Bullying is a topic that is being talked a lot about right now. It's a form of oppression -- one person or group dominating another. So if we are aware of this, why does it continue? What can we do to stop it?
Sept. 18, Williamsville North High School freshman Jamey Rodemeyer took his own life as a result of being bullied. Local teens are outraged by this tragic event and are speaking up on the topic.
Alex Mogavero, a senior at Sweet Home High School, said, "One of my thoughts is just how many people are going to have to die before somebody does something?"
Alexandria Watts, also a senior at Sweet Home, said, "I am honestly baffled by the extent of the bullying that went on, because no one should be bullied for any reason. I just think that it's wrong that people are treated differently because of their sexual orientation, race, gender or anything."
Mogavero shared his own account of being bullied:
"I remember middle school, some of the worst years of my life. There was no GSA (Gay Straight Alliance), no openly gay students or teachers. There was no one to look up to.
"I just remember I felt different, I didn't know why. People just treated me different. I was the odd one out, and people called me gay before I knew what the word meant.
"I was bullied through elementary school, I was bullied through middle school, and there were days I didn't even want to come to school, I was just so afraid. There was no one to talk to, absolutely no one. I didn't have any friends, and there was no way I could tell my family. I had never felt so alone in my life."
As for his advice to others who are being bullied, Alex says, "I really believe that if you're confident in yourself, people have a hard time trying to take you down. Bullying is a serious problem. I still wake up some mornings, and I can remember and relive every moment of that torture. It will stay with me for the rest of my life. But I'm not bitter; my suffering has instilled in me compassion."
Looking ahead, Alex says, "My dream for the future is a society where it doesn't matter where you come from, how much money is in your pocket, what you look like or who you love."
Principal Joleen Reinholz of Sweet Home High School, said, "I think there are many kids suffering in silence, high school students are reticent to admit they are being bullied, harassed or hazed. For administrators, it's like fighting an invisible attacker.
"Cyberbullying is becoming more prevalent. It is easier to detect because harassment is documented. Often times, parents report incidences of cyberbullying. [The] Internet has become a venue of impulsively and instantly respond[ing] to social situations, not allowing the adequate time necessary to emotionally process."
The Summer Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies is a weeklong seminar held in the summer for high school students and teachers. Its purpose is "to provide in-depth human rights education," according to its website.
Andrew Beiter, director of the Summer Institute, said, "The implications of bullying unfortunately have an even larger significance. Such, when a student teases another, they are dehumanizing another human being which in turn can create a climate of intolerance."
Molly Nicol, a senior at Frontier High School and Summer Institute participant, tells her story:
"In middle school, a couple of kids made fun of me for being overweight on the bus and in the hallways. So I would ignore it at first, but then I would go home and be upset. I knew they didn't really know what they were doing, but it still hurts when I think about it. It made me start exercising so that it wouldn't happen anymore. So I guess it was a motivator. But I wouldn't want it to happen to anyone else."
When asked what her advice would be to others suffering from harassment, she said, "I think it's always important for someone to stand up for someone else. There's always going to be a person who needs someone as their voice."
"Bullying can start at the elementary level," explained Donna Speranza, a counselor at Willow Ridge Elementary School. "Both boys and girls can be bullies, although they bully in different ways. For example, girls use rational aggression. Boys are more overt and physical in their bullying."
In order to counsel the victim, Speranza talks with the student and gets the principal and teachers involved to make them aware. She advises students to seek out a counselor, principal or teacher each time an instance of bullying takes place so that action can be taken. In order to educate students, Speranza visits each classroom to teach lessons on empathy, problem-solving, impulse control, anger management and anti-bullying.
"Hopefully by teaching students the importance of the concepts of empathy and impulse control, students will be more cognizant of their actions and how their behavior affects others," she said.
Connecting kids is the key. Sweet Home High School's mission is to create a culture of confidence. Principal Reinholz introduced the concept that there is "something for everyone." The school offers a wide variety of clubs. Her goal is for every student to feel connected to an adult at Sweet Home.
"Clubs and sports teams act as mini-support systems for kids," she said.
The idea is for students to feel comfortable enough to build relationships with their coaches and advisers. It's also critical for students to connect to other students who have common interests.
At the high school level, informational assemblies on bullying take place, utilizing video clips and real life stories of victims of cyberbullying.
Scott Harriger, adviser to a mentoring network at Sweet Home called Natural Helpers, offers support to the student population with a willing group of students who are trained to help in a variety of social and emotional issues and to refer students to appropriate adults when necessary.
Anne Nowak, adviser for the Gay Straight Alliance at Sweet Home, wants parents to know that the notion that "kids will be kids" as an excuse for allowing aggressive behavior must be stopped.
Students may be the best source of advocacy for other students who are being bullied. The idea that students can learn to be "upstanders rather than bystanders" was introduced at the Summer Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies.
"I think it's always important for someone to stand up for someone else. There's always going to be a person who needs someone as their voice," Molly said.
Meredith McCaffrey, a junior at Sacred Heart Academy, said, "If you feel like you can't communicate or relate to people because they are of a different ethnicity or religion or have a different lifestyle than you, then that's how you develop prejudices against different people. And then I think if we try to develop a desire to understand different types of people at a young age, then that's how you keep things like genocide from happening."
Kerry McPhee, a freshman at the University at Buffalo, said, "Bullying is a form of oppression because it makes people feel vulnerable and unsafe overall."
Alex sums it up: "It all starts with a single voice."
Eliza Lefebvre is a sophomore at Sweet Home High School.