After four boys raped her and then put images of the rape online, Rehtaeh Parsons hanged herself in her home at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. She endured more than a year of harassment and bullying before ending her life in 2013 at just 17 years old.
In 2014, Emilie Olson of Fairfield, Ohio, decided to end her life, too. Peers at school made fun of her for wearing cowboy boots, saying she couldn’t be “country” because she was Asian. They wrote messages on bathroom stalls that told her to kill herself. She shot herself at the age of 13.
About 4,400 children choose to end their lives each year. But for every successful suicide — there are also 100 suicide attempts.
And most recently last week, 11-year-old Bethany Thompson of Cable, Ohio, shot herself after she endured relentless bullying for her appearance from boys who attended school with her at Triad Middle School.
A battle with a brain tumor when she was three years old had left her smile “crooked,” and this small detail gave the boys an excuse to insult and abuse her ruthlessly. She worked with a school counselor to offset the onslaught of cruelty, and even participated in an anti-bullying campaign with the school. But the harassment never let up, and finally she told her best friend she just couldn’t take it anymore.
Suicide is the third-highest cause of death among school-aged children. About 4,400 children choose to end their lives each year, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. But for every successful suicide, there are also 100 suicide attempts. Close to 15 percent of high school students have considered suicide, and studies from Yale University show that victims of bullying are almost 10 times more likely to consider taking their own life. It’s a terrifyingly permanent choice that often destroys families and haunts their friends.
Bullying is fast becoming a public health crisis among children, and there’s no easy fix. In Thompson’s case, her parents had called the school administrators repeatedly to address the problem. Chris Piper, the superintended for Triad Local School District, reports the school did try to address at least one incident of bullying against Thompson.
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“Last school year, District officials investigated a complaint raised by the student and appropriately resolved the same. Student privacy laws prevent the District [from] disclosing more specifics, but District officials took affirmative steps to protect the student,” Piper said in a press release. However — bullying is almost never a singular incident. It seems that the boys’ bullying against Thompson even worsened as time went on.
Wendy Feucht, Thompson’s mom, said she feels she didn’t get mad enough in her conversations with school officials. She advises parents of other victimized children: “Call them, call them every day if you have to, and eventually they’ll be tired of hearing from you and actually do something.”
Lessons in compassion and kindness begin at home, said Dr. Felicia Pressley, assistant professor of counseling, psychology, and social sciences at Argosy University in Washington, D.C. “Children hear our conversations as adults, and they hear how we are inadvertently bullying [others],” she told LifeZette. She says children learn to be critical of others when they overhear adult conversations ripe with gossip and unkind language.
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If you make fun of the appearances of passersby — your children will learn it’s OK to dehumanize people because of their looks.
They also learn from social media outlets that “different equals odd.” Children aren’t going to understand that “different means unique” unless their parents and teachers work hard to instill it in their value system, Pressley said.
“When you send your children to school, you hope that the environment is friendly and welcoming. Obviously [Bethany Thompson] did not feel that if she was constantly bullied,” she said. She recommends parents and teachers reach out to children and teach them to humanize others’ struggles. In Thompson’s case, parents of her classmates should have made sure their children understood what it means to deal with cancer and some its devastating effects.
“How would you feel if that happened to you?” This is an important question, Pressley said, that can teach children to look outside themselves and empathize with the struggles of others.
Examples abound across the U.S. of schools where students with disabilities and long-term illnesses have been welcomed and beloved. Just this spring, a school in Barrington, Illinois, nominated a prom king and prom queen with Down syndrome. A couple of weeks ago, another school in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, elected two students with Down syndrome as homecoming king and queen. Other schools have welcomed children with serious illnesses back from long absences.
Schools like this don’t needn’t be the exception. These schools represent what can happen when children understand bullying is never an acceptable way to deal with differences. Different doesn’t mean odd — different means diverse, unique, valuable. The more our children understand that, the more we will protect them from the darkest choice imaginable.