As school administrations and local authorities struggle for responses to Internet victimization, some U.S. teens are taking matters into their own hands.
By the end of seventh grade, 22 boys and girls were harassing then 13-year-old Jamie Isaacs on a daily basis at Samoset Middle School in Lake Ronkonkoma, NY. They hit her with chalk and pencils, started an “I hate Jamie” club and sent her death threats through AOL Instant Message.
“I never had a break,” recounted Jamie, now 15, who says the bullying started when she was in second grade. “I would come home and I would feel like a prisoner in my own house.”
Jamie's family tried everything to stop the bullying. They contacted school officials, law enforcement, legislators —to no avail.
“She had so much anxiety,” her mother Anne told The Crime Report. “We had therapy a few years to try and help her, and help all of us deal with it.”
Finally, after years of harassment, Jamie's parents put her in private school where she has since thrived. That could have been the end of it. But after an alarming number of teen suicides in the news and the continued rise of cyberbullying, Jamie decided to take matters into her own hands.
She started her own foundation, The Jamie Isaacs Foundation, which helps other teens in similar situations by providing a 24-hour hotline and access to a child advocate.
A Generation's Biggest Scourge
Jamie joins a rising number of young people who feel let down by the traditional response to bullying: reporting incidents to school authorities and law enforcement. They have decided to combat what some regard as the biggest scourge of their generation by speaking out—and speaking to their peers—to let them know that bullying isn't acceptable.
Bullying affects more than half of all American teens, the National Crime Prevention Council reported in a 2006 study they commissioned from Harris Interactive, a research firm based in New York City. And, as bullying has moved from traditional schoolyards to digital harassment, it has become harder to detect and monitor—leaving teens at greater risk for depression or suicide, according to a 2010 survey conducted by for the National Institutes of Health.
The high-profile suicides of Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts teen who hung herself in 2010 after consistent harassment and bullying at her school, and Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University freshman who committed suicide last September after his sexual interactions with another man were posted online by his roommate, have added to the determination of bullied teens to change a dismal landscape.
Schools have little guidance how to handle bullying and cyberbullying and are authorities are unclear how involved to get in these matters which mostly take place in the digital realm As a result, they often choose not to get involved or simply brush the seriousness of the allegations aside, said Ross Ellis, the Founder of “Stomp Out Bullying,” a national not-for profit based in New York City that educates teens and parents on how to deal with these issues.
“We have teens who can't get appointments with the principal,” said Ellis. “What does that say when principals [are] too busy to listen to their kids?”
In turn, schools say that they don't have the time or resources to police bullying or cyberbullying, which in many of these cases can be just normal teenage behavior.
And it is not just the schools that are confused on how to handle this rising form of bullying—it is the legal system as well. After a White House conference on bullying, federal legislation, “The Safe School Improvement Act of 2010” to add bully prevention programs into school was introduced to Congress but still remains in committee, leaving any national directive uncertain. And while all states have anti-bullying laws on the books, the sanctions for cyberbullying range from school/parent interventions to misdemeanors and felonies with detention, suspension, and expulsion in between. Some laws promote Internet safety education or curricula that cover cyberbullying.. But Internet victimization crimes have only recently become targets of prosecution, and law enforcement, prosecutors and other authorities still have no clear precedents —making the issue of how to punish them often a matter of local discretion.
Teens—particularly former bullying victims— have started to realize that reaching out to their peers is an effective way to raise awareness of the problem.
South Carolinian Blake Graham, 17, was bullied incessantly throughout his elementary and middle school years. “I was the kid [who] liked to be different and my peers did not like that so much,” said Graham. With his parents' support, Graham decided to speak out so people can “see how serious bullying can be.”
During his junior year he wrote two anti-bullying books. “A Letter For Andrew” and “A Crown For Victoria.” In addition he is a teen ambassador for the not-for-profit “Stomp Out Bullying” organization.
Graham's main advice to harassed teens: tell your parents or a trusted authority figure who can help you navigate the situation.
Adam Kalota, a friend of Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14- year-old Williamsville , New York resident who committed suicide this fall after incessant harassment, recently told “Your News Now” (YNN), a Buffalo television station, that he and other students plan to start a group to raise awareness about the issue of bullying and teen suicide.
Meanwhile, Jamie Isaacs is pressing ahead with her own foundation while attending high school.
“I didn't want to see any other kids go through what I went through,” she said. “I [believe] telling my story of survival empowers people.”
Cara Tabachnick is managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.