October is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month.
Once upon a time, bullying seemed confined to places in and around schools: the playground, the locker room, the school cafeteria, the bus, the hallways and stairwells. Those places where kids jostled, sized each other up, and muscled their way around, vying for positions of power when adults were not looking.
But today bullying is everywhere. It is no longer limited to physical places and kid-only spaces; bullying takes place in the ether, in cyberspace, online and in apps that allow for disappearing content. Computers, mobile phones, and social media enable bullying to be omnipresent and to occur relentlessly, at a pace and level of malice previously unthinkable.
No place is safe.
Research suggests that certain characteristics, traits, frailties and differences are typically more likely to cause one to fall prey to bullies. They include kids/people who are overweight, those who are skinny, those with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, weak, poor; those in the minority, gay, lesbian, transgender, those who simply look different, those who are anxious, those who are not inclined to sports, those who wear glasses.
But the truth is, these days, anyone is fair game. Bullying is not reserved to white on black, majority on minority, kid on kid; adults are bullies–consider Donald Trump. Bullying is a scourge across the country and a cancer that runs through our Native territories; it is skin on skin hate, Native on Native, brother on brother.
My daughter is an attractive, ninth grade honors student in advanced placement classes. She attends Lakeshore Central High School near the Cattaraugus Territory where we live in Western New York. She was inducted into National Honor Society two years ago. She was elected president of her class two consecutive years in a row. She plays sports, was nominated to Homecoming court last week, and until recently she has had a wide circle of friends. She wears glasses.
October 19 was National Unity Day. The day in which some schools encourage students to wear orange to demonstrate a united front against bullying. It was also the day I broke down in heartbreak and defeat and agreed to allow my daughter to transfer to a school 350 miles and 6 hours away—a school where hopefully she will not be torn down, menaced, be the target of missives on Snapchat. It is a dramatic move I know.
It is a decision that tears me in two. But the corrosive effects that long-term social isolation can wreak on a fourteen-year old are more than I can bear. I am not prepared to watch my daughter do a slow crawl into a dark place. I will not stand by while her self-esteem sinks into oblivion and she becomes unrecognizable. I will not sit idly in a holding pattern only to witness her grades slip. I will not wait for a free fall descent that involves some unspeakable point of no return.
I want my daughter to be safe, healthy, unencumbered and far removed from what has become a toxic environment. She will not have to endure the overt, yet passive-aggressive hostile glances, the accidental bumps, the subtle intimidations, the social exclusion from her Native peers; the girls she played lacrosse with for the past five years, girls who were her friends.
One weekend completely out of the blue, and for no apparent reason, two friends wrote mean things about my daughter. One girl came right out and told her that they were no longer friends, and in her estimation, said that they never were friends. My daughter thought the world of that girl. She was devastated, confused and cried inconsolably, unable to understand the jarring and vicious turn.
I am confounded by the changes that have occurred, the tear that has ripped her social world apart. Is it just a classic case of girls gone mean? I cannot say for sure. But the mean girl behavior was like a contagion, it just kept on and pretty soon few friends could be found.
I am fully aware of the factors that have contributed to the cyber bullying, malicious rumors, and rejection that my daughter has been experiencing. I knew the changes were coming. After all, this was the summer in which the girls were moving from eighth grade to ninth grade—a summer when girls would begin to experiment, move in different directions, develop new interests.
There is no denying it: whether on territory or off-reservation, kids these days begin smoking and drinking, popping pills and trying drugs at age 12, 13, 14, even younger. The trend is alarming. It is almost as if the younger and younger ages at which kids embark on a path of alcohol and drug use is perceived as a matter of evolution. It is the accepted norm.
Sadly, those who begin to partake in behaviors well beyond their years, while their brains are still developing, separate themselves and create a break in the social circle that previously existed. The kids who don’t use, are suddenly socially excluded, discarded—they are no longer cool enough to hang with the boozing crowd.
It appears as though my daughter has been on the receiving end of this social phenomenon. She is one of a handful of girls that does not drink or smoke pot. I am gratified by her decision to stay “clean.” But in a world that no longer makes sense to me, somehow being one of the “good” kids has made her a pariah.
On a gorgeous early Sunday summer morning in the third week of July, a pickup truck full of nine Seneca youth ranging in ages from 14 to 20 plowed headlong into a tree on the Cattaraugus territory. They were partying all night until the sun came up. Four kids were taken by Mercy Flight to the hospital, two were critically injured; seven sustained broken bones and lacerations. Today one girl is relearning how to walk; one young man is still in a coma.
Despite the horrible accident, boys and girls across the two Seneca territories were perhaps briefly shaken, but most remained unaffected. The news of the crash did not stop teens from engaging in risky behavior. For many, the summer of 2016 was a milestone, a time in which many crossed the bridge out of childhood. Boys and girls became young men and women, and they did so by drinking, partying, smoking up.
My daughter was selected to attend the national Unity Conference for Native youth in Oklahoma in late July. Before she left on her trip we discussed the accident and what role she might play in addressing the issue of underage drinking and its sometimes tragic repercussions. Community members expressed concern and talked about what the Seneca Nation could and should do to respond to the terrible accident and the disturbing number of young people involved. It struck me that there was a crisis in our community, that our youth were on a literal and figurative collision course—but nothing transpired in the wake of the wreck to address the crash and its implications.
I believe that the onset of drinking and smoking in my daughter’s peer group has been a factor in the cyber menacing my daughter has endured, but boys have also been an issue. At a recent community event, my daughter was once again treated like persona non grata. Her friends wouldn’t talk to her, wouldn’t acknowledge her. Left alone, she walked around the event with two boys.
The rumors and attacks flew on Instagram, Snapchat and in texts. She was accused of things, called names, maligned. Just before Homecoming, a girl directly accused her of stealing another girls’ boyfriend, called her names and hurled other accusations at her. The attacks and slurs had been occurring all summer and my daughter was once again in tears. I had had it. I wanted the attacks and the cyber bullying to end.
I called up the girl (who will remain unnamed here) and told her to stop texting my daughter, stop the bad mouthing, stop the smack talking, stop the terrorizing. The girl is 16 and in the 11th grade. I told her to find someone her own age to pick on. I was enraged.
Without going into detail about the outrageous exchanges that then transpired, things got worse, not better. I spoke with the girl’s father twice. He seemed reasonable. I informed him that I required an apology for the things she said, the disparaging posts, attacks and lies. He assured me that his daughter would apologize. The girl went on social media about the incident and as a result two other girls posted veiled threats against my daughter.
It has been three weeks. My daughter is now an outcast. There has been a lot of drama. She no longer wants to go to school. She no longer rides the bus, I drive her to school and pick her up every day.
She has run into the girl in person twice since the incident. The girl has had two opportunities to apologize. School administrators have informed me that the girl and her sister, who was also involved in the spreading of rumors, said they did not feel they owed my daughter an apology. The mother told her daughter not to apologize. The father, despite his earlier assurances, went to the school and informed administrators that there would be no apology. School administrators asked the girl to write a letter of apology. She didn’t, she wouldn’t. School administrators said they couldn’t force her to apologize.
Just because schools have adopted bullying policies does not preclude bullying behavior and does not ensure that reasonable resolution will occur.
I talked to the mother of another girl who was harassed by these girls. She cautioned me that nothing would happen to the bullies, that there would be no consequence to them. I talked to another adult who witnessed firsthand the manipulations of the girl who maligned my daughter online, and that mother echoed the same sentiment: nothing would happen.
The girls are not remorseful. They are repeat bullying offenders. Their parents defend them blindly.
What recourse does one have in such a situation when a reasonable simple apology is refused?
Our solution is that my daughter will transfer to another school. We will flee a bad and unchangeable circumstance. She will no longer have to endure the stink eye, the bathroom smack talk, the hallway shove, the cutting, underhanded giggles directed her way or the low rumble of whispers.
Some people might roll their eyes, suggest my daughter is over exaggerating. If it was a simple misunderstanding or a solitary incident, I might agree. But when you have recurring and pervasive behavior that results in the tearing down of another child—emotional torment and cruel behavior should be acknowledged for what it is and then responded to.
One of the most basic precepts taught in kindergarten is when you hurt another child’s feelings, you say you are sorry. When you do something wrong, you apologize. It is so simple.
The day I relented and agreed to allow my daughter to move six hours away to live with relatives and attend another school was a very dark day for me. I felt like the world had spun so violently and senselessly out of control: to think that Native girls would take down another Native girl, that friends would so easily and carelessly turn on each other for no good reason and create a wolf-pack gang-pile mentality against one decent young woman, it was crazy. I felt utterly crushed and my daughter felt the same way times ten.
Unable to sleep for days, I tried to come up with alternative solutions.
I realize that my daughter is just one victim of mean-girl madness, cyber bullying and what the researchers call peer aggression and emotional victimization. I have no doubt that the phenomenon occurs every day in every school, in every community, on every territory and differs only in the level of directed aggression, the degree of pain and despondency felt, and the extent or extremes of resultant personal ruin.
Most parents would say that they would walk through fire for their kids. I would do whatever I had to do to keep my children safe, healthy, well adjusted and happy. I will starve to defend my daughter and take what may be perceived as extreme action to support girls and boys everywhere who are victimized and left without resolution.
Campaign Hungry for Remorse and the Hot Pepper Challenge
Saturday October 22, 2016 I began my Hungry for Remorse hunger strike. I am doing the hunger strike to bring attention to the need for quick and effective responses and solutions to the harm that peer victimization and cyber bullying causes. And on a personal level, I am undertaking this hunger strike in an effort to obtain a simple apology from the girl who has repeatedly attacked my daughter on social media.
There is no shame in giving an apology when one is due. One should be ashamed if they refuse to make an apology when they have caused harm. Saying you are sorry is the right thing to do and typically an apology heals, makes things better, not worse.
Frankly I do not expect the girl who hurt my daughter to apologize. But I will conduct the hunger strike for my daughter and girls everywhere who are beaten down, cast out, and mistreated by their peers, to shed light on the need for resolution and redress. I am prepared to continue the Hungry for Remorse hunger strike until an apology is made, or until the last day of October, Bully Prevention Awareness month.
Additionally, my children and I are initiating a Hot Pepper Challenge in support of the national Stomp Out Bullying organization’s efforts. This challenge, similar to the Ice Bucket Challenge, suggests that people eat a hot pepper and feel the effect of the hot pepper burn. This is to remind people everywhere that words matter and mean words hurt. If you eat a hot pepper, your mouth will burn and words can burn too. The ultimate message of the campaign is: Words can hurt, don’t be mean. Stop Bullying.
I long for the days when the girls all ran shoulder to shoulder, carefree and united behind a common cause that extended beyond the lacrosse field, bound by laughter and unquestioned friendships.
Our Native communities are dispersed, the strength of our cultures are waning, our languages are on the brink of extinction, and our bloodlines are diminishing. We have been told for decades that like the Yanomami, the isolated indigenous people of the Rainforest, we are an endangered species.
I wish that our children would build each other up, not tear each other down; that they would lend a helping hand and provide encouragement to each other when needed. I wish we as Native people would stand together in solidarity, support each other, have the courage to stand up and say no to all those things that endanger our livelihood, our children, our existence. But it starts with an individual commitment, a drive to be better and do better.
They say there is strength in unity, but this must also come with compassion for each other. We must combine forces, remain kind, considerate and sensitive. Only then do we have hope for a better future for Native people; for all people.
Leslie Logan (Seneca) resides on the Cattaraugus Territory in Western New York. She has contributed writings to ICTMN, the Smithsonian’s American Indian magazine and recently contributed a chapter on citizenship to a forthcoming anthology on the subject. More information on the Hot Pepper Challenge can be found at: Bullying.org.