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Bullycide: The Only Escape for Some Brutalized Children with Disabilities

April 28th 2008

Joyce Bender
Joyce Bender

Suicide is a leading cause of death for teenagers 10 to 19 years old. The number one cause is still depression. Depression can be triggered by events in a child’s life – but one of the leading causes has now emerged as “bullying.”

Attempting suicide because of being bullied in school is a shocking and sometimes inexplicable choice that many young people are making today in middle schools and high schools across America. This tragic form of death, known as Bullycide, is triggered by relentless bullying and depression. Neil Marr and the late Tim Field first coined the term in their book, Bullycide: Death at Playtime.

Even more tragically, researchers have discovered that almost 40 percent of bullied students are students with disabilities. Psychologists and social concern groups here and in the UK have finally discovered this hidden epidemic. Children with disabilities are not just being harassed, and made the brunt of cruel jokes, they are physically assaulted. Sadly, not enough is being done in our society and in our school systems to prevent these atrocities.

Children with disabilities are often assaulted as a form of entertainment for other children. At town hall meetings, college students with disabilities have told personal stories of years of bullying when they attended high school. One young woman told the story of bullies in high school stealing the joy stick from her wheelchair and directing the chair over and over again into the wall. This young woman spoke about attempting suicide to avoid the bullies. She said she was treated so poorly for so many years of school that she assumed she was a person of no value. In one case, a boy with an intellectual disability was hit after school by other children nearly every day for an extended period of time.

At similar meetings with high school students, one young man in Delaware told the story of being assaulted throughout elementary school because of his autism. The young man tried to end his life by running in front of a delivery truck. Others told stories of having their lunch money stolen everyday by bullies or of being spit on when on the bus.

Years of torment can have deadly consequences.

The question we must ask is where are the adults? Are the adults present but not watching or not caring? One researcher found out that many of these students—over 50-60% simply do not tell anyone. The question asked by many parents is “Why do they not tell us?” When students were asked at various meetings why they kept this a secret, the answer was fear of retaliation. Many of those students believed that nothing would happen to the bully, and worse, that they would be assaulted or teased even more by the bully and his friends.

Not only do children with disabilities experienced nightmares during their school years, the effects linger long afterward with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Remember, during school, this conduct is called bullying and harassment, but after high school it is called assault and battery.

A teenager with a significant disability, such as epilepsy, already deals with many obstacles in life such as unexpected seizures, limited access to transportation, and attitudinal barriers from friends, teachers, and sometimes parents. Anyone growing up with epilepsy grows up with a stigma attached for life. When you add years of horrific bullying, it can, in too many cases, lead to the choice of death. Sadly, at times, the choice of Bullycide seems like the only escape.

Clearly, the effects of bullying can be lethal. If from elementary school through middle school and high school a young child with a disability is harassed and/or assaulted by a bully, it can lead to death. Victims can feel they have no other choice.

The signs must be recognized and dealt with. Bullying at school comes in many forms: verbal assaults, physical assaults, and “relational” bullying. Relational bullying is when a child is bullied by being pointedly excluded from school events and parties, people, or relationships. Viciously excluding or ignoring a student at school because he or she is blind, deaf, has epilepsy, or is a person with a psychiatric disability is a powerful and very destructive form of bullying.

One mother, Brenda High, has become a national spokesperson for the cause, speaking out at schools and to community organizations about Bullycide. Her son, Jared, was brutally assaulted and harassed by a bully at school. At the age of 13, he chose to end his life. (You can read about Jared at www.jaredstory.com.)  High agrees from painful personal experience with what the experts already know---that many students who are bullied at school do not tell parents or teachers, due to the extreme fear of retaliation. 

Cyberspace bullying through on such sites as MySpace or Facebook can be as deadly as in-person, if not worse. A coward is always more brave when hiding behind a shield. Recent national news stories have talked about one teenager committing Bullycide as a result of harassment on MySpace; she hung herself thinking it was a young boy she adored who had turned into a villain. But the young boy never existed; it was adults playing a horrible trick. She never found out because she hung herself before the terrible truth emerged.

Death selected as a form of escape from bullying is only too real. In many cases, a child’s dignity is destroyed after years of bullying with no help. Rather than subsiding as our society improves its communications skills, bullycide is actually spreading across America like a cancer. This cancer is attacking children with disabilities as a specific target first and foremost.

Are too few parents listening to their children? Many more adults carry the attitude that “kids will be kids” and that bullying is just a normal rite of passage in the perilous journey from elementary school to high school. Many adults believe that bullying will “toughen you up” and prepare young ones for the adult world. This attitude is one of ignorance to the threat of death for our children.

The bullying phenomenon and its deadly effects will not recede until parents start listening more closely to their children. If society ignores this issue, the consequence for too many is simply a heartbreaking death that could be avoided.

Joyce Bender is President and CEO of Bender Consulting Services and a frequent author on disability topics.


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