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
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT