CLEARFIELD, Pa. — Here’s one more disturbing story related to the shocking Penn State child sexual abuse case: Victim #1, whose allegations about being molested by Jerry Sandusky led to legendary football coach and alleged enabler Joe Paterno’s firing, has left his high school after being bullied by classmates due to his role in Paterno’s dismissal.
During the past 21 years when I reported from and did programs in schools, bullying has always been a problem. But along with the coarsening of adult America, bullying at school and online has grown. An exaggeration? Nope. On Sept. 4 I left San Diego on a nine-month national trip. Since then I’ve been in two cities mourning high school students who killed themselves to escape being bullied.
In case you’ve been on Mars, a virtual epidemic of bullying has led to a host of tough regulations throughout the country, an especially tough law in New Jersey and special programs in some schools. Parents of bullies sometimes cooperate and sometimes look the other way. Bullying has sparked civil lawsuits brought by parents of bullied kids against officials who they feel don’t step in or clamp down hard enough on bullying when it happens or who don’t try to prevent it — which may, in the end, be a bigger motivating factor to defeating bullying than bullied students’ pain.
Newspaper headlines, websites and Tweets never tell the whole story.
Each time a kid takes his or her life they leave shell-shocked communities, grieving parents whose lives are effectively over, bullies’ families stunned by their kids’ role in another child’s death and bullies who made terrible choices who’ll be haunted their whole lives. And, in nearby schools where siblings and friends of the dead kids are enrolled, staffers have to scramble to do ASAP damage control.
Meanwhile, news of a death invariably gives other beset kids bad ideas.
Discuss the lifelong impact of a bullying experience with school kids and it invariably it hits a nerve — with nearby adults.
For instance, two years ago, after I told elementary kids to ask any adult about whether they were teased and bullied to see how the pain and details of bullying last for years, a PTA President approached me.
“Oh, Joe,” she sighed. “When you mentioned that I suddenly felt goose bumps go up my arms! I had a sudden flashback to when I was in junior high school and the boys made fun of me because I was tall and called me names. I felt my blood was run cold and I had a kind of sick feeling.”
Something similar happened two years later at another school. After I told the kids to try this little experiment, the principal, a woman in her 40s, addressed her students: “All of you know what I’ve told some of you before. I am in teaching because I was bullied. I was in elementary school. And I was tall for my age. And the boys called me ‘The Jolly Green Giant’ after a TV commercial. It was the very worst year of my life and I decided then to go into teaching and see if I could do something to make sure no other boys and girls would ever suffer the way I did.”
Photo via shutterstock.com
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.