n the idyllic world of TV sitcoms, bullying among school-age youth usually entails some name-calling and maybe the exchange of a few punches. The problem is fixed within 30 minutes or an hour, usually with some sage words of wisdom dispensed by an adult. Cue commercial.
Bullying in the real world, however, isn’t so easily remedied.
Adults often are blissfully unaware of what’s occurring in the lives of children and teenagers, and with the advent of the Internet, smartphones and Twitter, there are more venues than ever to harass, intimidate or torment someone.
As a result, incidents of teen suicide are on the rise.
In October, 13-year-old Sam Denham shot himself with a family gun at his home in Independence, Ky. A student at Woodland Middle School in Taylor Mill, Sam was considered a fairly typical adolescent who liked reading, coin collecting and was fascinated by luxury automobiles. His parents said Sam seemed happy before the incident, although they eventually learned he had become the subject of relentless bullying at school.
“He wasn’t depressed,” said Carol Denham, Sam’s mother, at the time. “He showed no signs whatsoever, nothing.”
In fact, a group of boys had been picking on Sam at school. They would pour milk on his head in the lunchroom, call him names like “faggot” and “dork,” and push his books out of his hand as he walked down the hall. Many of Sam’s friends knew what was happening, but school officials seemed ignorant or indifferent.
A few weeks after Sam’s death, the Kentucky Center for School Safety conducted a survey at Woodland that found 75 percent of students believed bullying is a problem at the middle school.
The Denham case is one of the reasons why the Northern Kentucky Youth Foundation is creating an anti-bullying program that can be used by schools free of charge in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties, and possibly others in the future.
“We’re working with local schools and organizations to create a community-wide response to bullying,” says Ryan Courtade, the foundation’s executive director. “This is an issue we need to get out into the open.”
Founded nearly three years ago, the Northern Kentucky Youth Foundation is a nonprofit youth advocacy organization that is composed entirely of volunteers. Courtade, who formerly was the youth leader at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Fort Thomas, said he saw the need for more after-school activities in Northern Kentucky, both to help keep kids out of trouble and to help them feel more invested in their communities.
So far, the foundation has created alcohol and tobacco use prevention programs, as well as a youth council that represents a cross-section of students from public, private and home-schooled environments. The youth council meets regularly and serves as an advisory group to the foundation’s board of directors, letting it know about issues of concern to students in the area.
A study by the Josephson Institute of Ethics — involving more than 43,000 high school students, the largest such effort ever undertaken about their attitudes and conduct — found that 47 percent reported being bullied, teased, or taunted in “a way that seriously upset them” during the past year.
Nationally, a child is bullied on the playground every seven minutes, while every seven seconds a teenager is bullied by another teen, according to the Kentucky Center for School Safety.
Although Kentucky enacted a law in April 2008 that requires all school districts in the commonwealth to have policies and procedures in place for dealing with bullying, many districts offer little more than a few paragraphs in a handbook that sits on a shelf.
“School districts have kind of been left on their own to deal with the mandate,” Courtade says. “Some do a better job than others, but many don’t have any resources.”
The foundation is seeking volunteers to help draft the local anti-bullying program which likely will include a website, short video, advertising and resource materials that can be used by educators to identify and stop bullying.
Partners in the effort so far include ex-Kenton County Superintendent Tim Hanner and Covington City Commissioner Shawn Masters.
Students who are being bullied should try to ignore the aggressor and walk away, if possible, experts say. Also, they should report the problem to someone in a position of authority. If that person doesn’t respond in a sufficient way, they should report it to someone else.
Physical self-defense should be used as a last resort, if a person is in a situation and cannot get away or summon help, experts add.
The damage caused by bullying can be even deeper than psychological scars or physical injuries.
A medical research study released in April reveals that bullying can prematurely age children at a cellular level by up to 10 years. The study, published in Molecular Psychiatry, found that violence inflicted on children can permanently alter their DNA, shortening their chromosomes faster than normal.
An international group of scientists conducted the study, which tracked more than 2,200 children born between 1994-95 in the United Kingdom.
In Ohio, schools must provide training on methods to identify and stop bullying to teachers, administrators, counselors and school psychologists. Incidents must be reported to the state.
“We have tried to be pro-active and make the parents aware of the signs of bullying,” says Bill Myles, assistant superintendent at Cincinnati Public Schools. “We also work with studetns and hold assemblies in school.”
As part of its effort, the Northern Kentucky Youth Foundation hopes to raise $11,000 to create the anti-bullying program so it can be offered free to districts. So far, about $2,000 has been raised.
“We’re spending the summer creating the program,” Courtade says. “We want to have the finished product ready and available for use by the fall, when the new school year starts.”©
For more information, visitwww.nkyyouth.org .