Tampa Bay residents were shocked to read about the 13-year-old boy who was sexually assaulted at Walker Middle School in Hillsborough County. From mid March through early May, four boys bullied and tormented the young victim. Thirty five school days. At school. During school hours.
"For whatever reason, he didn't tell anyone," Hillsborough County School superintendent MaryEllen Elia said. "We need to be sure our students feel they can talk about this."
Fantastic idea . . . except that children don't talk about this. And as long as adults expect them to talk about it, children will continue to suffer in silence.
Bullies typically target kids they perceive as different and vulnerable — kids who are younger, perhaps smaller, maybe better or worse at something than the bully. Bullying nearly always starts with hurtful words. The language is frequently threatening and insulting. Most kids try to ignore this initial phase of bullying. Children who report verbal bullying know that they will regret it.
The next phase can include pushing, blocking and other physical contact just shy of punching. Even if they are outweighed and outnumbered, boys especially expect themselves to be able to "handle it." If children want to continue doing something meaningful to them, such as playing a team sport, they may protect their activity at the expense of themselves. If an adult notices and asks, many boys will say nothing is going on.
The final phase is the outright physical assault, which often includes sexual assault. This is the stage where a child may realize he or she needs help but is in a situation spiraling out of control. After the assault has occurred, many boys feel fearful or ashamed. The idea that "everyone will know" is horrifying to a victim.
Even if bullying happens near adults, it can be easy to miss. A threatening look to a child may go unnoticed by an adult. Text- and cyberbullying has pushed bullying into a different realm. Many young people may fear that adults won't take their concerns seriously — or will take action in an embarrassing way. When a child tells anyone about being bullied, it is usually another child who is a friend.
A 13-year-old is a child. Children cannot, and should not, be expected to prevent, stop or report bullying. It is an adult's responsibility to closely observe the children in his or her care, and stop bullying before it happens or the moment it starts. The best way to do this in a school setting is to have an active bullying prevention program in place.
First, the curriculum must contain regular lessons about expected human behavior. These lessons must show, in words and drawings, ways to handle conflicts in a healthy manner. Children need a chance to explore their differences and find ways to cooperate.
Second, children need to role-play how they can handle conflict. Words only go so far — kids must practice handling these tough choices in a safe and supervised environment.
Three, all school-involved adults, including parents, must model the same behavior to children that they expect from them. Screaming, threatening and physically harming adults will only elicit the same behavior in the kids in their care.
Child-on-child sexual abuse is even less likely to be understood or prevented. One in four girls and one in seven boys report sexual abuse before the age of 18. Of these cases, 40 percent are perpetrated by other children — usually older and/or stronger children.
The unchecked bullying that the Walker Middle School student experienced laid the groundwork for the sexual assault he sustained. If adults had stopped the bullying in March, the rape in April would not have happened.
Adults can help kids overcome bullying. Discuss the attributes of a good friend with your child. Demonstrate calm and sensible ways to handle conflict. Listen to your children, know their friends and know their daily routine. Teach them how to be their own advocates.
Protection of children is an adult responsibility. When it comes to bullying, adults must prevent it — not expect children to talk about it.
Juliana Menke has a master's degree in mental health counseling. She works in child abuse prevention at Help A Child in Pinellas Park.