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Saturday, October 9, 2010

No bullies left behind.

When Tyler Clementi took his own life after being recorded in an intimate moment by his roommate, the age-old problem of bullies made headlines once again. The result since then has been a public outcry over the intolerance the GLBT community faces. Even celebrities have thrown their support behind the issue by offering emotional support. As the clip above shows, a few are doing it with the message of “It gets better.”

A message which is also part of Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project, highlighing stories of kids who were bullied because they were gay. It’s such a strong rallying cry that I could see this being the main message of a global campaign surrounding the issue. Would it eliminate the problem? Hard to say, but I bet the message could save a lot of kids who feel there’s no way out of the torment. A few things are being overlooked though when it comes to this problem.

Bullying is not just a problem affecting the GLBT community.

Much as I love that line, that’s what the title of the post is about, in that, it’s easy to have the implications of this tragic story overshadow the larger issue of bullying in general. It’s both easy and dangerous to frame the broader issue of bullying in the context of sexual preference alone. Doing so ignores the thousands of kids who suffer at the hands of bullies for other reasons.

To be clear: That’s not meant to disparage or undermine the number of cases where someone is tormented by another because they’re gay. The thing is that bullying doesn’t discriminate. It affects anyone regardless of sexual orientation.

“It gets better” is a call for all of them.

At it’s core, bullying is about power. It’s something the bully thinks they have – and something the victim thinks they don’t. It happens in schools across the country every single day to any number of kids.

Is tolerance the answer? Some say yes, others say no. Compounding the nature of the problem is the psychological component. It’s the subtle and not so subtle verbal threats. The staring down as one person walks by. The physical isn’t always a punch or shove either. It can also take indirect forms with stuff written on a locker – or Facebook.

For their part, teachers and the administration are hard-pressed to deal with it because they have so many other things going on in their day. From getting kids the extra resource help they need to – thanks to Columbine – the seemingly innocent *list* found on a kid which then becomes a matter for the police. Cyber-bullying is just one more thing they need to get up to speed on.

Coupled with a teacher who can’t watch everyone all the time and a bully who *behaves* around them, there’s no real way to prevent it. (Or is there?) A kid’s entire year can be ruined just because one person who has it in for them happens to be in all their classes. After years of abuse?

Their entire life can be ruined – or worse.

It gets better is one message to help kids cope and diffuse a lot of their frustrations, but it’s not enough. I know, I've been on both sides. You get bigger, you get more patient, and people stop messing with you. Sometimes karma steps in and takes care of the bully. Other times, karma makes them your future boss.

Where are the parents in all of this?

That’s half-question, half-rhetorical. As a parent, I can’t express how disgusted I am to think that a kid would choose to kill themselves instead of coming out to their family or to be so embarrassed that they saw no other solution. I’m projecting a lot with that statement because maybe he had told them. Maybe it didn’t go well. You wouldn’t know it by the news though because all it mentioned from the parents was an odd statement about legalities and respecting their privacy.

Since coming out is the single most important hurdle someone who is gay might face, I want to believe a family’s acceptance would’ve been all the strength they needed to get past this. Otherwise, if you can't turn to your family, the only thing left is a support network of friends.

Barring that, well, what’s left?

Were the parents tolerant and he had other issues we don’t know about? Maybe. I know I’ve said to my own kids that the only thing that matters in life is that you’re happy, no matter who you’re with. But everyone isn’t me.

Then there’s the level of digital awareness by parents. If parents are supposedly so naive as to the nuances of a social network, then Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, the students behind this mess show just how much *kids* still don’t understand the ramifications of their actions in the same space. On the surface, this is a college prank gone terribly wrong. But the shame Tyler felt highlights the problems the GLBT community have had to face all their lives.

Welcome to the future. Dharun and Molly and others like them are the so-called digital natives of this era. Looks instead like the natives are restless clueless. So sayeth the digital settler.

The parents of bullies.

Whether it’s not being present in their kids’ lives in any meaningful way, or fostering an environment that their spawn takes out on others, they sometimes have no clue, and other times, know full well and all but challenge you to do something about it. Confronting the parents of a bully is supposed to do what, I’m not sure. The anger you feel almost gives way to pity, because it’s clear the attitude of the parent couldn’t help but raise a kid like theirs, so who do you blame? In this case, I chalk it up to evil.

The media.

This goes back to the part of the story where I couldn’t figure out why a kid would do this unless there were some serious issues going on at home. I’m not blaming the media, but why not do more than write sensational headlines with stories like this? Instead, make this a learning moment where stories include a number urging kids and parents to call if they’re facing the same bullying or coming out issues. Maybe it would let people know they’re not alone.

Is any of this an answer? I don’t know. Even though I’m disgusted and fed up by all of this, I’m also not sure what the answer is. There’s no one thing you can point to and say, yes, that’s the perfect solution. I just know what’s not a solution.

You just wish more of those kids knew, too.

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