DETROIT -The Michigan Civil Rights Commission heard public testimony from experts on bullying and victims of bullying on Tuesday, Jan. 25.
People addressing the commission were given three minutes to speak, leaving little time for details about personal experiences. However, the range of testimonials showed that bullying affects many different groups, including adults, children, racial and religious minorities, teachers, persons with disabilities and people in the LGBT spectrum.
State Sen. Glenn Anderson of Westland told the commission he introduced Matt’s Law into the House when he was a state representative. The bill, named after Matt Epling, who took his own life after being harassed by other students, would require school districts to adopt official policies against bullying. Anderson explained that a watered-down version of the bill passed the House in 2006, but the Senate has failed to put it to the floor for a vote. “Hardly a week goes by that we don’t get phone calls from families wanting help,” Anderson said.
Bob Hitchenson of the Michigan Department of Education said his office is flooded with calls from desperate parents. “My biggest frustrations are the parents who call me,” he said. “They are scared. They are frustrated, and they want me to do something, but because we live in a home-rule state, I can’t do anything. They want me to investigate, but I can’t lift a finger because I am not allowed. That is the biggest frustration.”
Hitchenson testified that the number one reason kids are bullied is based on physical appearance, and the number two reason is they are perceived to be gay or transgender. He also said that he advocates for counseling-based solutions. “Some of our districts over-rely on suspensions for disciplining, but for bullying that just does not work.”
One factor that makes bullying more pervasive is the increasing use of technology to harass others. Betsy Kellman of the Anti-Defamation League said “Bullying has become more sinister because of the Internet …These smart phones are so amazing it is a computer in (students’) pockets. So the bullying doesn’t stop when they get home from school. They are always accessible.” Kellman said that recent ADL research has shown that 43 percent of Internet users have been bullied online, and 60 percent of students sleep with their phones.
In addition to cyber-bullying, verbal and physical acts are a fact of life for many students and adults. Dr. Elizabeth Barton, a research associate at Wayne State University, has studied the phenomena of “bystanders,” individuals who allow, or even encourage, bullying behavior. “If someone started attacking me right now, in this room, 30 percent of you would walk away and ignore it,” Barton said. She said that 40 percent in the room would support the bully by laughing, cheering, watching or helping. “Only 10 percent of you would stand by me and try to stop the bully.” She said that learning more about how to encourage bystanders to stand up to bullies could be a key factor in reducing the amount of bullying that takes place.
Barton also noted there are two different types of bullies. Ineffectual bullies are the ones typically seen as “big and dumb,” who lack social skills and act out because they don’t know how to fit in. But there are also effectual bullies who are smart, manipulative and specifically target others. She suggested that responses to bullying should take into account the psychological motivations of the perpetrator.
Speakers addressed not only the methods of bullying, but the range of its victims. Melissa Pope of the Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes spoke about how her son stopped wearing a favorite choker to school because he said other students were afraid of him because he looked like a Native American when he wore it. She noted that five young people have taken their lives in Michigan since 2001 due to suicide, saying “Suicide is the ultimate price to pay for allowing prejudice to permeate our society.”
Denise Brogan-Kator, executive director of Equality Michigan, testified about the importance of recognizing protected classes in the bullying discussion. “Anti-bullying legislation should protect all students, but should list those who are most likely to be harassed, and most likely to be over-looked. Enumeration is essential in protecting our youth,” she said.
That sentiment was expanded by the National Organization for Women’s Genessee County Advocacy Team member Bobbie C. Walters, who said “If you have enumeration in policies that specifically identifies groups, then you can determine whether it is discriminatory or not, and if it is discrimination it can be addressed more harshly.”
Bernie Ball, a counselor with Advanced Counseling Services in St. Clair Shores, said, “Kids need the validation of a law, so that they can know for sure what’s being done to them is wrong.”
National youth speaker Jim Tuman was adamant that the commission do more than just listen. “It’s great to talk about statistics, but if you’re not going to take action then it’s pointless,” he said. “You need to create a safe space and be real with the kids.” Tuman talked about being bullied in his youth because he was a “high-achievement kid,” who eventually was pushed to attempt suicide. He has worked with young people nationwide to turn them away from suicide or bad choices. “Parents don’t know how to talk to their kids. They can’t come at them with power issues, they need to really listen. A lot of gangs build up membership by looking for kids whose parents have pushed them out … I’ve gone to Columbine, to other places … what I hear over and over is that people saw this coming … We need to listen and help before it is too late.”
“Verbal bullying has prompted students to take their own lives,” said Commissioner Bertram L. Marks, who led the two-hour open forum. “We want feedback from this forum to help us set our agendas. With the onslaught of technology bullying is growing. We know the bullying phenomenon starts early in life. How can we stop it?”