TV special invites kids to talk about culture of bullying
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but despite the childhood retort, words can be just as hurtful - sometimes even deadly.
It's a subject middle-schoolers tackle in "Sticks, Stones & Cyberslams - a Nick News Special With Linda Ellerbee" that airs Sunday.
Real-life stories of bullying and the consequences prompted Emmy-winning journalist Ellerbee to create the special.
"For me, it was one week last year in which two little boys killed themselves," said Ellerbee, who is the creator, host and executive producer of the award-winning "Nick News," a news program for children and teens in which they discuss the issues of the world.
"And I remember reading both stories and, in my mind, trying to imagine an 11-year-old child tying a rope over something, getting up in a chair, putting the rope around his neck and standing there filled with such despair that he took a step off that chair ... and then I read where both were connected to bullying."
The introduction to the special leads off with Ellerbee reporting that, in the past 18 months, at least 10 kids "that we know of have killed themselves because of being bullied."
One was 13-year-old Texan John Carmichael. He was dumped in trash cans and had his clothes taken and hidden by bullies, said his friend, Lindsay, who says good night to his photo every night.
"Last March he hanged himself," she says in the show. "No one stood up for him. They just sat there and watched it happen."
Carl Walker Hoover, 11, was also targeted. His sister Dominique tells viewers "he was being called gay slurs because he didn't dress like everyone else."
"He always tucked in his shirt, wore a belt," she says. "He was a gentleman. I know there were some situations where he would tell my mom and she would go to school and the teachers would push it aside. Or they'd say, 'They're just kids being kids.' "
Last year, 15-year-old ninth-grader Phoebe Prince, who had moved from Ireland to South Hadley, Mass., was bullied enough that she took her own life.
"You can be targeted because you're tall, beautiful, short, awkward," says Barbara Coloroso, educator and author of "Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander," in the show. "Bullying is about treating another human being as an 'it.' Carl was called fag and queer and gay. Phoebe was called an Irish slut. It didn't matter what their sexual orientation was. It was a term used to make them into an 'it.' "
Hard to stand up to bullies
According to the special, approximately 45 to 60 percent of middle school students ages 11-14 report they have been targeted by their peers.
"Very few of those kids go on to kill themselves, but one is too many," says Ellerbee.
Of the kids on the show who were either bullied or were former bullies, five raised their hands when asked if they had thought about suicide. For some, the bullying started quickly and out of the blue.
"We were having a friendly game of football," said Zachary, 11, "and I started running with the ball, and then everybody just turned on me and tackled me. I sat down, and the bully just came over and peed on my head. Nobody did anything."
Another describes having an outgoing personality as a reason for being targeted.
"There's like a special ladder above you and they are all happy, bubbly and popular and people seem to like them, so you want to try and get above them by bringing others down," said Taylor, one of kids on the show.
Chris was shot with a BB gun because of his sexual orientation. Another victim was bullied because he was small. In some cases, when students were threatened with physical harm, the police were called but usually the family was told nothing could be done until there was actual physical contact. In some recent cases, charges have been filed.
Most of the time, no one tries to stop the bully because they don't wanted to be targeted, the kids say.
"You don't want to be the one who stands up for the boy who got peed on," says one child.
Those former bullies on the show say that they bullied because their friends did or it made them feel cool or powerful. Many were bullied as younger kids.
Using the Internet to taunt others, called cyber-bullying, is increasingly common and easy for the perpetrator.
"You feel like you have a lot more power behind the keyboard than to their face," says Bryson. "It stays there forever."
And those who let it happen and do nothing are just as involved, the kids agreed.
"If you sit on the side and watch, then you are part of the bullying process," says Taylor.
To that end, some kids have taken preventive steps of their own.
Doing something about it
Alena and Maddie, seen in a film clip, heard Prince's story and took action. They formed an Anti-Bullying League at their middle school, which includes fun activities, a Peace Day and having kids sign and read aloud Phoebe's Pledge which begins, "I pledge not to spread gossip in person or online." The league also sponsored a candlelight vigil for Phoebe and other victims.
In the adult world, explained Ellerbee, the schools blame the parents, the parents blame the schools and everyone blames the Internet.
Some solutions include having school buses monitored by high school students or other adults, establishing bullying laws (which can help after the fact) and showing kids what they themselves can do to help.
"I think this is one of the issues where kids have more power than they think they do," said Ellerbee. "Where they can do more than they think they can by standing up to bullies. Taking pledges to prevent it. If you see it, going to get three or four of your friends together to make it stop. And, if that doesn't work, go get a grown-up.
"One of the messages we are trying to send with our show is that you are not alone. You are not the only one feeling this way. For some kids, the center of the crisis is feeling you are the only one and no one else understands how painful this is. I'm encouraging kids to go get a parent to watch this show with them ...
"I think it's a conversation parents should have with their children."
Reality shows can set a bad example for bullying
Linda Ellerbee, who "listens to kids for a living" for the "Nick News With Linda Ellerbee" specials, attributes some bullying to the "Vulture Culture that we live in and the effect of what happens when we listen to adults on talk shows and reality shows."
"They could not be more rude and cruel," she said in a recent phone interview. "Let's look at reality series. We are going to vote you off the island. You are the weakest link. These shows are about bullying and we love them ... enough to keep them on the air.
"There's a part of me that looks and says 'Why are you surprised when your 11-year-old is bullying a 10-year-old? Didn't you watch last night and enjoy when somebody was brought to tears? This is the reality of reality TV.' "
More on bullying
One source of information on the topic of bullying and how to confront it is online at tulsaworld.com/bullying This website from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration includes tips on what kids and parents can do, plus games and webisodes on the subject.
EDIT: Sorry everyone, I didn't read this article until a couple of hours ago and didn't realize that the special had already aired. Did anyone catch it?