WASHINGTON – When Phyllis Levine’s son was just 8 years old, he told her that he wanted to die.
The statement came one night two years ago while the two were sitting in his room getting ready for bed. It had been a particularly hard day at his Rockville, Md., public school. The taunting was relentless and merciless, Levine says. Her son was at his breaking point.
“As a parent, all I could do was comfort him,” she says. “He was very depressed, had very low self-esteem and felt very unworthy.”
She tried to calm him down. She offered soothing words, but they sounded hollow even to her.
“It’s very hard to hear this from your child,” Levine says.
“What more do you say — ‘It will get better?’ You know it will get better. You’re a grown-up, but kids live in the here and now.”
Levine’s son is just one of the estimated 3.2 million students bullied each year. Research shows that victims of bullying are prone to depression, lower grades and higher suicide rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those responsible for bullying are also at higher risk for drug addiction, violent behavior and academic problems, the CDC says.
As a result of his bullying, Levine’s son missed six days of school last year, she says. Nationwide, approximately 160,000 children miss classes every day out of fear or discomfort, the CDC reports.
“If students don’t feel safe, they can’t learn,” says Montgomery County Public Schools spokesman Dana Tofig.
While the school district cannot comment on specific cases, Tofig did say in a previous interview with WTOP that MCPS has adopted a comprehensive approach to curbing school violence and bullying. The district partners with agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services and outside groups like Rockin’ the Rage and Gaithersburg-based Identity.
Students also are taught the skills needed for conflict resolution.
“In the past, a kid that was bullied by another kid might not say anything,” Tofig says. “We want kids to know that if you see something, you have to say something.”
Fairfax County Public Schools emphasizes what it calls a positive behavior model. In a school district where 53 percent of students in eighth, 10th and 12th grades reported being bullied, taunted, ridiculed or teased by someone, bullying prevention is rolled into the health and counseling curriculum.
FCPS also collaborates with the county’s office of Neighborhood and Community Services to ensure that consistent messages about bullying are integrated into youth-serving activities. It offers a prevention kit for educators and families unsure of how to address the issue.
But despite growing awareness of bullying, many officials say taking a zero-tolerance approach, instead of teaching students how to better interact with their peers, actually hurts kids.
D.C. Public Schools created a task force in 2012 to curb bullying. The committee required that any agency serving minors, including public schools, recreation centers and government agencies, implement policy changes by Sept. 15.
“The only thing we have seen work is prevention,” says Suzanne Greenfield, director of the city’s Bullying Prevention Program. “Bullying is a behavior. We want to replace the behavior with a more positive approach.”
This includes identifying kids who could become easy prey for bullies.
“Oftentimes, kids will pick on or isolate or bully kids that they see as vulnerable, and you find out why those students are vulnerable and help build those skills to cope with negative behavior,” Greenfield says.
Levine’s son, now 10, could fall into this category. He has a neurological disorder that makes him appear clumsy, and he is also very sensitive emotionally, Levine says. His differences make him a prime target for bullies at school.
After hearing her son’s painful confession of wanting to die, Levine “became a thorn in the school’s side.” She says she called the principal, showed up at school and demanded disciplinary action be taken against the culprits.
As he continued to struggle with his classmates, Levine encouraged her son to be more forceful against his aggressors.
“Everyone was telling him that it was time to stand up for himself even if he gets in trouble for it,” she says. ” But my son is not somebody who can stand the thought of harming another.”
He did try to stand up for himself by reporting an incident to the principal. When the culprits found out, they threatened to stab her son, she says.
Eventually, a contract was signed between certain students and Levine’s son stating that they would stay away from each other. Levine also switched her son out of regular before- and after-school programs he shared with some of the bullies. As the school year ended, things were looking up for the new academic year.
Levine remains angry that her son’s tormenters were not punished by school officials. She says that in three years of bullying, none of the kids received any disciplinary action.
But punishing bullies does not always solve the bigger problem, Greenfield says.
“Pushing kids out of school does not change their behavior, it just helps them disengage from the school community where they could be learning something positive,” she says.
“If you really want to address the behavior, you’re going to have to do something more sophisticated.”
One program aiming for such an approach is Welcoming Schools, which offers lesson plans and school resources for teachers and officials to implement in the classroom. It recommends role-playing with students and includes talking points to discuss with kids.
The project, developed in conjunction with the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, recently debuted a film — “What Can We Do? Bias, Bullying, and Bystanders” — aimed at helping educators tackle the uncomfortable issue of bullying.
“Teachers want practical tools they can use to figure out how to have challenging conversations in the classrooms,” says Welcoming Schools director Kim Westheimer.
She suggests taking a proactive approach. Engaging parents and communicating with students is just one small piece of the larger puzzle.
The first step, Westheimer says, is to talk about what bullying looks like. It can include something as seemingly benign as excluding certain kids from activities or something more aggressive, like physical violence. Bullying is behavior that continues over time or is so severe that it elicits fear, she says.
“It’s important to realize that not every fight or conflict is bullying,” she says.
At the same time, parents and educators should never minimize bullying.
“Children are aware of so much more than adults give them credit for,” she says. “The vast majority of students know bullying is wrong, but don’t know how to stop it.”
Levine has noticed a marked change in her son since the bullying started. She describes him as inherently kind and loving.
“But at the same time he has, in the past year, developed a rage that at times I don’t know how to deal with,” she says.
At her most desperate, Levine considered switching her son to a different school. She looked at three options, but says two of them had worse bullying problems, according to a Montgomery County online reporting system that keeps track of violent and nonviolent incidents.
Eventually, her son was put into therapy. The first year seemed productive, but he later started coming home more and more depressed. Levine canceled those sessions and decided to take her chances.
Now that a new year has started, some of the problems seem to have taken care of themselves, Levine says. Some of the bullies changed schools or moved away. Those who remain were put into different classes than her son.
But while her son seems to be a little stronger, the effects of years of torment are still evident, Levine says.
“He is still not a part of things. He is still the child that during recess is by himself,” she says. “It hurts. He deals with it because it’s better than the alternative.”
Levine and her son have not conquered their ordeals, but she does offer some advice to parents who are struggling with similar problems:
“Be a thorn in the side of the school,” she says. “Yes, comfort your child and say all those sweet and tender words, but be a pain for the school.”
She also encourages educators to bring in experts and speakers to address students before situations worsen.
“They have to teach about it,” she says. “They have to talk about it.”
See the video below for tips on how to tackle bullying: