Saturday, October 23, 2010


Tyler Long began 2009 as a high school junior in Murray County, Georgia. He shared the concerns of most seventeen year-olds (getting a car, worrying about his appearance, determining whether or not he could justify spending $85 on a yearbook) but he had also spent most of his life fixated on rules. He believed that rules should be respected, revered, and followed at all times by all people. This preoccupation was the result of Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism, and it compelled him to point out rule violations in himself and others. On several occasions he would lean over to classmate and remind them that they were not supposed to be talking when the teacher was out of the room or that looking on someone else’s paper during a test was prohibited. The words were delivered without relish, but in a matter-of-fact tone that infuriated his classmates. 

Tyler Long
Seeing Tyler as an annoyance and a snitch, some of his fellow students sought to punish his unusual behavior by openly spitting in his food, stealing his possessions from him, and calling him “gay faggot” as he passed them in the hall. Tyler became more and more withdrawn and his parents eventually brought their grievances to the school’s principle who indicated that the administration’s hands were tied. They felt helpless, unable to protect their son from the tormentors who had changed him from an easy-going teenager into a self-loathing outcast. Tyler, however, was not out of options. He removed his leather belt, anchored it to the top shelf in his bedroom closet, and hung himself.

As word spread of Tyler’s suicide, several of his tormentors began adorning their necks with leather belts as a final, macabre mockery of their fallen classmate. School officials declined to observe a moment of silence for Tyler and allowed the students wearing “neck belts” to continue unpunished. Tyler’s parents were infuriated and have filed a lawsuit against the school.

Tyler’s story is heartbreaking, but hardly unique. Already this year, fourteen teenagers have taken their own life as a direct result of bullying and over the past five years there has been an explosion of bullying suicides:

Phoebe Prince (15) – Recently moved to Massachusetts from Ireland with her family. She was verbally and physically harassed for breaking up with her boyfriend. The day of her death, one of her tormentors wrote the word “accomplished” on her Facebook wall.

Phoebe Prince

Sladjana Vidovic (16) – Was mocked for her accent and received phone calls from her classmates telling her to “go back to Croatia.” She hung herself from her bedroom window and was buried in her prom dress. Two of her tormentors openly mocked her appearance during visitation.
Sladjana Vidovic

Jennifer Eyring (16) – Received supplemental tutoring for a learning disability and was partially deaf. She was constantly mocked by fellow students for being “slow.” She swallowed a handful of her mother’s anti-depressants to ease the pain.

Asher Brown (13) – Was bullied by his classmates for being homosexual. They constantly berated him and called him derogatory names. He took his own life with a firearm.
Asher Brown
 Some argue that the media has sensationalized the phenomenon of bullying and teen suicides. After all, bullying has been going on for as long as we have had schools and many of us have been victimized and chosen not to take our own lives.  While I agree that bullying is nothing new, its implications have been exponentially magnified by technology. An insult becomes both public and permanent with a few strokes on a keyboard, resonating throughout cyberspace to wound the recipient again and again. I imagine it was this very knowledge that drove Tyler Clementi to jump off the George Washington Bridge after having a sexual encounter with another male student videotaped and broadcast by his roommate. He knew that his private moment had become public domain and such an action is irreversible. I dare say that most of us, regardless of sexual orientation, would be horrified at the thought of having our most intimate moments secretly recorded and streamed over the Internet to our acquaintances.

So what do we do? Do we make it illegal to bully? Do we prosecute every girl who calls her classmate a “slut” or every guy who yells “faggot” at a homosexual freshman? 

Unfortunately there is no easy solution because as long as there is a populace, it will contain a minority. A faction of individuals who can be differentiated from the majority because of their physical attributes, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, cognitive development, ethnicity, or even personality traits. This dynamic creates the most important two groups in a teenager’s vocabulary “us” and “them.”

Bullies are driven by the insatiable need to remind everyone and more importantly, themselves, that there is a definable boundary between the accepted and the rejected, and that they reside on the favored side of that line. They serve as sadistic tour guides, constantly highlighting and magnifying the unique traits that qualify their peers as outsiders thereby solidifying their status as insiders.  

The only way to eliminate bullying altogether is to create a culture intolerant of its existence. We cannot legislate its demise or outlaw its origins, but we can take steps toward to ensuring that the individuals who choose to bully find themselves in the place they fear most: the extreme minority.

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