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News Story
Updated: 10/16/2013 08:00:03AM

Bullying: Times have changed

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Journalists, perhaps more than most citizens, tend to be underwhelmed by the profusion of designated days, weeks, and months on celebratory calendars.

Government proclamations calling for recognition or celebration of everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to Columbus’s discovery of America — while special to sandwich or explorer being honored — seldom generate much excitement in the general public.

But in Polk County, especially this year, the school board’s declaration of October as Anti-Bullying Awareness Month merits more than perfunctory lip service.

A Polk County teenager, Rebecca Sedwick, committed suicide last month when she was unable to cope with online taunts and insults, some of which reportedly urged her to take her own life.

A generation or two ago, bullying usually took the form of school yard conflicts, seldom escalating beyond exchange of a few punches during PE or after school. Chances are the combatants, having gotten it out of their systems, became friends.

But the advent of “social media” on the Internet has created a new dimension of bullying, one in which cruel language is committed to writing for all — especially the targets of the cruelty — to see.

Playground insults, often directed at kids who were “different” — too heavy, academically challenged, physically impaired, or simply unpopular with their classmates — were cruel but usually short-lived.

Now such abuse is preserved indefinitely in digital format. Today’s cruel remark becomes archived for the victim and his or her classmates to endlessly revisit.

Polk County’s list of “substantiated bullying reports” decreased from 175 in the 2010-11 school year to 136 in the most recent school year. Frankly, we question the completeness of that list, which represents only about one incident per school per year.

We suspect the problem is far more endemic.

As bullying becomes more unacceptable on school campuses, we hope the reporting of incidents will become more frequent. School officials are trained to deal with such abuse; “Boys will be boys” is no longer an acceptable response.

But they can only react to incidents of which they become aware.

Parents can be alert to their children’s frequent complaints of headaches or stomach aches as a reason for excessive absences; so can school officials. Such complaints should raise a red flag for possible bullying.

Perhaps the first line of defense is students themselves: not only victims, but also their classmates, who can report bullying to teachers, parents, members of the clergy, or other adult authority figures.

Defeating bullying begins with rejecting it as a mere “rite of passage.”

It begins with a resolve not to tolerate it, whether on school campuses, playgrounds, or the Internet.

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