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Opinion: How bystanders can protect kids from bullying
EricJames Borges, a gay teen from California who made an "It Gets Better" video last month, killed himself last week.
January 16th, 2012
02:39 PM ET

Opinion: How bystanders can protect kids from bullying

Editors Note: David M. Hall, Ph.D., is the author of “BullyShield,” an iPhone and Droid app. He is he author of the book “Allies at Work: Creating a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Inclusive Work Environment.”  Hall teaches high school students as well as graduate courses on LGBT issues and bullying prevention. His website is www.davidmhall.com and he is on twitter @drdavidmhall

By David M. Hall, Special to CNN

(CNN) - When EricJames Borges was in college, he said, his mother performed an exorcism over him to “cure” him of being gay. He recalled reaching a breaking point in high school when he was assaulted in class while a teacher was present. He said that verbal and physical assaults, which included being spit on, occurred on a daily basis.

Borges' personal pain was evident in the "It Gets Better" video he published in December, when his disposition and mood seem to provide a window into the ways he was tormented. In an effort to help vulnerable LGBT teens, he volunteered for The Trevor Project, an LGBT suicide-prevention organization.

Last week, Borges committed suicide.

In coverage of this tragic story, much attention has been paid to the fact that through his work with The Trevor Project, he knew what counseling resources were at his disposal, though he didn't manage to access them. However, little attention has been paid to what bystanders could have done at a more formative time in his life. Allies and bystanders could have protected Borges from years of isolation and the devastating feelings that accompany it.

The voice of one bystander can stop bullying. Sadly, the collective sound of bystander silence often speaks much louder, providing bullies with unspoken approval. The result of bystander silence is often that bullying intensifies.

Joey Kemmerling was routinely bullied in high school. He came out during middle school in an affluent, Philadelphia suburb. During gym class, Kemmerling said students told him, “’faggots can’t watch us get changed,’” and threw him out of the locker room. He says 30 students watched in silence.

Kemmerling explained that the multiple, silent bystanders make, “one comment feel like it’s being said by 18 people.... It wasn’t more than three to four kids [who bullied me], but it would feel like so much more. The isolation was so much greater, the sense of feeling as if you don’t belong just intensifies immensely.”

By high school, Kemmerling said he had a classmate pull a knife on him and say, “Your life is literally in my hands.”  Kemmerling told security, but he said they did nothing.

Kemmerling  said his pain and isolation resulted in formulating a plan to commit suicide, to hang himself from a school staircase. As he reached the staircase, he made a last-minute decision to live.

According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, more than 60% of students feel unsafe at school due to their sexual orientation and 40% feel unsafe due to their gender expression. Not surprisingly, the same study shows that increased levels of victimization result in increased levels of depression.

Dan Olweus has pioneered a program to reduce bullying in schools, focusing on what he calls the bullying circle.  The circle is made up of not just the bully and his target but also bystanders:

Follower or Henchmen: student takes an active role but does not start the bullying.

Passive Bully: student supports the bullying but does not take an active part.

Passive Supporter: student likes the bullying but does not display open support.

Disengaged Onlooker:  student watches but feels that it is "none of my business.’"

Possible Defender: student dislikes the bullying but doesn’t intervene.

Defender: student dislikes the bullying and helps the target.

The bully often likes negative attention from teachers, and therefore punishment has a limited impact. Indeed, being a bully often makes a kid popular.

What about other students in the bullying circle? How can school officials help change their behavior?  To turn a possible defender into a defender is quite possible. Turning the disengaged onlooker into a possible defender is a reasonable goal. The passive supporter can become a disengaged onlooker. The passive bully can be moved to a passive supporter.

In short, adults can help to dissemble the bullying circle. If bullying doesn’t give the bully more positive attention from his peers, we tend to see a lot less of it.

After long term commitment to Olweus methods (studies looked at eight and 20 month interventions), his research claims bullying in schools drops by more than 50%.  I have worked with hundreds of teachers in my graduate course on bullying prevention, and this program works when implemented correctly.

Little or haphazard training and commitment to bullying prevention in high schools is too often the norm. Why don't more schools adopt such programs? Professional development – which takes time– is necessary to reduce bullying.  A lot of teacher time is spent on preparing students for high stakes standardized tests required by federal law. Bullying prevention will be widely implemented when reducing such destructive behavior is as important as increasing standardized test scores.

Kemmerling, now a high school senior, switched to a neighboring school and finally feels safe and welcome. Today he is working on his college essay and has larger plans to change the world.

Kemmerling once had someone who was tormenting him then stop the bullying. “There were four or five kids calling me a faggot ... One of them said, ‘We’ve said enough. Come on, let’s go.’ Just the way that he was able to stop the comments with something so simple was so beneficial to my life.”

What is your school district’s policy on bullying? Does it include sexual orientation and gender identity or expression? How many in-service hours are dedicated to bullying? Do children learn how to be defenders?

If the answers you receive from your district are not satisfactory, if bullying prevention is not as important as standardized test scores, then become an advocate for change.

We will never know what was truly in EricJames Borges' head and heart. Yet we know he said that, for years, bystanders looked on while he was verbally and physically attacked. We know that his experience built walls of isolation around him that proved suffocating.

Your efforts for bystander empowerment in your community may save lives not just of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender adolescents like Borges, but of all kids.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David M. Hall.

soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Jeferson

    Great items from you, man. I have consider your stuff oepvirus to and you're just too wonderful. I actually like what you have got right here, really like what you are stating and the best way in which you are saying it. You are making it enjoyable and you still care for to stay it smart. I cant wait to learn much more from you. That is really a tremendous site.

    April 18, 2012 at 8:07 am | Report abuse |
  2. Christine

    Joey is such an inspiration to so many people, and his willingness to share his struggles publicly make all the difference in the world. Dr. Hall, your work on bullying and teaching about bystander intervention is invaluable, and I continue to recommend it to many, many people. Thank you both for continuing to raise awareness and encourage people who are suffering from the devastation of bullying. Keep up the good fight!

    February 12, 2012 at 10:11 am | Report abuse |
  3. Darrick Sampson (Hong Kong)

    Thank you David for your work here. The articulation of the different types of bullies and solutions offered will have an impact. I think Joey Kemmerling's story makes it real- and Joey's personal strength and perseverance against hate are to be admired. dgs

    January 18, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Report abuse |
  4. CindeE

    We must speak up each time we see an incident. It is never not our business as human beings and adults – if we who do not help protect them who will? Bullying is the same as child abuse. You would never stand by and see a child abused so why would you not speak up and be an example to those around you. Stand up and speak out right away!

    January 18, 2012 at 5:31 am | Report abuse |
  5. achepotle

    How will America every confront bullying when you have a jacka$$ like R.I. State Rep Palumbo bullying a 16 year old school girl and calling Jessica Ahlquis an "evil little thing" , while she is being peppered with hate messages from the local Christian community? .American culture seems to be built on bullying from the top down.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
  6. Nick

    this is a very important subject but needs to be brought to the forefront more often. just this weekend a girl took her life after being bullied at the junior high school i went to. its very tragic and should not have happened. i beleive they had people go to the middle schools and talk about bullying. i know they talked about it at my high school, hour and a half long(but still important) presentation.

    January 17, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nick

      just want to add i dont know why she was bullied.

      January 17, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Gman

    I agree with what the intent of this article was about, but there was one thing left out. Schools cannot be responsible for raising children all on their own, parents have to be involved as well.

    The problem with that is, that most of the time parents don't see what is happening. There are also the flip-flop parents. They complain when the school does nothing or at best a little to stop something, but then also complain when the school adopts a curriculum to stop these incidents and their child gets in trouble for it. You can't complain from both sides of the issue, and you can't blame the school for not raising YOUR child.

    January 17, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • katerina4life

      I completely agree with what you're saying, but I think that the article was saying that it is just important for peers and teachers to watch out for people being bullied just as much as their parents

      January 17, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Kim

    I am against bullying however those who do not speak up are often fearful of receiving the same treatment or label thus thrusting them into the continuous line of fire. I may have missed it but the article seems to miss this point or concern. I do support standing up but the article is narrow.

    January 17, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • SadieBlue

      Your statement is so true. How do kids protect each other without themselves becoming a target? Many are afraid to take that chance. Schools seem to just make the potential for these situations to happen. I believe that it needs to start with a school staff who is well trained for these types of situations, and who are punished if they do not intervene or report bullying. After all, in school, the students are still children and the teachers are supposed to be in charge. But I certainly do agree that children need to band together and help one another when possible. It mainly comes down to youth with no compassion or regard for others. How to address that is a much bigger issue.

      January 17, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  9. El Duderino (if you're not into the whole brevity thing)

    I remember in junior high school there was a bully giving me a hard time. Fortunately I wore rings with spikes on them (metal-head stage in my youth), so when he messed with me, I punched him until half of his face was lacerated by my spiked rings. I remember the blood all over my knuckles.

    Don't tolerate being bullied; beat the !@#$ out of them. It's not like the teachers are going to help you. School's a lot like prison. Nobody respects a snitch, and the authorities won't be able to help you. The only way you're going to get any respect in "the yard" and stop the bullying is if you stand up for yourself.

    January 17, 2012 at 12:55 am | Report abuse |
    • gotacomment

      That's all very well, and I salute you for giving your bully a good lesson, but your confrontation was one-on-one. Four or five against one kid being bullied is not a fair fight, and unless the bullied kid has karate skills at the Olympic level, the mob is going to win that round.

      January 17, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
      • wmurderface

        That's why if there is more than 1 you get them alone and give them a really nasty beating. Phonebook and a rubber mallet comes to mind

        January 17, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jose

    Bullies should be publically neutered.

    January 16, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Chris Bursk

    The more stories of youth like Joey K who find a place of safety,
    the more youth can come to realize there are such places
    and it is not just possible for them to find them but their
    right to such places, to such safety! Tjhanks for sharing
    this story!

    January 16, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Deborah Sagan, Certified OBPP Trainer

    It is wonderful to know that Dr. Olweus' Bullying Prevention Program is being continually effectively implemented and recognized. Dr. Hall continues to advance the program through his outstanding efforts! Emphasis on efforts to educate and involve bystanders is powerful! Hopefully, the young man whose life change was supported by 'bystanders' that stepped up will continue to heal.

    January 16, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      Bullying Requires Non-Education Professionals Bullying requires non-education pssaeorionfls to step in.Unfortunately, education pssaeorionfls, as experienced as theyare and have to be with education-related matters, do not havethe know-how or experience needed to deal with radicallyuncontrolled bullying. However, there are police (men and women), psychologists (men and women), and therapists (men and women) who are not in the business of education; but who are trained to deal with the deviant behavior expressed by a true bully. A 1-800 number for bully victims that is easy to remember should be plastered everywhere in schools from the classrooms to the halls to the restrooms to the playgrounds to the busses and athletic fields as gentle reminders to students thinking of getting out of line (bullying). This no-nonsense number would direct the bully victim to immediate help by trained pssaeorionfls who will evaluate professionally the bully's mental health and stable or unstable home situation; deal with the bully's deviant behavior; and help the bully victim through the merciless trauma/abuse he/she experienced all without repercussions to the actual victim. Of course, legal action and prosecution against the bully (not the school) go without saying. As an added incentive, the school administration may dial the number from the school office. Often, but not always, the bully is a repeat offender. Reporting the crime helps authorities build a case against said bully in court holding the bully accountable for his/her actions.

      April 18, 2012 at 12:08 am | Report abuse |
  13. Joan Garrity

    I hope your article gets widespread attention. So tragic that it, like the Trevor Project, was inspired by yet another needless death.
    Each of us has a responsibility to act in the presence of bullying. Every journey starts with one step; every intervention starts with one voice. Thank you, Dr. Hall!

    January 16, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
  14. David Trevaskis

    I was touched to read that "Kemmerling, now a high school senior, switched to a neighboring school and finally feels safe and welcome. Today he is working on his college essay and has larger plans to change the world."

    Joey, you are a hero in my book already for not letting the haters win.

    January 16, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
  15. David Trevaskis

    As an Olweus Bullying Prevention Trainer, I appreciate the way Dr. Hall has adapted Dr. Owleus' work to the often overlooked area of LGBTQ kids being bullied.

    Wonderfully affirming statement of the power of one to make a difference!

    January 16, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Paul von Wupperfeld

    This is a good article about an important subject. We all have a responsibility to step forward and intervene when we witness bullying. Whether it is in the school or the workplace, everyone should feel safe and welcome. I'm glad Joey Kemmerling was able to get to a better place and share his story in order to help others.

    January 16, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |