I know this is long, but please bear with me.
We have had several social media postings recently focused on the very unfortunate fact that we are a community that deals with bullying and suicide. I try to avoid responding on social media since it is a ‘no win’ situation. People believe what they want to believe and debating via social media will not change that. I do find the need to share my perspective on these two issues because I’m passionate about the subjects. I’m just the same as other educators that hurt deeply when we hear that children have hurt themselves in some way. We hurt when we hear about a child not wanting to attend school because someone makes fun of them or calls them names. I now stay in a constant state of stress worried that this may be the day that I’m notified that one of our students has taken their own life.
We have been accused most recently of ignoring the fact that suicide is real and it happens in our district. We have dealt with it enough to know that it is real, and we work with kids every day that are going through challenges. We succeed with helping through difficult times in most cases, but you never read about those on Facebook. The fact of the matter is that youth suicide is frightening not only in our community and school district, but across the nation.
- Suicides are the 3rd leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds, following accidental death and homicide.
- Suicides are the 4th leading cause of death for 10-14 year olds.
- 19.3 percent of high school students have seriously considered killing themselves.
- 14.5 percent of high school students have made actual plans for committing suicide.
- 900,000 youth planned their episodes during an episode of major depression.
As an adult, we often think “what could be that terrible to drive a teen to end their life when so much lies ahead of them?” Keep in mind that a teen’s brain is not fully developed, and as any parent with a teen knows, teenagers are often impulsive with little thought of the true consequences of their actions.
It’s also important to note that 90 percent of young people that die by suicide either have been or are currently receiving support for depression or some other mental health issue. It’s imperative to know this to prevent youth suicide.
I would ask our parents and community members to keep in mind that when we lose a child to suicide, please be thoughtful in your postings not to immediately blame ‘bullying’ as the cause.
Why? The reality of the situation is that everyone may be bullied at some time. Bullying happened when I was a young person and I have to believe that it will still be a challenge long after my career in education is over. I’m worried that we are exacerbating the perception among our young people that if you are bullied, then the thought that suicide is the way to deal with it has become the norm.
We need to be mindful that while persistent bullying could be a factor in youth suicide, consider the challenges of depression, anxiety, confusion, and the feeling that life is not worth living. An event such as a break up with a girlfriend or boyfriend, substance abuse, or failure at school may lead to suicide.
Suicide is a very complex issue. There are no easy answers. For more information on youth suicide and how we can work together to address this challenge, please visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, at www.AFSP.org.
As a school district, and personally, we are blamed most often on social media for ignoring bullying or ‘sweeping it under the rug’. We have a challenge in the fact that everything is now bullying. We have a child call another child a name and that’s now bullying. We have a child arguing with another child about a swing and that’s bullying. Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.
Let me make this very clear, we have bullying in the Cabot School District, and we acknowledge that it’s a huge challenge to manage. I’ve read recent postings about ‘kids going to homeschool or other districts because of bullying.’ That’s absolutely true. It’s also absolutely true that we have kids return from homeschooling because they miss the interaction with other kids, and we have kids come from other districts because of bullying. It’s not an issue unique to our community or school district, but we seem to want to focus on blame instead of solutions.
If you are one of those that have posted about how you’ve dealt with bullying and nothing was done about it, my question to you would be what have you done about it? If you have a child in school and you believe they are being bullied, I would do whatever necessary to make sure the issue was addressed. If you have to take issues to the district office because you are frustrated with how something is being addressed, then so be it. I never get upset when a parent comes to me with an issue because they are frustrated at how it was handled by a school. I get more upset when someone shares an issue that I would have really liked the opportunity to help with but was never given an opportunity.
The fact of the matter is that we deal with issues that are either called bullying or are actual instances of bullying on a daily basis. Now, you’d think from reading the postings that we do nothing about it, but there are only certain ways we can discipline students at school. I can provide examples on how each form of punishment has been used very recently to deal with bullying and similar issues.
Another challenge with discipline and student management is the fact that we cannot share consequences for behaviors with anyone other than the students’ parent or guardian. We are not going to discuss your child’s discipline with anyone other than you. This is often misinterpreted as nothing was done to the other student.
The fact of the matter is that we have become a society that we can say anything to or about someone else and not be held accountable. It’s incredible at times to see how adults interact with each other via social media while expecting our young people not to model that same behavior.
I’ve always had the attitude that if kids came to school with a good attitude, were respectful to adults and one another, and worked hard, we were headed down a good road. I could care less about how much money their parents had, what kind of clothes they wore, or the color of their hair. I truly believe that the only way we can truly get bullying under control is for the adults to diligently instill this mindset in our young people. That starts with all of us modeling kindness and tolerance, and it takes the school working hand-in-hand with our parents and community members. Basically, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all and move on.
Tony Thurman has a doctorate in education and is superintendent of the Cabot School District.