On Sunday, Sept. 18, a 14-year-old boy named Jamey Rodemeyer, in a final act of desperation, fled this world and its seemingly insurmountable obstacles by taking his own life. Jamey was a victim of bullying and harassment so caustic and vile that he saw no viable solution other than suicide. In an interview after his death, Jamey's family described a young man who had the "biggest heart" and was well-loved by his family, friends and teachers. I have watched Jamey's YouTube video in which, for over two minutes, Jamey urges others to keep the faith that things "will get better." For Jamey, and potentially many more young people in a similar situation, being told and believing that "it gets better" is not enough. For Jamey and these other youth, the situation must be made better -- now.
I learned of Jamey's tragic death during the same week I celebrated my own 25th annual high school reunion. On the surface, it appears that Jamey's and my adolescent experiences could not be any further apart. But delving deeper, I can see how similar our experiences were, and how with only one change, Jamey's life and mine might have been the same, even including sharing a similar fate. What was the difference in our lives that resulted in such different ends? I grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a community where a very high value was placed on one's well-being. I understood that my reality was a reflection of my beliefs, and that adults were there to provide the needed clarity when I couldn't see things clearly -- a situation teenagers find themselves in on a regular basis. To be indifferent to the pain of others was simply unacceptable in the world I grew up in. We were held accountable for our actions, and in return we were granted permission to hold others accountable. As a result, we all held high expectations of ourselves and of those around us. Everyone mattered because everyone was a potential part of any solution to whatever daily challenge or problem presented itself to us.
I was fortunate to grow up in the world that I did. We can prevent more tragedies like Jamey's from occurring if we take concrete steps to build a community of caring where we deem bullying and harassment as unacceptable in the 21st century. First and foremost, it is crucial to realize that we are not powerless to make the necessary changes. The despair that Jamey felt was not merely an aspect of "teenage angst" that he needed to deal with, nor is bullying an unalterable part of adolescent development, as normal as breathing. As caring individuals, we must never believe that bullying is an acceptable, innate behavior (for example, "boys will be boys") engaged in by all human beings. Bullying is a learned behavior where unfair or unequal power is exerted by one person (or more) over another. To allow this behavior to occur flies in the face of the basic American values of equality and liberty.
Second, bullying and bullies thrive on anonymity. Being silent in the presence of bullying must end. To say nothing while another person is bullied is the moral equivalent of being a bully yourself. Even if in the moment, saying or doing something is not possible, keeping silent about what you witnessed only serves to increase the acceptance of bullying. Telling someone in authority what has occurred is crucial: parents, teachers, and principals must be made aware, and then supported in their anti-bullying efforts. Once reported, we have a right to hold those people in a position of authority accountable, and to demand that they take concrete steps to rectify the problem.
Third, we must not ignore the needs and, yes, the troubles of the bullies themselves. Bullying is a cry for attention, an expression of a need that is, for whatever reason, not being met. It is both too easy and unhelpful to fall into the "blame game" and declare the bully's parents as the chief culprits. While home life is certainly a contributing factor, it is not the only one, or even the dominant one. We as a society have an obligation to ensure that positive behaviors are modeled outside the home -- at schools, in community centers and in other venues where young people interact with adults. When a youth has engaged in bullying, it is most important to understand the roots of the problem and to address them with needed interventions such as anger management classes and therapy, and recreational options that redirect their focus and energy. By providing these activities along with positive role models, we can redirect a bully's energies so that he or she can move from being part of the problem to being part of a community-wide solution.
Finally, we must always remember that we are dealing with teenagers who live in the "here and now." Assuring a young person that things get better must be augmented by efforts to eradicate the negative behaviors they are experiencing now. Young people are not programmed to think about the next week or month. The frontal lobe of their brains -- the part where critical thinking occurs and where consequences are weighed and future plans made -- is not fully developed until well into their early 20s. Consequently, our heartfelt message that "it gets better" might have a positive impact for a little while, but it will quickly get lost in the overstimulated life of a teen. We must act to make sure that our young people are safe today and hold all members of the community responsible for maintaining and enforcing their safety.
There is no quick, off-the-shelf panacea for confronting bullying in America or around the world. The effort to safeguard our children is a continuous process to which all people must contribute. We must be vigilant for acts of bullying and vocal when they occur. We as a society have assured the Jameys of the world that it gets better. The only way for us to keep our promise of a happier tomorrow is to take action today.
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