"My View: Another suicide could have been prevented"

Eden Wormer, 14, hanged herself earlier this month. She was bullied for two years at Cascade Middle School in Vancouver, Washington. It could have been prevented. Her suicide and the school shooting at Chardon High School in Ohio a few weeks ago - and the hundreds of other suicides, shootings and other acts of despair - happen in a culture of misery our children endure every day.

Students tell us over and over that they are hated, ostracized and/or harassed at school and no one helped them. They are right. The national efforts to pass anti-bullying legislation are doing little if anything to solve the problem. In many cases, they are making it worse. These kids need a school community that cares about them. They need teachers and students who are there for them, who stand up for them and who reiterate the importance of compassion and kindness in their school every day.

Kids don't commit desperate acts such as these when they feel loved and love others. But that's not so easy to do today. These atrocities occur at a time when - since the 1980s - social isolation in the United States has tripled, according to the 2004 General Social Survey. Depression and anxiety and related disorders are at extreme heights among adults and youth. In “Comfortably Numb,” Charles Barber tells us that we make up two-thirds of the global anti-depressant market. Jacqueline Olds and Barry Schwartz sum it up in the title of their book, “The Lonely American.”

Most schools are microcosms of our larger unhealthy society, pushing kids too hard, recommending success at any cost regardless of others’ feelings or needs and prepping them for more assessment exams in lieu of exciting and meaningful learning.

But schools don't have to be part of the problem. They could be the solution.

Right now schools are driving fast down the wrong road. Because of Washington's 2010 comprehensive anti-bullying and harassment legislation, Eden Wormer's school district has a website where people can anonymously report bullying by phone, text, or e-mail. The director of community relations at Evergreen School District, Carol Fenstermacher, said, however, that people sometimes don't report bullying because they fear retaliation.

That's because the important work is not routing out the bullying behavior once it happens. It is on the ground in meetings, discussions and exercises with kids where real bonds and friendships and a concern for everyone in the community are created.

I've been in schools that have done this, and it works. I've worked in schools where the kids experienced homelessness, gangs, child abuse, domestic violence, drug-ridden neighborhoods and worse. Yet they thrived in our community, where they felt cared about by other students and teachers, where they had a voice and where they led weekly meetings focused on creating and developing our caring and intellectually vibrant community. The year I left one such school, 100% of students got into four-year colleges and universities, 30% with full scholarships. Many went on to graduate programs, helping professions and other promising futures.

Kids from more privileged schools need this kind of community just as badly. In “The Price of Privilege,” Madeline Levine writes that wealthy youth are more depressed and anxious than those from more challenging backgrounds. The bullying cultures in their schools are generally unforgiving.

Miracles happen when kids feel cared about, especially in the midst of a harsh school culture where everyone is pressured to sell each other's secrets for popularity, and to ruin one another's reputation for more social status. The "popular" kids don't necessarily have real friends, they are just better at the game. And they kill themselves just as often as those considered outcasts - like Alexis Pinkerton, who was a popular cheerleader, and Phoebe Prince, who dated a varsity football player.

The zero tolerance policies aren't working, as an extensive report, "Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence," makes clear. The increase in suspensions and expulsions only fuel the wrath of already unhappy and ostracized students.

According to my data, between 1979 and 2011, 48 of 191 school shootings were executed by students who said they were retaliating against unfair disciplinary measures or bad grades. Between 1979 and 2008, there were at least eight of these kinds of shootings; the number doubled to 16 from 1979 to 1988, and increased again to 19 between 1999 and 2008. Another five occurred between 2009 and 2011. This increase accompanies a trend in school policies toward exclusionary disciplinary procedures such as suspension, other zero-tolerance policies, and an increasing emphasis on high stakes tests, grades and test scores.

Most of the other shootings related directly to school bullying. From 1979 to 2008, nearly 50% were by boys who felt they had to use violence to prove their masculinity when their manhood was questioned. Approximately twenty percent related directly to sexual harassment or other forms of violence directed at girls. About ten percent were by heterosexual boys who retaliated against other boys who called them gay, another 10% were committed by boys after they were rejected by a girl, and the few girls who perpetuated shootings largely targeted those who called them "gay" or "slut."

These kids, and all the others crying out in quieter ways, need someone to talk to about their confusion, hurts and anger. They need other adults and kids to care about them, and help them feel they are part of a larger whole: a school that needs them, depends on them and appreciates them.

The school shooters aren't the only ones sending these messages. We hear these and other cries of anguish from the kids who commit suicide, cut themselves and stop coming to school. The kids who commit shootings just say it the loudest.

Schools don't need more regulations. They need help creating a caring social environment in which students aren't ostracized and tormented in the first place. These after-the-fact policies and procedures often indicate a school's resignation to hosting a bully culture. Instead, they need to transform their bully society into a compassionate community.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jessie Klein.

Girls Get Called "Slut" Everyday

Girls get called "slut" every day. My students are so used to getting bullied and harassed they can't imagine a school without bullying. A student in one of my classes once said, "Get over it." They look at me like I'm some kind of crazy pollyanna professor when I suggest that it doesn't have to be that way. The repercussions are growing however, even as students become more resigned.

Social isolation has tripled since the eighties according to the 2004 General Social Survey. Depression occurs at increasingly younger ages; 1 out of 3 high school girls are depressed, and 29 percent of all teenagers. Anxiety is so high among children that psychologist Jean M. Twenge wrote that children considered "normal in the eighties were substantially more anxious than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s!" No wonder children are becoming resigned—their highly disturbing emotional stress is considered "just fine."

It's not though. And kids are dying. They are being killed in school shootings and they are committing suicide. Every year we hear about youth who were bullied so badly they took their own life. There is a culture of despair in schools.

Ten-year-old Ashlynn Connor, a cheerleader and honor student killed herself in November 2011 in Ridge Farm, Illinois, last November. Her mother said: "They'd call her a slut. 'Ashlynn's ugly.' 'She's fat.'"

Alexis Pilkington, 17, of Suffolk County, New York, killed herself in March 2010. She was a popular athlete and incited some jealousy—her Facebook page became littered with personal insults, sexually suggestive comments, and pictures of people killing themselves. The taunts continued after her death. One person wrote: "She was obviously a stupid depressed—who deserved to kill herself. she got what she wanted. be happy for her death. rejoice in it."

Phoebe Prince, 15, in January 2010, made the mistake of dating a popular senior football player at South Hadley High in Massachusetts. Girls called her "Irish slut" and "whore" on Facebook and Twitter. They didn't think a freshman immigrant had the right to date a varsity athlete.

Most of the harassment doesn't end in death—instead children are found with depleted self-esteem, self-cutting, truancy, substance abuse, debilitating anxiety, and depression.

Many youth have no idea what it means to have real friends. Girls (and boys) desperately want authentic friendships and connections. Too often, though, they find that their relationships in school are largely instrumental—students trade each other's secrets as information capital, exploit their sexual interactions to try to become popular, and compromise their former values to be accepted. Where students look for friendship, intimacy, and self-acceptance, many find it "makes more sense" to mistrust. They learn quickly that punishment for going against the expectations of those students perceived as popular may well land them at the bottom of their school's hierarchy and render them a target. Slut bashing (and gay bashing) become normal aspects of children's days as they vie for dominance rather than seek connections. Prejudice regarding race, class, ability, sexuality, and other differences can become the glue that cements student relationships rather than their more intrinsic interests and passions.

Girls get called "slut" every day. And it is not okay. They are told in one way or another that they are not acceptable as they are—then their sexuality is scrutinized and judged relentlessly; the barometers by which girls are being judged are steeped in prejudice and envy. Schools need to figure out ways to bring these issues out to the open. Schools need to help kids develop real friendships based on trust, kindness, and meaningful sharing. Right now many students objectify one another and some can't even feel empathy when their peers die.

Today, connecting with other human beings and ourselves, valuing other people as priorities in one's life, caring for others, and living with compassion and empathy are unusual. Among college students, those who started after 2000 have empathy levels 40 percent lower than those who came before them, according to Maia Szalavitz, co-author of the 2011 book, Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential—and Endangered.

True friendship based on deep love, trust, and support of one another is literally revolutionary—as Robin Morgan famously proclaimed with the title of her 1970 anthology, Sisterhood is Powerful. We need to help girls build trusting friendships.  

Contemporary society encourages people, instead, to achieve socially, academically, and professionally at anyone's expense—and the cost to personal relationships is devastating.

New studies show that female animals like monkeys, baboons, and porpoises make lasting friendships with one another. Yet in today's cutthroat and competitive environment, too many of us have forgotten how to care. It’s time to change schools’ culture of misery

(CNN) - Misery has become the norm for young people in school - the Ohio school shooting last week and the case of the Rutgers University cyber-bullying suicide are only the most high-profile of recent related fatalities.

Such despairing actions like suicides and shootings aren’t aberrations. Kids across America are distressed and crying out for help in different ways. When they abuse substances, cut themselves, sink into debilitating depression and paralyzing anxiety, become truant, drop out of school or commit suicide or school shootings, they are saying the same thing: It is too much to bear.

These incidents and the hundreds that came in the decades before, are treated time and again as problems with the individual at the center of the story – but Tyler Clementi and T.J. Lane are not the only lonely teens who were at risk for drastic actions like suicide and shootings.

Educators, parents, and other concerned people often ask me to describe the profile of a bully or someone likely to commit suicide, but this is the wrong question. Instead, we need to examine problem-schools where kids endure a hostile environment every day.

Classic sociologist Émile Durkheim wrote in his seminal work, “Suicide,” that when the same affliction appears again and again, we must question whether something is amiss in our larger social, economic and political sphere. It is no longer reasonable to look merely at familial contexts or only at the pathology of a given individual. When school shootings and suicides persist as they do today, and in the company of high rates of depression, anxiety and social isolation among youth and adults, something must be wrong on a much larger level. Schools are in a position to be part of the solution - but too often they maintain the status quo where children are left to handle everything on their own.

Students are encouraged to be competitive and aggressive, to pursue success - socially and otherwise - with a single-minded zeal, and to step on anyone that gets in their way. Perhaps related, the 2004 General Social Survey reports that social isolation has tripled since the 1980s, while many studies show depression and anxiety have increased significantly among both adults and youth in the same time period.

We see this in the cases of Lane, the alleged school shooter in Ohio, and Clementi, who jumped off a bridge after his Rutgers University roommate broadcast online a sexual encounter between Clementi with a man; the roommate, Dharun Ravi, is now on trial for hate crimes and other charges. Lane and Clementi were both described by peers as outcasts. Lane is said to have few friends and a hard home life. Clementi was described as a loner, and lonely. In conversations reported in The New Yorker, Clementi had said: “I need some people in my life.” Both seemed irritated at the other’s “modest roots.”

Kids routinely speak about one another with racist, classist, and other forms of prejudice that objectify others. Girls get called “slut” and “whore,” boys get called “gay,” white poor people are called “white trash” and the list goes on. Increasing one’s social status by putting others down is par for the course. Broadcasting secrets or sexual images of each other is common and part of the culture of deceit, mistrust and cold clawing for recognition that students learn is necessary for social survival.

Schools can’t handle these problems by themselves – it’s difficult for the school community to flourish when it is infiltrated by violent media, hard economic times with little social support, and families without tools to help children navigate a harsh world. There aren’t enough counselors and social workers to help all the students who are having a hard time.

But individualizing the problem is just another way of avoiding it.

While working on my book, “The Bully Society,” I cataloged every shooting that took place in a school - not all of them high-profile or mass shootings - and found that between 1979 and 2009, approximately 30% of the school shootings were related to rage at schools for disciplinary practices which were perceived by the perpetrator to be unjust; 15% related to dating or domestic violence; another 20% consisted of violence directed specifically at girls or women; and 10% of the shootings were triggered by gay-bashing, in which heterosexually identified students tried to prove their masculinity through violence when their sexuality was questioned. These are social problems, not just individual matters.

Schools need to address the concerns children and teens face, openly and honestly and in an environment that promotes empathy. Kids - and adults - ought to be taught how to develop friendships based on trust and care, rather than competition and envy. Kids could use help to share deeply with each other instead of using one another’s secrets as valued commodities to be traded for social status. They need a reprieve from the bully society where so many are out to destroy others in order to make themselves look better

And kids need to be pathologized less. What they need is to be part of compassionate communities.

These can be created and developed by almost anyone. Counselors or social workers could be the ones to start a movement for creating more compassionate school communities - or teachers, parents, or other school faculty. Student leaders, even self-appointed, could build fervor for compassion and care in their schools.

I worked for five years as a social worker in a community-focused school, Humanities Preparatory Academy in New York. Every week, we had all-school, student-led meetings about issues that concerned the school. In Advisories, often called homerooms elsewhere, students discussed their concerns in smaller groups and participated in exercises that helped foster student and school faculty bonding. Even though it was an at-risk school for truant kids, and many came from devastating backgrounds including gangs, homelessness and domestic violence, we helped almost every student get into four-year colleges, and many with scholarships. This school continues to be a mostly peaceful and supportive place, especially as compared to other schools in the same area.

Schools could have all-school emergency meetings if anyone is hurt in the community; we can’t wait for the bullying to become “a repeated offense” as some define it. Prejudicial slurs of any kind should not be tolerated - including any racist, classist, sexist, or otherwise disparaging judgments. People need to stand up and say that speaking of one another pejoratively is unacceptable. It must become everyone’s mission to uphold values of concern for everyone. This can happen in so many ways, like students working in small groups with those whom they might not otherwise interact.

Every conflict and difficulty needs to become a teaching moment, not a cause for punishment. Students (and adults) must learn how to communicate with one another with respect.

With these efforts, our children will learn and grow with integrity, ethics and a warm regard for themselves and others. In such a school environment, we will have increasingly healthier children. We won’t have to look for what’s wrong with yet another child who exploded in one form or another - we’ll build schools, and in time, a larger society, where children (and adults) finally thrive.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Jessie Klein.