. Suicides by very young children, once almost unheard of, are now happening with ominous regularity.

What Drives People to Want to Die?

The recession is a huge factor in recent suicides. More Americans are killing themselves because they've lost their homes, jobs, careers, healthcare, unemployment benefits. Male pride means that men are more at risk of job-related suicide than women. So we're seeing a mini-epidemic of cases where an unemployed man murders his wife and children, then kills himself. Growing numbers of old people commit suicide because they lose their homes and healthcare.

I suspect that many conservatives secretly view suicide as a convenient way of ridding the country of excess baggage. After all, it is mostly conservatives who are trying to "fix the recession and balance the budget" by slashing relief programs and safety networks. Suicide rates are high in the groups affected by these cuts -- like the chronic unemployed, disabled, homeless, seniors, immigrants, etc. And the suicide rates will shoot even higher if conservatives get rid of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as they say they plan to do. Do these politicians give a damn that their budget-busting will destroy lives? Clearly they don't. They and their own families are economically secure.

Politics pumps our suicide syndrome as well. Suicides in the U.S. military jumped by 26 percent between 2005 and 2007, and the rate may be even higher in 2010. That stat surely reflects all the horror and controversy around the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Our nation is failing to help combat veterans who come home with a burden of memories and experiences that they can't carry alone. Bullying is now a problem in the military too. Fundamentalist ideology has infiltrated our armed forces so deeply that atheist and non-Christian soldiers are routinely bullied into attending church services by order of their bigoted commanders.

But America's youth suicide rate has sparked the most anxiety. It's the leading cause of adolescent death.

Even before the recession, in 2007, the CDC logged an 8-percent jump in the suicide rate among American youth aged 10 to 24. This jump reflects the social stresses that affect youth: broken families, sexual abuse, etc.. But it also reflects the growth of fierce bullying in our schools since the 1990s. I saw this trend with my own eyes when I served as a commissioner of education (1996-99) in LAUSD, the nation's second largest school district. And as far as I can see, most schools have done little to stop it.

Historically, suicide rates have been higher among young people of color -- with racial bias being a leading factor. For well over a century now, American Indian kids have committed suicide after being subjected to crushing pressures aimed at "de-Indianizing" them. My tribal relatives have shared their stories of harsh life in government boarding schools, where young kids routinely hung themselves in the showers. Today, Native Americans continue with a high suicide rate -- 33.9 per 100,000, which is 2.5 times the national rate for all youth. The racial biases they face remain largely unchanged.

In fact, across the Tea-Partied America where we all live now, racial biases of every kind -- anti-black, anti-Mexican, anti-you-name-it -- are getting more blatant and hostile. This means that all kinds of racial bullying in schools is on the rise.

Misdirected Government Policy

Our federal government likes to position itself as concerned about suicide. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, "Suicide is a major, preventable public health problem. In 2007, it was the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for 34,598 deaths.1 The overall rate was 11.3 suicide deaths per 100,000 people.1 An estimated 11 attempted suicides occur per every suicide death."

Indeed, our government actually launched an anti-suicide program called TeenScreen, which is now established in 44 states. But TeenScreen is ominous and controversial. The screening is mandatory for K-12 students, and is done without informed consent of either parents or students. The test's accuracy is highly questionable. It delivers a suspiciously high rate of "positive" results for one or more of 100+ "disorders." A positive is used by a school as a license to order high-powered psychotropic drugs for a kid. It's very obvious that TeenScreen is designed to benefit the pharma industry, not kids.

Our government goes wrong on suicide when it focuses most of its existing programs on "therapy and medication" -- and very little energy on fixing the actual social problems that drive people -- especially young people -- to suicide.

Here is some typical NIMH gogglety-gook: "A type of psychotherapy called cognitive therapy reduced the rate of repeated suicide attempts by 50 percent during a year of follow-up. ... cognitive therapy helps suicide attempters consider alternative actions when thoughts of self-harm arise. Specific kinds of psychotherapy may be helpful for specific groups of people. For example, a treatment called dialectical behavior therapy reduced suicide attempts by half, compared with other kinds of therapy, in people with borderline personality disorder (a serious disorder of emotion regulation...The medication clozapine is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for suicide prevention in people with schizophrenia. Other promising medications and psychosocial treatments for suicidal people are being tested."

Translation: Put the victims of bullying in cognitive therapy and marinate their brains with drugs, instead of getting rid of the bullies who assault other students physically and emotionally, and even drive some other students to lethal despair. That's the government for you.

Even as the government pushes TeenScreen into schools across the country, bigoted politicians are working to dismantle any federal, state laws and school-district policies that protect LGBT students from bullying. This will prompt more suicides. Drugs and therapy are not going to make LGBT suicides go away. Nor will they make suicides of non-gay students go away either

How Anti-Bullying Programs Often Fail

Many schools that now have anti-bullying programs focus on teaching tolerance and what they call "peace-making." But this approach is often too wishy-washy to defuse a developing situation -- as in Tyler Clementi's's case.

As more details about the Rutgers case come out, it appears that Tyler may have complained to Rutgers campus authorities about previous invasions of his privacy by the two students who now may be charged in connection with his death. If Tyler did complain, and the "authorities" did ignore his complaint, that makes these campus officials a possible accessory to the crime, in my opinion.

When "authorities" ignore an ominous development right under their noses, and they don't act like an "authority," the bullies know they are going to get away with whatever they plan to do. This is the breaking point. The kid being bullied now knows for sure that no help or protection is forthcoming. So he or she zooms straight for what looks like the only escape route -- death.

We're seeing a national pandemic of bullying and harassment-related suicides because little in the way of forceful action is being done at the national level. It's not enough to teach tolerance or talk about "peace-making." Many school bullies are truly psychopathic kids. They should be yanked out of a school and dealt with as the psychopaths that they are -- along with the clique of senseless friends that support them, if necessary. A single bully that goes unchallenged by "authority" can infect a whole school, giving other students the notion that making a victim squirm, or hurting that victim, is fun and cool.

Most important, "authority" inaction lets the students know that they won't be punished severely for bullying.

And LGBT kids aren't the only ones being bullied. During my years in LAUSD, I saw that there is all kinds of bullying going on -- targeting boys and girls who are any kind of "different" -- because of their clothes, their ethnicity, the way they talk or walk, the shape of their nose, their hair, their friends, their car, even what their parents do. In recent months, we've seen a surge of harassment on kids whose parents are known to be local civil-rights activists.

As a matter of national policy, our President talks about "getting tough on foreign terrorists." But what is Obama's administration doing to stem the tide of home-grown student terrorism that is going on right in our classrooms? What is Congress doing about bullying? What are state legislatures doing about it?

California does have its school Safety and Violence Prevention Act, 2000 (AB 537). But can it really be enforced? The North Carolina legislature is considering the first anti-bullying bill in our history...but will the law have enough teeth to be effective?

One big problem is that bullying is framed as a "hate crime" when it involves protected student groups -- ethnic, gender, orientation, religious, etc. But how do you categorize a bullying that ends in a student's death when no "protected from hate" category is involved? When the kid with the big nose or the funny clothes finally can't take it any long and hangs himself, is this a "hate crime?"

The question is pertinent because local law enforcement is scratching its head over the Rutgers suicide, trying to decide what "crime" to charge the perps with.

So when will America step beyond the concept of a "hate crime"? It's time for us to recognize that maliciously and intentionally harassing someone to the point where they commit suicide is a whole new category of violent crime.

The problem is compounded by religious bigots who oppose safe-schools programs because they WANT those bullies patrolling the halls. They view bullying as a legitimate weapon against "the homosexual agenda" ...and a way to keep gays in the closet.

Technology also enables today's bullies to commit their cowardly crimes at a safe distance. When I was a tomboy kid being bullied in the 1950s, things got settled by a fist fight on the playground or the school bus. The bully had to face me in person -- and I usually won those fights. With time, the bullies learned to leave me alone. But today kids can destroy another kid's life by malicious texting and Web postings, without making any physical or vocal contact with their victim.

A Few Closing Words

In 2008, I wrote about Lawrence King's brutal hit-type murder by a school bully. I wrote that commentary not as a private citizen but as a former commissioner of education. I said then that school bullies are a social cancer that must be cut out of America's body. In the two years since then, I haven't changed my opinion about this.

Nor have I changed my mind about the school officials, student cliques, parents, church groups, police and politicians who don't take bullying seriously, or who protect bullies or egg them on in any way. These aiders-and-abettors are an essential part of that cancer virus -- that out-of-control contagion that is eating deeply at the lives of America's youth.

While I'm not generally in favor of putting lots of people in prison, I think that the real school bullies are psychopaths who have to be dealt with as such. No amount of teaching about "tolerance" and "peacemaking" is going to penetrate their hardened brains. Like any malignant tumor, they have to be carved out of that school district forthwith, and put in some remedial program, or some degree of juvenile detention, where they can't harm anyone in the "general population" of students.

And it's past time for the surgeons to go to work.

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Christian bigotry sanctions bullying and teen suicide. Until Christians STOP teaching homosexuals are wrong and/or defective - these innocent deaths will continue.

Religion is the source.

Bullying = Domestic Terrorism, THE END. I love it, short and to the point. I was heavily bullied as a child, my parents finally took me out of school because the schools wouldn't do anything about it. This in turn is making it very hard for me to get into college, even though I served my country (in silence, a whole 'nother issue) and went to war. Bullying has effected my life, and I am angry, I want to yell, I WANT TO SCREAM!

In Michigan, the republican controlled state senate has repeatedly blocked "safe schools" legislation. LGBT advocacy groups and individuals finally abandoned official support of enumerated versions of the measure thinking they could sqeeze a non-enumerated, generic version through the senate. Personally, I did not support enumeration, but, rather a bill which provided for protections based on any "perceived characteristic".
The eventual strategy was to then gear up a high profile initiative taking the state adopted anti-bullying model to individual districts in hopes of persueding them to adopt it. Sadly, even the broad yet, well considered non-enumerated version was rejected because it "might allow for protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity".
Most of the opposition to anti-bullying legislation in Michigan has come from (not surprisingly) evangelical right groups, home school assosciations and most nauseatingly, the American Family Assosciation.

Thanks for this great perspective and analysis. I am going to pass it on some public school administrators who I've worked with to develop local policy.

Amy, thanks for passing my commentary to others in Michigan. From gay activist friends of mine in Michigan (like Dave Forbush, who works in prison outreach there), I know that the organized homophobia in your state is a tough nut to crack.

I like the idea of a bill that protects against bullying aimed at any "perceived characteristic." It moves beyond framing these crimes as "hate crimes," which doesn't always fit the circumstances and intent of these crimes.

Here is a link to the bill. It passed the Michigan state house but, as I mentioned, died in the state senate. Actually, if I am not mistaken, it was not even allowed to come to the floor for debate.

Here is the link to Michigan's State Board of Education Anti-Bullying Policy model:
As state models go, it's good. Note that it reflects the "perceived characteristics" language I spoke of (nearly mirrored in the HB)

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | October 3, 2010 4:56 AM

I think that the real school bullies are psychopaths who have to be dealt with as such.

That seems to be true of the most violent thugs, the ones who kill and maim. They should be locked up and receive robust psychiatric treatment. The parents of young bigots (who in most cases picked it up at home or in a cult worship center) should face draconian financial consequences to compensate the victims.

There should also be harsh consequences for the bigots who trigger the thugs including hate singers like Eminem and Buju Banton and loathsome religious thugs like Warren and McClurkin. We need a law that makes their hate speech illegal because it inflames violence, including suicide.

Hate speech is not protected speech.

The most pervasive violence triggering mechanism is the hate speech and the hate laws of bigoted politicians like Reagan, the Bushes, the Clintons and Obama. There are no acceptable excuses for the GLBT Republicans and Democrats who want us to vote for bigots like them.

There should also be harsh consequences for the bigots who trigger the thugs including hate singers like Eminem and Buju Banton and loathsome religious thugs like Warren and McClurkin. We need a law that makes their hate speech illegal because it inflames violence, including suicide.

Gee, Bill, which is worse? Right-wing totalitarianism, or left-wing totalitarianism?

I don't know what "harsh consequences" you might have in mind, but I presume they involve more than wiring their eyes open and making them watch endless Sesame Street re-runs.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | October 4, 2010 5:59 PM

Jeepers, AJ. You appear to have seen way too many reruns of Herbert Philbrick, I Led Three Lives: Citizen, 'Communist', Counterspy. However did you get copies of them. I didn't think they made video tapes in the 1950's, when conspiracy theories equating the left with Stalinism began to harden in your consciousness.

In general I think they should be denied venues and have their assets confiscated to compensate the victims of violence, discrimination and harassment. That's what I usually propose for bigots. That's what those totalitarians in SPLC did to the KKK. When we have the strength I think we should criminalize hate speech, just like those totalitarians in Canada and England.

I don't consider those measures to be totalitarian in the least, just protective. I never advocate setting up concentration camps, engaging in massive wiretapping and internet spying or kidnapping, torture and murder of our enemies. That's what real totalitarians, Democrats and Republicans, do.

The Rutger kids should be charged with a sex crime, voyeurism which is a crime. The also violated any number of Federal laws concerning the use of pornography on the Internet. This is not a mere "invasion of privacy" issue.

Yes, and if it can be proven beyond reasonable doubt that they used the Rutgers University computer network in the course of posting the video, then they should be expelled.

Yeah, I'm also hoping the message from these suicides won't be "Let's pass gay marriage and get rid of DADT." The problem is in the schools and it's in our larger culture. Why do we find this level of harassment and violence acceptable against anyone?

As is generally the case with tragedy in the US, we find the person closest by and blame them from whatever happened, never examining the larger cause. At least people have been seeing a slightly bigger picture here and didn't just blame the kids who committed suicide themselves - that's a step up for our culture.

But when are we going to get serious about ending bullying in schools? Probably when we finally start taking public education seriously.

Patricia, It is good to see you back here. Your cogent analysis is much appreciated.
The Cultural zeitgeist that tolerates aggression and force as tools of policy seems to be endemic in the Abrahamic faiths. The lived story of those faiths from the begining is one of War, Rape, Destruction, and Demonization of "different" others. Read their Scriptures. Imperialistic, Patriarchal, Misogynistic, Warmongering thuggery. Employ Rape, Murder and Slavery against the "heathen" savage for that is what "God" Wills. In the Middle East today it is one group of savage fundies versus another. I include our own savage fundies, the Politico-military hierarchy. I am sure that some folk of that ilk would disagree but I don't see a tittle of difference between Joshua at the walls of Jericho, Manifest Destiny (to steal this land mass "from sea to shining sea)."Give us your hearts and minds or we'll burn your damned village down" (remember the 70's),the Democratization of Iraq/Afghanistan and DOMA/DADT and school bullying.
It is a way of looking at the world and at life. A horrible way.

Great article Patricia.

I personally believe that religion is to blame and the comments that start at other words...bullying starts at home.

I just continue to be saddened by those untimely deaths. It hurts my soul.

Thanks again Patricia.

John R. Selig | October 3, 2010 8:00 PM

The responsibility for these sad deaths rests with the religions that teach hate, the schools that refuse to do enough to take care of their gay students (and others who are bullied) and our politicians who either use gays as pawns or whom are unwilling to risk political capital in passing legislation that they know is needed.

Excellent commentary Patricia (as always)!

Baptist Minister confirms the obvious link between Christian teaching/beliefs and bullying gay teens:

I left a comment it was already eaten, hmmm. I know I will not make the sports and competition world happy, though, I feel bullying is propelled by old Roman Lion fights that became foot ball, an eventually other more popular separations of me and you. As societies we spend too much time looking at each other. Rather than working with each other.