Bullying: A Violent Pandemic

The Center For Disease Control and Prevention mobilized and coordinated our global and national efforts to contain the deadly Swine Flu pandemic. So far the efforts seem to have paid dividends, although a third wave this spring is anticipated. Another pandemic we give lip service to once or twice a year in national news stories is school and cyber-bullying. Yet, we do not seem to have the same wherewithal to develop a comprehensive and systemic approach to its eradication. In my thinking, the efforts for the pandemic of bullying should be parallel to our efforts for H1N1.

Phoebe Prince attended South Hadley High in Massachusetts. She was 15 and came to live in South Hadley when her mother and sister moved with her across the pond in the fall of 2009 from Ireland. In mid-January Phoebe committed suicide, found by her sister hanged in her closet after school. Ms. Prince, according to the reports, was harassed by a gang of nine students, and was the subject of sordid tales on a website and in text messages about her as a “slut” and “druggie.”

Phoebe’s story is only beginning hit the national media with the recent felony charges brought. I fear that ther death will be forgotten in a few weeks.

Bullying is probably more insidious than the flu. Its victims’ scars too often remain hidden. Yet, according to the American Medical Association, victims of bullying are likely to suffer flu-like symptoms. An estimated 160,000 students per day are absent from school due to fear of attack and intimidation.

Bullying is one of the most underrated problems in schools. Far too often educators and parents believe that the bullies are not really causing serious harm—you know the axiom “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Words do hurt, as do electronically communicated messages.

Principals do have a more heightened awareness of the problem today than they once did, yet many students stay the silent victim until they drop out, act out, or become violent to themselves or others. In a groundbreaking study by the U.S. Secret Service, one common factor in most school shootings was the shooter had been a victim of continual hazing and harassment.  In fact, in most of these shooting cases the shooter had tried to go to a school official to have them intervene.

In Phoebe’s case her mother had gone to school officials twice to request that something be done. In fact, the school had used a consultant to develop a plan for the prevention and reporting of bullying this year. The consultant is quoted as saying the plan was only partially implemented at South Hadley High.

According to Center for Disease Control and Prevention suicide rates among teenagers have tripled in the last few decades.

Here are some things we can do:

Every school safety plan should make sure all staff, students, and parents know about bullying. The reporting of incidents, whether minor or major, should be a key component of the plan and recorded in electronic databases. Comprehensive investigations should occur with each incident where the pattern is clear and a victim is evident. Parents of perpetrators and victims should be notified in all incidents. Clear, consistent and meaningful consequences must be levied. In most serious cases notification of law enforcement should be part of the plan.

Law enforcement officers must be knowledgeable about school bullying and its seriousness. Principals must inform their superintendents when the bullying is persistent and when consequences have not altered destructive behavior. School boards should be more involved; superintendents should produce a bullying report each quarter by school and grade level.  Data will inform decisions and budget.

With the continuing diminishment of school resources (e.g. counselors) due to budget cuts, parents and teachers need to step-up. They must keep lines of communication with children open at all times. Parents must talk with their children about bullying, notice changes in behavior or avoidance of school and meet with a school administrator if bullying is suspected.

Children must be protected against all pandemics.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. Good post.  I’m glad that my sons’ schools both have bullying policies and zero tolerance for that sort of thing.  I just worry that they’re all talk and no action.  I remember being bullied when I was a kid, downright intimidated by cruel kids, and it was awful.

  2. Silicon Valley is well rewarded bullying culture with well known very rich successful bullies widely admired by others – Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, most venture capital firms, lawyers, tech CEO’s etc

    Bullying behavior along with “win at any cost” and “yea it is only illegal if you get caught, everyone does it, bullying valley culture of:

    – stock options backdating,
    – IPO stock allocations and pumping,
    – encouraged intellectual property thief by venture funded start-ups,
    –  greed is good and is rewarded
    –  promise employees, vendors and stock holders anything – stock options, bonuses, future business etc but we will dump them , outsource their work or not pay them culture so we get richer

    So how do expect anyone to take seriously your call to stop bullying when it is so richly rewarded and results greatly admired in Silicon Valley.

    Only government employees who have their own taxpayer scams, naive fools or hypocrites will disagree that Silicon Valley promotes, admires and rewards bullies and other illegal behavior

  3. > According to Center for Disease Control and Prevention suicide rates among teenagers have tripled in the last few decades.

    Undoubtedly a consequence of the dreary, soul-deadening, and hopeless incarceration of otherwise intelligent human beings in public schools.

  4. Nice and timely topic.

    Ironic that you use the medical analogy for treating this problem, as the core issue is about values.  Treating things medically, and given it a diagnosis kind of removes fault, so someone can see a counselor and address their issues, but at the end of the day, hurting other people physically, verbally or otherwise to feel better about yourself is just wrong.

    The lumber jack theory of self-esteem says to cut down every other tree in the forest and no matter how stunted you are, you will be the tallest!

    People play this game all the time, attacking the messenger because the don’t like message (or feeling threatened by something a little to close to the truth.)  In juveniles, absent clear moral guidance from absentee parents who are too engaged in their own pursuits, children raise themselves using shortcuts and quick fixes.  If someone stands out, push them down and out so you are more clearly at the center of the group.  Belong, fit in, be accepted, these are basic emotional needs (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs).

    The public school system is their to teach (education) and in the de-secularized post-industrial America, core values are not part of the lesson.  I can accept that, and if I can afford it, I’ll opt out with my own children if public schools continue on their present course, but what we really need is zero tolerance for offenders who are engaged in behavior that is destructive to others.  Send them home for awhile to get some quality time with the parents (two weeks, home schooling?)

    Then again, should the children be punished for the parent’s apathy?  Well if everyone gets passes because they come from challenged homes and nothing is really their fault, we’ll continue on the present course and rather than treat it medically, we’ll use the criminal justice system to track and treat problem people.

  5. Joe:

    Do you think that the 40% of Morgan Hill’s Oak Grove student population who are Cinco de Mayo Latinos, as well as school administrators, should be bullying those other—apparently ethnicity-less—students who chose to wear American flag themed apparel?

    Do you think this might just be a reasonable way for the public school “community” to address the “problem of white culture/values” in the school system?

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