On the morning of Sept. 29, 1998, Jared High called his father at work to say goodbye.
While on the phone with him, Jared shot and killed himself - just six days after his 13th birthday.
In the weeks prior, his family says, Jared had been bullied at his middle school in Pasco, Wash., culminating in an assault in the gym. He began suffering from depression, lack of sleep and exhibited emotional outbursts. Overcome by it all, he took his own life.
Bullying has gone far beyond the days of scrapes at a bus stop. Thanks to technology, bullying can flood into every aspect of life, drowning its victims through cyberspace and cell phones 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Anti-bullying initiatives are sweeping through schools and state legislatures across the country. Even the federal government has weighed in, establishing a website, stopbullying.gov. But what is bullying in the 21st century and how has our definition evolved through recent decades? And how do parents recognize warning signs that their child is being bullied, or if their child is the one doing the bullying?
According to stopbullying.gov, bullying is defined as "unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or imagined power imbalance." Bullying is further broken down into three types: verbal, social and physical (See “What is bullying” for more information).
The warning signs for both bullies and those being bullied are varied. Unexplained injuries, lost or destroyed possessions, faking illnesses, declining academic performance and loss of friends or avoidance of social situations could be signs a child is being bullied. Increasingly aggressive behavior, trouble at school, unexplained extra money or possessions, and a pattern of blaming others for problems could indicate a child is doing the bullying.
“If not acted upon, bullying can affect the school climate by creating an atmosphere of fear and disrespect,” said Stanley Bragg, Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education guidance specialist. “Children may perceive that the adults do not have control, and cannot handle the situation, or simply do not care about them.”
Bragg said children who are bullied tend to suffer from depression and anxiety. They have problems sleeping and maintaining a healthy appetite. Their academic performance, as well as their health, tend to suffer in the wake of being bullied.
And bullying can have long-term effects, reaching into adulthood.
“Some of the physical, mental and academic issues that kids who are bullied experience may translate into adulthood where they can have depression and anxiety,” said David Esquith, director of the Office of Safe and Healthy Students with the U.S. Department of Education. “There can be significant physical ailments that lead to taking medications to address these issues. They are at risk to drop out of school, and their academic problems could continue into college. Kids who bully are more likely to have traffic citations, engage in early sexual activity, be more violent, and are also at risk for substance abuse and psychological problems.”
Page 2 of 3 - Bullying has become such a problem for today’s youth that, at DESE's urging, the Missouri Legislature passed a law in 2006 that defined the act and set guidelines for each school district's handling of the situation. Each school district was required to have an anti-bullying policy in effect by September 1, 2007.
Bragg said legislation provides “statewide consistency” in applying rules, while still allowing districts to maintain a level of local flexibility in handling bullying.
Mike Lewis is a Livingston County deputy Sheriff and the school resource officer for Chillicothe R-2 Schools. Lewis said bullying has been a part of the school atmosphere for decades, but the definition has changed in recent years due to new technologies.
“We have always had bullying,” Lewis said. “Everybody, even people older than me, can remember bullying in the schools. We have a lot of problems recently with texting, Facebook or anything with a computer.”
Melissa Young, an instructor at Chillicothe Middle School, said one of the most important steps to take in combatting bullying is educating students, teachers and parents.
“Much of what we have done has been about bullying awareness and the need for resiliency,” Young said. “In the past, I have sponsored a small group of 8th graders who put together presentations and skits, and went to area elementary schools to discuss the issue of bullying.”
Young said strong community support of her group has been important in spreading the word about their anti-bullying efforts.
“Our club tries to remain active in the community by participating in BOOfest and the Chillicothe Christmas parade,” Young explained. “Each year we choose a different focus - 'What is Bullying?', 'The Cyber Bully?' Last year it was ‘Don't Be a Bystander.’ Though most of our work has been on awareness, I do believe just taking a stand and reminding students that we support efforts against bullying has helped. My goal for the future is that the anti-bullying group becomes more of student mentors and problem solvers as well as messengers about bullying.”
Bragg noted there is also a school violence hotline (1-866-748-7047) parents can contact. Reports, including the school name and city, can also be made via text message to the hotline by texting the word “reportit” to 847411.
Experts agree taking immediate action is critical. It's something Jared High's mother, Brenda, preaches as she advocates against bullying in speeches around the country as part of BullyPolice.org.
High calls what happened to her son "bullycide" and created a website, www.jaredstory.com, which since 1999 has attracted over two million visitors looking for information on bullying, depression, suicide and healing from the loss of a loved one.
Page 3 of 3 - “Kids will immediately ask you not to intervene,” High said, “but, my belief is it will get worse if you don't do something. Take your child and talk to the principal in a positive way. The bully has a problem, too, as they want to hurt someone.”
“Parents can be very helpful in talking to and listening to their child," Esquith said, "giving them advice when needed, and talking to the school. Kids can be reluctant to talk to the school. Parents have an important role in supporting their child and the school has a responsibility to take care of the issue when it occurs.”
An expansion of state legislation was pursued in the 2013 legislative session in the form of House Bill 134. This legislation, which failed in committee, sought to include cyberbullying as a specific infraction in school policies. It would have also made it mandatory for staff at a school to report any instance of bullying reported to them by a student. Furthermore, the bill sought to make the anti-bullying policies state specific responses to bullying, and added a clause which would stop retaliation against anyone who reported about bullying.
Had the legislation been passed by both chambers and signed by Gov. Jay Nixon, DESE would have had sample policies to member districts by September 2014.
Mike Lair is a Republican member of the Missouri House of Representatives, representing District 7 since 2008. Lair said the warning signs of cyberbullying are not as easily recognized as more traditional methods of bullying, such as physical harm. He believes parents must become better aware of their children's cyber activity.
“I know 'control' isn't a popular word for high school students or younger, but parents should have control over their children's social media,” Lair said. “I know that's tough to do, but if they begin to see problems, they need to become proactive.”
Lewis agrees. He said in order for parents to better recognize the early warning signs of bullying, they need to establish an open-door policy with their children.
“It's really important to be involved with your kids,” Lewis said. “Don’t be their friend. Be their parent. We have a lot of parents that think they need to be their friend to get information out of the kids, and that’s not true. Your kids have plenty of friends. They need a parent. Being involved, listening about their day and finding out what bothers them is so important.”
High said this open line of communication is key in building awareness of the bullying problem.
“Document what is happening to you,” High said. “We have to bring bullying into the light. This issue affects all children, both the bully and the victim.”