Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

School bullying's chilling new front

By Francey Hakes, Special to CNN
September 5, 2013 -- Updated 1528 GMT (2328 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Francey Hakes: Several recent suicides of young people appear to be linked to bullying
  • Why does bullying seem more common, virulent, damaging today? The Internet, she says
  • She says kids are desperate, hopeless when their torment is widespread in tweets, "likes"
  • Hakes: Schools must do better; parents must police kids online lives for signs they are bullies

Editor's note: Francey Hakes served from 2002 to 2012 as a federal prosecutor and from 2010 to 2012 as the first National Coordinator for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction at the US Justice Department. She is CEO of Francey Hakes Consulting, which provides advice on child protection and national security. She blogs at FranceyHakes.

(CNN) -- Can cruel words really kill?

The answer, unfortunately, is yes. Recently, a teenage boy killed himself in Connecticut. Bart Palosz was just 15 when he took his family's shotgun and decided, apparently, that he had no other option but suicide. Last year, 12-year-old Joel Morales of New York hanged himself in his family's home. Earlier this year, 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons of Nova Scotia, Canada, died from self-inflicted hanging injuries.

What did these two boys and one girl have in common?

They appear to have been bullied to death, friends and family members have said. For Bart, it was his size and Polish accent that the bullies repeatedly targeted. With Joel, bullies targeted him because of his small stature and stuttering. Joel's mother said she reported this to the school, but the bullying merely escalated.

Francey Hakes
Francey Hakes

Rehtaeh was the target of a bullying campaign after she made allegations that four teens sexually assaulted her. After the alleged assault, during which at least one photo was taken, someone distributed the photo, an illegal act, and still police indicated at the time that they would charge no one.

Rehtaeh's mother said her daughter suffered more than a year of harassment where her tormentors used the photo to ruin her reputation and break her spirit. We learned only last month, far too late to help Rehtaeh, that officials have finally charged two people in connection with the distribution of the photo.

Many schools say they have zero tolerance to bullying policies in place. In fact, officials at Cowetta Intermediate High School in Oklahoma say they have just such a policy. Authorities are still investigating whether 15-year-old Triston Stephens, who shot and killed himself in that school's bathroom on a Monday morning earlier this year, was a target of bullying. Some parents in the district said school officials ignored bullying that was taking place there.

Why do these problems seem more frequent and the bullying more vicious than ever before? After all, bullying existed long before cyberspace, social networking and text messaging. What has changed?

Are bullies meaner? Are there more of them? Why do children who are bullied today experience overwhelming feelings of isolation and despair, such that they feel compelled to end their young lives rather than endure any more torment?

The answer is simple. Now one person or a small group of bullies can exponentially raise the torment to an unimaginable level in cyberspace. One nasty comment can be "liked" on Facebook, retweeted or forwarded dozens or hundreds of times in an instant, making it seem to the bullied child that the whole world is out to get her.

J.C. Penney ad angers parents
What can be done about cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying prompts teen's suicide

Teens naturally feel a need to belong, to fit in. When they are bullied, especially by those using technology as a weapon, it may seem that they are all alone and that everyone they know is participating in the hate. The bullying is also much harder to escape, no longer limited to occasions when bully and victim are in the same place.

It can go on anywhere and anytime with the victim not only receiving bullying texts or tweets or posts, but also knowing that the bully is gratified when others read, view, or repost the nasty comments or photos.

Teens can fear repercussions if they disclose this abuse. And, yes, let's call it abuse since that is what goes on in a bullying case. They may feel they will never escape the reputation the bully has built for them and then see no alternative to suicide. Tragedy flows from such desperation.

Is there a solution?

Clearly, zero tolerance policies don't always work. There are definitive steps schools and parents should take. It's not enough for schools to declare zero tolerance, they must also engage their students in wide-ranging discussions on bullying and its impact on the victims.

Some schools have student-lead councils where rules are established and bullying accusations are adjudicated by the students themselves. Peer pressure works both ways, after all. Schools must establish clear rules and enforce severe consequences for students who bully at school, whether it is in person or via electronic devices issued by or used on school property.

Schools should also monitor cyberbehavior by students. There are good software tools that monitor cyberactivity in real time and flag threats based on keyword libraries that are specific to threatening, bullying, suicidal or violent language. Every school should have this kind of sophisticated monitoring to capture such behavior.

Parents should be equally responsible. Parents are often told to monitor their children's cyberbehavior to protect them from being groomed by predators or from sending illicit images of themselves. But parents should also monitor their children to see if they are doing the bullying.

They should talk broadly about cybersafety with their children.

They should talk to their children about the effect of one post or one photo on their futures. They should regularly monitor their child's technology, whether on social networking sites or on devices themselves.

It is time to reframe the debate over bullying.

It is not just "mean girls" or "boys being boys." It is the aggressive emotional abuse of a child, and we must all stand against it. Lives depend on it.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Francey Hakes.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT