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Last month, the nation was stunned when Tyler Clement, an 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman, committed suicide by jumping from New York’s George Washington Bridge. Tyler killed himself after his roommate and another student broadcast an intimate video of him on the Internet.

Of course, the nation had been similarly shocked in January when Phoebe Prince, a 15- year-old Massachusetts girl, killed herself after being the target of vicious verbal and electronic attacks for more than three months.

Then there was Celina Okwuone, a Florida fifth grader who kissed her parents good night, then hung herself in her bedroom closet in May. In her diary, Celina wrote that classmates had ridiculed her for her weight, her looks, and the color of her skin.

An Oct. 6 New York Times article shared the story of Scarlett, who was being tormented by a “mean girl” classmate because of her clothes and because she couldn’t read. Scarlett had a mild learning disability and was only in kindergarten.

My 98-year-old mother, Myrtle, died last week. However, I can remember her telling me that she would take a switch to me, if ever anyone told her that I was mistreating other kids, especially those who were younger, weaker, or smaller than I was.  

Today, my mom might be arrested for “abusing” us, much as James Jones, an Army veteran, was arrested in Orlando last month. Jones boarded a school bus and gave a tongue lashing to some boys who had been physically and verbally abusing his 12-year-old daughter, who suffers from cerebral palsy. 

The National Council for Education Statistics reports that 25 percent of children are bullied on a daily or weekly basis. Nearly 9 out of 10 kids with disabilities say they have been assaulted and a similar number of gay and lesbian young people are bullied in school. In Texas, Asher Brown shot himself after he was repeatedly teased about his sexuality.

Last week, Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, issued a letter to schools and colleges across the nation advising them, “Bullying fosters a climate of fear and disrespect that can seriously impair the physical and psychological health of its victims.” The letter added that such behavior adversely affects the ability of students to achieve their full potential and could trigger legal action under federal anti-discrimination laws.

When parents, families, and other adults are unwilling to step up and do the right thing, the government ends up playing the role that parents, families and educators once performed. Accordingly, an increasing number of states are joining California, whose State Board of Education passed an anti-bullying policy in 2001.

Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, recently advised that children need to be taught from an early age that bullying is not OK.  However, while 67 percent of parents of 3- to 7-year-olds worry that their children will be bullied, some parents appear to think it’s cute when their daughters and sons are the most popular because they are “assertive.” Teachers frequently suggest that “mean” boys and girls often come from “mean” moms and dads.

The New York Times column quoted Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt, a children’s mental health professional, as saying that kids mirror the larger society.  

“So much of what passes for entertainment is about being rude, nasty, and crass,” she added. 

Several years ago, the controversial former NBA star Charles Barkley was criticized for not acting like a role model. Sir Charles was on the mark, when he responded, “I believe parents should be role models not someone like me.” Adonal Foyle, another NBA player, added, “‘Role model’should be a special title for people who exemplify the essence of civic responsibility.”

“Civility” is the newest byword in U.S. organizations, as well as on the nation’s school and college campuses. Civility is a fancy way of saying, treat people as if they were your classmates, your colleagues, or members of your community. Treat people as fellow human beings, worthy of the same basic respect you would wish for yourself — or for your parents, your children or grandchildren, your brothers or sisters.

The results of another nationally representative poll found that 37 percent of the U.S. workforce reported being bullied at work. That study concluded that rude and discourteous behaviors cause the same negative effects on workers as those same behaviors have on children and young people. 

Perhaps if someone had taken a switch to those workers when they were youngsters ...

(Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to:


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