Simpson: Teach skills to fend off bullies
Forget about the adage about "sticks and stones." Any victim of bullying will tell you that names do indeed hurt -- and leave emotional scars that can shatter confidence and self-esteem.
"I'm starting to believe now that I would rather have a bruise than have someone tear a piece out of me with their words," said Logan West, 17, a senior at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts.
Logan remembers the trauma of being tormented, five years ago, by a classmate and her friends who taunted Logan for "not acting your skin color." Logan is a light-skinned black girl and the reigning Miss Connecticut Teen 2012. She was a guest on my TV show a few weeks back, talking about bullying and how to confront it.
Approximately 25 percent of Connecticut high school students -- and at least 35 percent of ninth-graders -- report being bullied. The victims can become depressed and less engaged in school. Last year, Connecticut passed an anti-bullying law that requires schools to investigate any reports of bullying and inform parents of the results.
Logan is pageant-show pretty, poised, smart and self-assured. But her voice still cracks and her eyes tear when she recalls the taunts of her tormentors when she was 12. They teased Logan for the way she talked, dressed, walked, you name it. To these misguided misfits, Logan was betraying her race and "acting white." Logan's face is not the one we usually see associated with victims. Bullies like to go after vulnerable people struggling with self-image.
An aspiring teen beauty contestant is normally not the target. In dealing with the bullies, Logan did just about everything right -- and one thing wrong. She ignored them. But they continued taunting. She reported it to her mom and the school. The bullies, in turn, labeled her a "snitch" and the name-calling intensified. One day, Logan had enough. After being pelted with a quesadilla that a tormentor chewed, spit out and threw at her, Logan lobbed a wad of rice at her.
"Instantly, I knew it was wrong," Logan says now. "And my bully got up and punched me right in the face in front of everybody." Both got suspended for two days.
"I waited so long to say something that it was almost my fault," she said.
Eventually the bully transferred. Logan, who wants to be a lawyer, later created a program called "Bully Proof: Empowering Children Today to Prevent Bullying Tomorrow." She has talked to thousands of Connecticut young people about the ramifications of bullying. If you are a local educator, call her. (Her email is email@example.com.)
"I loved school with all my heart," says Logan, the eldest of two girls, raised by a single mom in Southington. "I wanted to be up every morning. I was ready to go. I did my homework. But when I was being bullied, I found every excuse not to go to school."
One of the most important things any child who is being bullied at school can do is to tell an adult, Logan says. It is also important, she says, to educate children about the difference between bullying (repetitive tearing down of another with words or physical threats) and teasing (occasional good-natured jabs).
The new law encourages parents and schools to work together on creating environments in which bullying is not tolerated. One thing I do in conversations with my 12-year-old daughter is always ask if anyone is bothering her. The question usually elicits some sort of response, not necessarily about bullying, but a conflict she may be having that particular day. Role-playing is good too. Teaching kids how to respond to those first taunts can be everything. It's like martial arts training to protect their self-esteem.
Logan offered a surprising retort when I asked what she would tell her bully if she saw her today.
"Thank you," Logan said. "Because if it weren't for her I would not have the confidence or the strength that I have right now. I gained this whole new sense of strength that I can teach youths how to protect themselves from this horrible epidemic called bullying."
Stan Simpson is host of "The Stan Simpson Show" (www.ctnow.com/stan) in Connecticut and senior executive adviser at the Hartford Journalism & Media Academy. He wrote this for the Hartford Courant.