WASHINGTON — After years of being bullied in school and online, 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer was reaching his breaking point.
The openly gay teenager talked about his experiences in a video he posted on YouTube last spring. “They’d taunt me in the hallways, and I felt like I could never escape it,” the Buffalo, N.Y., native said. “People would just constantly send me hate.”
Afraid of what lay ahead for him in high school, Rodemeyer committed suicide last month.
In the past, bullying was deemed a rite of passage, but that’s not the case any more, a Defense Department official said.
“Children can have terrible consequences from being bullied, whether it’s poor academic success, loneliness, not being able to make friends or just feeling like they can’t go to school,” said Barbara Thompson, director of the Pentagon’s office of family policy, children and youth. “They get sick. Eventually, the greatest tragedy would be suicide.”
Surveys indicate that as many as half of all children are bullied at some time during their school years, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. And children from military families are comparable to their civilian counterparts in this regard, Thompson said, noting they may be even more vulnerable due to frequent military moves.
“As they relocate from school to school, they are the new kids on the block and may be perceived as being different,” she explained.
Children with deployed parents also may stand out as they deal with the anxiety and loss associated with separation from a loved one, she added, particularly when other children from their school don’t share those same experiences.
Hoping to buck the bullying trend, the Defense Department has partnered with the Education Department and a host of other federal agencies to develop new strategies to combat the issue, Thompson said. In September, DOD officials attended a bullying summit hosted by the Education Department. It was aimed at creating a national strategy to combat bullying and to ensure adequate tools and resources are on hand.
Additionally, DOD and the Department of Defense Education Activity recently joined forces to launch the “Stop Bullying Now!” campaign in DOD schools and youth centers.
The campaign, Thompson explained, encourages everyone to take a stand. Whether a parent, teacher or youth center employee, “we have to let [children] know that not only should they stand up and get help from a significant adult, but they also need to stand up for children they see being bullied.
“You can’t be an innocent bystander even though you’re not being bullied yourself or are not the bully,” she added.
Bystanders hold the key to putting an end to bullying, noted Connie Gillette, a DOD Education Activity spokeswoman. “The people who stand by and watch bullying, whether they realize it or not, are actually siding with the bully,” she said. “The sooner you can teach children kindness and compassion and saying something when they know something’s not right, the better.”
The campaign also teaches parents what constitutes bullying and how to recognize the signs of a child who is being bullied or is bullying others.
Bullying is done from an imbalance of power, Thompson explained, has an intent to hurt, and is done repetitively, meaning the same child is bullied by the same person or group of people.
Children being bullied may complain of stomachaches or headaches, she noted, or may start to talk about being teased or develop a new dislike for school. “As adults, we have to be very attuned to children — not only their verbal, but their nonverbal cues,” she said.
Parents undergoing a military move should be especially alert as their children start a new school, Thompson said, noting teachers also should keep an eye out when new kids join their class.
This vigilance is just as important at home, as bullies now have a new weapon with an audience of millions at their disposal: the Internet. Cyberbullying includes everything from spreading rumors online to sending mean messages out via a cellphone text message.
“Cyberbullying is really insidious, and one that can cause damaging effects to children, because it’s viral. It goes to all of their friends,” Thompson said.
To learn more about bullying prevention, Thompson recommended people visit the Stop Bullying website at stopbullying.gov. The site offers resources and toolkits tailored for parents, teachers and children. Military OneSource also offers a free DVD for children on bullying that’s produced by Trevor Romain, a renowned children’s book author and illustrator.
It will take a concerted effort to put an end to the problem, Thompson noted.
“It’s up to all of us to stop bullying,” she said. “Children have the right to feel loved, to feel that they are incorporated into an environment, that they meet their aspirations, that they live without fear — that is our job to make sure that children have those rights.”
Bullies subjugate those rights, Thompson said. Whether an adult or a child who is a bystander, she added, “we need to be brave and make a stand.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)