10/07/2012 11:20 am ET

Teen Bullying: 'Enough Is Enough -- Mind Games, Words Hurt'


By Gabriela Bosquez and Rachel Tenuta

Gabriela is a senior at Golder College Prep and Rachel is a senior at William Fremd High School. They are student reporters for The Mash, a weekly teen publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.

Bullying is talked about in school almost incessantly, and it’s no wonder: A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 8 percent of high school students admit to having been a bully; about 6.5 percent identify as having been both a bully and a victim of bullying.

“We talk about it in school all the time and there’s always these awareness months,” said Meagan Rosario, a senior at Golder. “It became like a cliche because it’s so repetitive that you’re like, ‘I don’t really see bullying at my school.’ It has to be something serious ... to make it real.”

And, according to Rosario, she never saw herself as being a bully until her fellow students began to tell her she was being mean.

“It wasn’t a big issue and it wasn’t hurting me,” said Rosario. “Then I noticed a cold (shoulder) coming from people and people actually saying, ‘You’re mean,’ or if something was wrong ... they would expect that from me. ... They would point a finger.”

Rosario said the behavior began in middle school and she didn’t realize until junior year of high school how her words were hurting others. She recalled her middle school teachers pulling her aside to talk about her behavior. Her mother also brought up the issue repeatedly throughout high school, Rosario said.

“It wasn’t vulgar or profane,” she said of how she used to talk to other students. But she acknowledged that her “jokes” sometimes attacked other people’s feelings or ideas.

In November 2011, then-senior Lauren Escobar, who now attends Marquette University, noticed a problem with how girls at Golder talked to each other. Around that time, 10-year-old Ashlynn Conner, a fifth-grader in Ridge Farm, Ill., about 160 miles South of Chicago, committed suicide after being taunted by other girls at school. Escobar knew she wanted to do something, so she submitted a proposal for a new club.

Escobar, who was bullied in middle school, started the Girl Power Club to help female classmates rebuild their self-esteem and change the atmosphere at school. “(When you’re bullied) you lose the person you were meant to be; you’re never the same,” she said.

Rosario joined the club in her junior year and participated in Escobar’s activities to help teens learn to build each other up. One activity, Rosario recalled, asked club members to journal their perceptions of other girls in general, and she was surprised that the majority of the group’s perceptions were negative characterizations.

Rosario said she also noticed that the group would discuss instances of having been bullied in the past—and that even years later, the events still affected them even if they were no longer being bullied.

Some students who talked to The Mash recalled being teased and called names, and the experience was no different for Taylor-Morgan “TayMor” Ingier.

The homeschooled senior, who once attended high school in Texas, Michigan and at Lincoln Park, said that a “stuck-up, snobby girl” would constantly tease her about the gap between her front teeth during her freshman year in Texas. Ingier said she had never really noticed the gap before then, but after being constantly teased, she had it fixed by an orthodontist.

“Ever since then, I learned to not care what other people think about me because the only opinion that matters is mine, and the bullies and teenage jerks looking for attention don’t bother me,” Ingier said.

Sticking up for yourself and others who you see being bullied is key, she said. “There’s ... power in numbers. It can work both ways. While the bully can get other people to make fun of you, you can stick up for someone and then that person won’t be alone. It builds confidence and friendships.”

Bullies and victims of bullying may benefit from prevention programs such as Operation Snowball, which began in Rockford in 1979 and promotes leadership, communication and other skills.

“Our thoughts are that when students feel connected to something like (Snowball) they feel like they have support and then they tend to treat others in a more positive way,” said Erin Malinowski, one of the faculty sponsors of Snowball at Fremd.

The idea of a support system is extremely important in adolescence, according to Felice Block, a licensed counselor with offices in Long Grove and Lincoln Park.

“Adolescents are really struggling for their sense of self, or their identity, trying to find a place of belonging,” Block said. “So bullying really attacks their core of who they are and what their capacity is for belonging in the world.”

Realizing you’ve been a bully can also be a tough thing to face and Rosario said there are times when she still struggles with it.

“Some people are still expecting me ... to say something, or to be a jerk again,” she said. “So instead of me doing it (to them), they’ll do it to me.”

Rosario said she ignores those who try to egg her on because she doesn’t want to go back down that road. “I feel way better about myself. ... I don’t give in to it because I feel better, so why would I go back and get rid of (the progress I’ve made)?”

With constant new technology and availability of more devices to teens, they may also feel alone on the Internet, where cyberbullying is prevalent. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health, there’s often crossover between bullying at school and online, and girls tend to be more frequently targeted when it comes to harassment online and emotional bullying.

Twenty percent of adolescents surveyed said they were victims of cyberbullying in a 2011 study from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics; about the same amount said they have cyberbullied others.

Fremd senior Kailee Falvo said she once deleted a cyberbully’s post, but he “kept commenting on my statuses and any post I made. If it gets to the point where it’s really bad and it’s constant, I take a picture of what’s going on and then I show (a school) administrator and they handle it.”

Block said it’s important to seek help to minimize the effects of bullying. “When someone gets bullied it’s an actual physiological response and it gets stored in the cells of your body and in your brain. ... Those beliefs of ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘No one loves me’ get reinforced with bullying.”

Alex Anderson of the American School of Correspondence contributed.