Carol is the sort of child who laments that she isn't getting enough homework from her fourth-grade teacher. She adores math and can identify several species of birds. She loves school -- rather, loved it, until she became the bull's-eye in her class. It all started after she broke a cardinal rule, especially among children: Never get caught picking your nose.
"She was lost in a book," said her mother, who doesn't want to be identified and further humiliate her daughter.
"She's a late nose-picker," added her father, resignedly.
Behind her parents on the living-room mantel sat a school picture of their daughter, whose story they agreed to tell as long as she would be identified by a pseudonym. In that photograph, Carol's head is tilted up and a bit to the right with the modestly defiant smile of a child of above-average intelligence who is probably a little different, and wholly unaware that in some circles that is a liability.
After Carol picked her nose, it took only one classmate to scream "Ewwww! That's nasty!" for her world to crash down around her like dominoes. She became the "Cootie Queen," and was bullied mercilessly, constantly taunted, and teased. No one wanted to sit with her, walk past her desk, or have her in their group. Even her friends avoided her. Whenever she walked into the classroom, the other kids performed an elaborate group ritual to de-cootify the room. She was shunned.
Her parents weren't even aware of her experience until she eventually told them months later. Then one Sunday night she broke down completely and begged them not to make her go back to school.
"It's not bullying," her dad said, responding to the innocuous-sounding nature of that word. "It's cruelty."
These days, when Americans think of the ramifications of our childhood penchant for treating certain peers with contempt, we invariably mention what is known simply as Columbine, the Littleton, Colorado, school shootings that galvanized parents, students, and teachers everywhere. On April 20, 1999, students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, wearing long trench coats to conceal the weapons they were carrying, methodically walked through their high school and let loose a salvo of bullets and bombs that killed thirteen people, twelve of whom were fellow classmates. Then, depending on which account you believe, they either shot themselves, or Harris killed Klebold and then himself.
Although the boys' actions were obviously reprehensible, people trying to make sense of the tragedy automatically assumed that these were revenge killings carried out by boys from the freaks 'n' geeks clique -- rejects who ultimately turned the tables on the jocks and cheerleaders who had bullied them for years. It was shocking to think that bullying could wreak such collateral damage. Schools and professionals began a full-scale antibullying blitz.
Five years later, awareness of bullying is everywhere, in the form of studies, books, lectures, and events now held daily in our nation's schools. "Bullying is where violence against women was thirty years ago," says Stuart Green, a psychologist who has written about the subject in the Journal of the American Medical Association. "It's where child abuse was forty years ago. It's the thing on people's minds."
Bullying is even turning into a financial liability for some schools. In the East Bay, at least two bullying-related lawsuits have been filed in recent years. In Walnut Creek, two teenage brothers landed in juvenile hall after one of them shot a spitwad into the eye of a classmate in September 2001, allegedly causing the victim lasting eye damage. The victim not only sued the brothers, but also the school for its alleged negligence in allowing known bullies to continue their behavior. And just last month, a woman filed a $500,000 negligence lawsuit against the Berkeley Unified School District, claiming her daughter chipped a tooth when she was intentionally tripped in the hallway at Willard Middle School.
School officials promote antibullying campaigns not to save money but because they are important things to do, said Nancy Krent, president of the American Council of School Attorneys. She added that such lawsuits are not common: "When they happen, they tend to make the news, making people think there are more of them."
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