Research shows bullying is not a right of passage, but the sign of a bigger problem. Image courtesy Phineas H, flickr creative commons


Organizations around the state use nontraditional strategies to address bullying in schools.

By Hyun Namkoong

In 2011, almost half of all North Carolina middle-schoolers reported being bullied on school property.

Bullying in schools is often perceived as a rite of passage that “toughens” kids, but the recent suicide attempt by 11-year-old Michael Morones, a student at Zebulon Middle School, is a tragic example of what can happen when bullying is inadequately addressed.

And in the wake of several high-profile cases, more schools and organizations are making bullying prevention a priority. Programs around the state are using physical activity, positive peer pressure and discussions about mental illness to reduce bullying in schools.

Research shows bullying is not a right of passage, but the sign of a bigger problem. Image courtesy Phineas H, flickr creative commons
Research shows bullying is not a right of passage, but the sign of a bigger problem. Image courtesy Phineas H, flickr creative commons

Not a rite of passage

On Jan. 23, Morones attempted to hang himself from his bunk bed after persistent teasing and bullying for being a fan of the show My Little Pony.

“He suffered brain damage, but he is improving daily,” said Jon Lucas, the family’s representative.

In the wake of this incident, the family has created a foundation that will raise awareness on the harmful impact of bullying, Lucas said.

Multiple studies have documented the impact of bullying on health in students; children who are bullied have poorer physical and psychological outcomes such as depression, anxiety and a low sense of self-worth.

The outlook isn’t positive for kids who are bullies either. Research shows that bullies have a significantly higher risk for criminal behavior.

A lot of kids get in trouble for assault or fighting because they’re either bullied or are the bully, said Jim Barbee, center coordinator for the North Carolina Rural Academic Center for Excellence in Robeson County.

The North Carolina Center for Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention is a comprehensive collaboration between community organizations, local government and schools in Robeson County and the UNC School of Social Work and the UNC Injury Prevention Research Institute. It is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Violence Prevention.

Barbee coordinates Teen Court, which diverts teenagers who are first-time offenders from the juvenile-justice system and district court. North Carolina is one of two states in the country that try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
Teenagers volunteer their time and assume the roles of the attorneys, jury and bailiff.

“They are judged by a true jury of their peers,” he said. “It is a formalized process of the judicial system and we take it very seriously.”

Bullying has been around for a long time, but new forms of cyberbullying have proven to be particularly problematic. Illustration from "A Child's Garden of Verses" (1902)
Bullying has been around for a long time, but new forms of cyberbullying have proven to be particularly pervasive and difficult to manage. Illustration from A Child’s Garden of Verses (1902)

A key concept of Teen Court is to integrate at-risk youth with peer role models through participation in the program.

Every first-time offender has to serve jury duty, Barbee said. “They give back to the community. They actually begin to see the impact of what they’ve done.”

Online bullying

The explosion of social media has facilitated a sharp rise in online bullying. Cyber bullying often occurs on sites such as Facebook and can include mean-spirited emails, fake profiles that mock kids or the posting of inappropriate photos.

In February, a mother in Wake Forest reported to the police that nude photos of her then-14-year-old daughter were posted online. Since then, the State Bureau of Investigation has identified more than 30 accounts on Instagram that may have violated a state law that prohibits sharing nude images of minors.

But cyber bullying is difficult to control and monitor. It is widely pervasive and kids use the Internet to torment their peers long after the school bell rings.

“There is not much bullying at school, but it happens online,” said Michelle Zimmerman, a 16-year-old student at Carolina Friends School. “People post mean things on Facebook. It’s not usually face to face.”

Cyberbullying can be more dangerous than physical or social bullying, which involves harming an individual’s body, property or reputation. A recently published study found that cyberbullying was more strongly correlated to suicidal ideation than traditional bullying.

Given the ubiquity of smart phones in Gen Z kids, the Tar River Mental Health Association discusses cyberbullying, as well as mental illness, with fourth-graders in Nash-Rocky Mount elementary schools during their anti-bullying educational program.

Michelle Zimmerman Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong
Michelle Zimmerman, 16, says bullying these days often takes the form of online harassment rather than face-to-face provocation.  Photo credit: Hyun Namkoong

The bold bystander

Traditionally, anti-bullying programs have focused solely on the bully and bullied, but Peaceful Schools NC and Stuart Twemlow, a world-renowned expert in conflict resolution, emphasize the importance of the bold bystander who speaks out against bullying.

“Bullying is a social process, not a person,” Twemlow said in a discussion on bullying at the Chapel Hill Public Library on March 8. “Bullies only do what the bystander allows.”

Peaceful Schools NC, which is managed with oversight from the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Foundation, implemented a bold-bystander anti-bullying campaign in Carolina Friends School and Central Park School in Durham in 2009.

The bold-bystander approach is helpful for students who are reluctant to tell a teacher or an adult about a bully.

“Victims tend to feel so ashamed of themselves,” said Laurie King Billman, a licensed professional counselor. “They tend to take a responsibility for things happening to themselves and they don’t want to be perceived as a snitch.”

Confidence and courage are needed to be the bold bystander in a bullying situation.

“[We teach girls] that they have limitless potential,” said Juliellen Simpson-Vos, executive director of Girls on the Run of the Triangle.

Girls on the Run is a nonprofit organization that integrates running and community service to build character and instill confidence in girls from the third to fifth grade.

The girls receive lessons in problem-solving and communication strategies to get them to stand up to bullying, Simpson-Vos said.

Multiple strategies are used to confront bullying in schools in what experts call “an epidemic” that society and schools have failed to recognize.

However, the devastating consequences of bullying have not left the Morones family hopeless.

“Michael’s family is looking forward to the excitement and miracle of recovery,” Lucas said. “They are focused on the healing of their child.”

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Hyun graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings Global School of Public Health in the health behavior department and she worked as the NC Health News intern from Jan-Aug 2014.