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Rev. Gwen Thomas

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Sticks, Stones, Words and Cyberspace: The Bullies on the Playground Just Got Bigger

Posted: 10/20/11 10:53 AM ET

The school district in the metropolitan Atlanta, Ga. area where I live is in the midst of an anti-bullying awareness program. As a concerned citizen and community activist, I am grateful that the schools are tackling this issue. And as I understand from those who are intricately involved in leading this campaign, they are trying to create a new culture among the students that makes bullying "not cool." Kudos to them. Unfortunately, it's too late to save the young people throughout the country (including in a child in this same school district) who couldn't withstand the pressure. The anti-bullying campaign can't help those who ended their lives rather than take one more taunt or shove or string of messages posted about them.

I am quite hypersensitive to the deadly effect bullying can have. Recently, I heard Sirdeaner L. Walker describe how her 11-year-old son had committed suicide by hanging himself, after he had endured another day of taunting at his Springfield, Mass. school in 2009. I was overwhelmed with emotion when she declared that her pain had become her passion to get the bullying to stop. She said it is her life's work to end bullying. Ms. Walker was a panelist in a forum at the National Black Justice Coalition's "Out on the Hill" Conference in Washington, D.C. The discussion focused on intersectional justice issues of LGBT people and the African-American community.

During the same discussion, another panelist said emphatically that most of us in the room had been bullied, been a bully, or at least been a co-conspirator of bullying someone. I initially took great exception to being labeled a bully or guilty by association in bullying, but all of a sudden I thought about the hazing in the college sorority I pledged. Now, duly convicted, I am paying closer attention to opportunities to make amends and join Ms. Walker in her fight.

Recently, I was party to social media bullying. A Facebook friend who is actually someone I was associated with in college posted a status about being "disgusted" by the fact that her lesbian neighbor left a note on her door asking her to consider a date with her. The woman left her phone number for my friend to call her if she was interested. Not only did my friend rant and rave about how violated she felt, but 40 of her Facebook friends joined her tirade with epithets, slurs and profanity in agreement. My friend then posted a picture of the note -- complete with the woman's name and phone number. One of the commenters immediately suggested that everyone call her.

At that point, I felt violated. I felt more than simple empathy for the would-be suitor; I felt a call to action. So for Ms. Walker, Carl and every child who has died at the hand of bullying, and for those who still suffer, I responded. I commented on the thread. I told my friend that all she had to do was kindly decline the date or just ignore the invitation. I added that saying that she felt violated seemed like a warped description. And I told her she should never have published the woman's phone number. I took a sabbatical from Facebook after that.

I am fueled by passion. It's not the same as the passion that comes from finding my son hanged to death. It can't undo any damage I may have unknowingly done to someone. It is my attempt to do what I can to help all children with dignity and respect. Please join me.