COLLECT FOR THOSE IN DESPAIR
God of all mercy, who knows our insecurities, our isolation and our pain: Comfort the abandoned; lift the souls of all in despair; and open the hearts of those who care for them; in the name of the God who embraces all who feel alone. Amen.
Survey the breadth and complexity of physical, emotional and cyber bullying in schools
Examine the factors that contribute to youth bullying, victimization and suicide
Identify strategies for faith communities to assist in reducing youth bullying and suicide and caring for survivors
Genesis 37:12-24 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’“ So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” —that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
Matthew 15:21-26 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
1 Samuel 31:1-4 Now the Philistines fought against Israel; and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines, and many fell on Mount Gilboa. The Philistines overtook Saul and his sons; and the Philistines killed Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchishua, the sons of Saul. The battle pressed hard upon Saul; the archers found him, and he was badly wounded by them. Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, so that these uncircumcised may not come and thrust me through, and make sport of me.” But his armor-bearer was unwilling; for he was terrified. So Saul took his own sword and fell upon it.
Matthew 27:3-5 When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.
“…our nation faced a number of tragic incidents involving children and teenagers who, having been bullied, felt like they had nowhere to turn and took their own lives. It seized the nation’s attention. And for many, it was a wakeup call. Bullying is not just a harmless rite of passage, or an inevitable part of growing up. It threatens the health and well-being of our young people. It’s destructive to our communities and devastating to our future.”
The Honorable Kathleen Sebelius
Secretary of Health and Human Services (2009 – 2014) 2012 White House Conference on Bullying
Megan Meier and Tyler Clementi are two of those teens. Megan took her life in her suburban St. Louis, Missouri home in 2006 following a high school friend’s particularly vicious cyberbullying. Tyler jumped to his death from New York’s George Washington Bridge in 2010, “outted” online for kissing another man in his college dorm room. Although both received considerable media attention and spurred a national conversation, they are only two of the thousands of young people ages 15-24 who end their lives every year. And while the factors associated with youth suicide are many – including a history of previous attempts, depression and social alienation – bullying and the physical and emotional violence they embody pose significant risks for youth who already are in the throes of crafting a self-identity and the capacity to respond to the often painful challenges of the world in which they live.
Understanding bullying as an act of violence and potential precursor to suicide is made especially difficult by the long-held belief that it is simply a rite of adolescent passage that builds character. A further challenge is the question of definition and the scope of behaviors included and people affected. To what extent, for example, are all forms of teen harassment of one another “bullying?” Similarly, does bullying encompass adults who are psychologically intimidated by colleagues in the workplace? Although the definition continues to evolve, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Education developed the following consensus in 2010.
“Bullying is any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm” (Gladden).
Imbedded in this definition is the recognition that “bullying” is a phenomenon of youth, differentiated from the workplace harassment and “mobbing” experienced by adults. In addition, it encompasses general aggression directed toward an individual, as well as bias-based attacks centered on an individual’s membership in or identification with a targeted group (Mishna). Finally, it includes bullying in both its traditional and social media (cyber bullying) forms.
Research collated and published by the Megan Meier Foundation indicates that the incidence of bullying among 12-18 year old schoolmates declined by 25% in the decade from 2005-2015, arguably because of greater attention by parents, teachers and students themselves, as well as targeted initiatives implemented by school officials. Nevertheless, 21% of this age group reported being bullied at least once during the school year, with rumors spread about them and being: made fun of, called names or insulted; pushed, shoved, tripped or spit on; excluded from activities; and threatened with physical harm as the most frequently reported forms of bullying. Girls are more likely (50%) to have been psychologically bullied than boys (39%), while male students more frequently reported being physically bullied (45%) than females (37%). Furthermore, girls are more than twice as likely to experience cyber bullying (23%) than boys (11%). Finally, both traditional and cyber bullying appear to be most prevalent during middle school and begin to decline in high school.
Gender and age are not, however, the sole characteristics which differentiate the type and frequency of bullying. Although the research is limited, it appears that race, ethnicity and religion are increasingly the targets of bullying (Mishna). In addition, a student’s physical appearance and weight, perceived sexual orientation or identification and disability also have been reported by teachers as significant causes of bullying in their schools (Megan Meier Foundation).
Regardless of the cause, however, the consequences of bullying are profound. Victims have significantly more difficulty adjusting to school and performing academically than their peers and are at higher risk for anxiety, sleep disorders and depression. And for perpetrators, “the power and aggression central to childhood bullying underlies other forms of abuse such as sexual harassment, dating aggression, workplace harassment, marital aggression, and elder abuse”(Mishna).
Perhaps most tragic among the consequences of bullying, however, is the increased risk for and incidence of suicide. Approximately 4,600 young people ages 10-24 take their own lives each year in the United States, predominately with firearms (55%). It is the third leading cause of death for individuals age 15-24 and the fourth for those aged 10-14. And while the rate of youth suicide declined for more than a decade, it has steadily increased since 2007. Especially tragic is the estimate that as many as 90% of these deaths were preventable (Megan Meier Foundation and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
A number of theories have been proposed to explain youth bullying, the multiple factors associated with it and its consequences. Fundamentally, however, bullying occurs in the context of relationships situated in a hierarchical structure of family members, peers, neighborhoods, community institutions, government and society. And as such, strategies to reduce its frequency and mitigate its effects must derive from this complex ecological system (Bronfenbrenner). Thus, for example, it is as important for parents to be vigilant in protecting their children from bullying as it is for peers and teachers. Not only must schools implement effective anti-bullying strategies, churches and other community organizations must do so as well. And, both social expectations and governmental policy must reinforce healthy interpersonal relationships and the non-violent resolution of conflict.
Although bullying occurs in virtually every setting in which young people gather, schools are typically the mediating institution, providing either the specific location or the primary context through which children know each other. Appropriately, therefore, strategies to address bullying are most often grounded in the school experience, the common elements of which should include the following (Mishna).
Conduct a comprehensive needs assessment and gap analysis.
Change school culture to support bullying victims and marginalize perpetrators.
Develop and implement policies that embrace diversity and encourage non-violent conflict resolution.
Ground bullying interventions in evidence-based strategies and subject programs to independent evaluation.
Integrate cognitive, affective and behavioral approaches in bullying prevention programs.
Coordinate anti-bullying strategies across the entire K-12 curriculum and throughout the academic year.
Include both adults and peers in developing and implementing strategies to prevent bullying.
Policies and programs – regardless of how fully embraced by parents, administrators, teachers and students – only define the environment in which direct intervention might occur to care for those who have been victimized, as well their aggressors. Based on her ongoing work with those engaged in bullying relationships, Dr. Faye Mishna, Professor and Dean of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, has proposed the following clinical guidelines to structure therapeutic interventions (2012).
Recognize that bullying is not easily defined and is complex in its origins.
Validate the experience of the victim and express genuine empathy.
Identify the impact of bullying behaviors on both the victim and perpetrator.
Address underlying biases, stereotypes and misconceptions (e.g. gender, race, sexual orientation) that may have contributed to bullying.
Provide a “safe place” for children to disclose their pain, fears and hopes.
To be sure, significant progress has been made since the first scientific study of bullying almost 40 years ago (Olweus), most importantly the recognition that it is not “just a normal part of growing up” and has potentially devastating consequences for both the victim and perpetrator. The widespread availability and use of social media for cyber bullying has further exacerbated the problem and created the need for strategies specifically designed to address it. Regardless of this new dimension to bullying, however, the critical importance of supportive social networks and institutions remains an essential component of public policy and direct intervention.
The Venerable Reverend Rebecca Barger, Archdeacon
The Episcopal Diocese of Missouri and
Deacon, St. Francis Episcopal Church
Were you bullied as a child and, if so, what form(s) did it take? Did others know about the bullying and, if so, did they attempt to intervene or give you support? How?
Did you know others who were bullied and, if so, did you attempt to intervene and support them? How?
How has your experience of bullying affected your life and perspective on people and institutions that you trust?
What have you done for the children in your life to help them resist bullying and respond to it when they or their friends are victimized?
How might churches and other communities of faith contribute to the prevention of bullying, care of victims and perpetrators and implementation of effective policies and strategies to address it?
THE REV. ANNE KELSEY
When hard times are endured with others, the suffering is mitigated. Suffering alone is indeed terrible, and we all fear it. It’s what makes Jesus’ suffering and dying alone on the cross so powerful. To be the target of bullying is to suffer alone, and to die by suicide is to die alone. At the heart of both is a terrible loneliness that I tried to convey with an empty shoe, on its side by itself and separated from its mate. The story is up to the viewer. Was the shoe wrenched off a foot during a beating, or was it haphazardly left behind because it was no longer needed?
COLLECT FOR GUIDANCE
O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light rises up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in your light we may see light, and in your straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)
Brofenbrenner, U. The Ecology of Human Development. Cambridge, Massachessets: Harvard, 1979.
Gladden, R.M., Vivolo-Kantor, A.M., Hamburger, M.E., and Lumkin, C.D. Bullying Surveillance Among Youths: Uniform Definitions for Public Health and Recommended Data Elements, Version 1.0. Atlanta, Geogria: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and U.S. Department of Education, 2014.
Goldblum, P., Espelage, D.L., Chu, J. and Bongar, B. Youth Suicide and Bullying: Challenges and Strategies for Prevention and Intervention. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Goldsmith, C. Understanding Suicide: A National Epidemic. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Twenty-First Century Books, 2017.
Granello, D.H. and Granello, P.F. Suicide: An Essential Guide for Helping Professionals and Educators. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2007.
Mishna, F. Bullying: A Guide to Research, Intervention, and Prevention. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Olweus, D. Aggression in the Schools: Bullies and Whipping Boys. Oxford, England: Hemisphere, 1978.
Olweus, D. Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishers, 1993.