May 13, 2010, began like any other day for 11-year-old Ty Field. Like other children across the country, he woke up, got dressed, had breakfast and went to school. While he sat on the bleachers waiting for class to start, talking and laughing with his friends, a student who had bullied him for the past two years approached him and proceeded to pick on him.
On this particular day, Ty decided he had had enough – so he retaliated, and, as it typically goes in adolescent scuffles, it was the second guy who got caught, and Ty was sent home from school – suspended for fighting.
Upon dropping him off at home, his mother instructed him to do his chores and homework, and that they would talk about what happened that evening after she and his father returned from work.
But Ty never did his chores or finished his homework.
Instead, he walked into his parents’ bedroom and took his own life with .22-caliber pistol.
“I think he acted without knowing or understanding the consequences,” his father, Kirk Smalley, says.
“I think he just couldn’t take it anymore. I think he was tired of the fighting. He was tired of the bullying.”
Since that day in 2010, Ty’s parents, Kirk and Laura Smalley, have devoted their lives to the anti-bullying movement with the program Stand for the Silent, traveling the country to schools, churches, community centers and youth groups to share their message that the bullying their son suffered prior to his suicide is very real and very serious, and that it plagues countless American youth everywhere, every day.
Frighteningly, “bullycide” – a phrase that has been coined to describe how bullying can lead to depression, suicidal thoughts and ultimately, like in Ty’s case, suicidal action – is on the rise.
It’s an uncomfortable subject that no one wants to talk about, let alone think about, but Smalley believes that if we don’t start talking about it, the numbers are going to continue to climb, and he and his wife have made it their life’s mission to help prevent other parents from ever having to suffer the same nightmare they live 24/7.
“Mother’s Day this year was the two-year anniversary of the day we lost Ty. Then came his birthday, June 16, and Father’s Day was the very next day. The 13th of any month is especially tough for us,” Smalley explains.
We don’t celebrate holidays anymore. They’re too hard. The first Christmas after we lost Ty was not Christmas. It was day 196 without our baby.”
A National Epidemic
Ty’s tragic story is one of several bullying/suicide cases in the past couple of years that have gained national attention, sending shockwaves across the country and putting youth culture under a new kind of microscope.
Bullying is no longer limited to the school playground or hallways, as technology has broken barriers and reduced safe zones via the internet’s social media and text messaging through smart phones, allowing harassment to follow kids home from school after hours, any time of the day.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, teens report that bullying is a problem for them more often than racism, STDs or the pressure to have sex, and is as much of a problem as the pressure to use drugs or alcohol.
Cutting across socio-economic, racial, ethnic and cultural lines, bullying doesn’t discriminate.
The American Psychological Association estimates that 40 to 80 percent of school-age children are involved in bullying incidents at some point in their school careers – whether they are the victims, perpetrators or witnesses – and that 25 percent of students will encourage bullying if not given proper education and support in anti-bullying techniques.
By conducting open dialogue with the sources themselves, Smalley – who has spoken at nearly 500 schools and talked with over 610,000 kids – has experienced first-hand just how widespread the issue extends and how strong the hunger is for anti-bullying action and awareness amongst American students.
“We’ve traveled and spoken with students from coast to coast, border to border – from inner city schools to little bitty schools in tiny towns – and the main thing that we’ve learned that connects them all together is that bullying happens everywhere with every kind of child you can imagine,” he says.
We get calls and emails and text messages from kids at all hours of the night who are passionate about stopping bullying and want to make a change – and it’s not just the victims, but it’s also bullies. It’s bystanders and friends of both victims and bullies who have realized what bullying actions can cause and they want to get involved to help make it stop. Countless kids are taking a stand and saying, ‘I don’t have to take this anymore – what can I do to make a difference?’”
Sticks And Stones
Defined as repeated interpersonal behavior that is intended to do physical or psychological harm, bullying can interfere with the important interpersonal relationships that support an adolescent’s mental health and wellbeing.
Dr. Megan Ballew, a clinical behavioral psychologist in Tulsa, witnesses the impact that bullying has on the youth she works with on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. Ranging across the age spectrum, from kindergarten through senior year, she says that bullying can be linked directly to adolescent depression, whether the child has been bullied or because they have been identified as bullies themselves.
She says that there are two common bullying presentations she has dealt with over the years.
“The first scenario is with kids who are dealing with significant clinical depression. They were happy kids before it started happening – but now they are failing at school, isolating and having suicidal thoughts or are thinking about hurting themselves,” she explains.
The other most common scenario is with a kid that has been picked on for years at school in different ways. The parents have gone in, had meetings with the principals and teachers, and made numerous attempts to try to address the situation. It doesn’t stop, and finally that kid hits back and does something to defend himself – then he gets sent to me because he is identified as being aggressive. So after enduring the bullying – these kids are getting in trouble and being identified as being a problem.”
She says that time after time, she hears kids expressing how they’ve gone through all of the proper channels – turning to grown ups to ask those people in authority positions to do something to help them – but nothing gets done.
“I think that too often adults will settle for the mentality that ‘kids will be kids,’ and feel like it’s not as big of a problem as it is,” Ballew says.
The bullying prevention programs in schools start at the top with the adults in the system. I think that it’s important to make sure they are rethinking how they are going to be leaders and set firm limits on what’s acceptable and what’s not – and establish consequences. Bullying is going to have to be addressed seriously, and I think that starts with the teachers and principals really looking at the system that’s in place in their schools and figuring out what the adults can do to make it better for the kids.”
Giving Oklahoma Policies A Backbone
Although Oklahoma has an existing anti-bullying law, and there is a state model policy available, interpretation and implementation of the law is left up to individual school districts’ own accords.
There are also several key components that play crucial roles in addressing bullying that aren’t present within Oklahoma’s anti-bullying law, including mandated reporting and written records of incidents, which require a procedure to report bullying incidents, a process to submit information anonymously, protection from retaliation and a procedure for maintaining written records of all incidents of bullying and their resolution.
Oklahoma Rep. Anastasia Pittman (D-Oklahoma City) has become a champion supporter for strengthening anti-bullying legislation in Oklahoma, and says that thousands of victims’ parents have come to her feeling hopeless and powerless, believing they have no recourse because of the way the state’s bullying policy is designed.
“The majority of parents will tell you that their schools don’t care and that they won’t do anything about bullying behavior. At this point it’s difficult to enforce our anti-bullying law because we’ve allowed schools to adopt their own policies – so there is no standard,” she says.
“It’s our job as legislators, parents, teachers, educators and leaders of this state to do everything in our power to foster an environment of safety and freedom and health for our children. We want these young people to be educated and grow up to be healthy and wholesome citizens who are contributing to our society and our economy,”
Pittman continues. “It’s very difficult to do that when young people are feeling harassed and intimidated, and are suffering from depression and contemplating suicide.”
On May 17, 2011 – the one year anniversary of the day the Smalleys buried Ty – Oklahoma legislators killed HB 1461, a proposal that would mandate schools to strengthen bullying policies and require teachers, educational personnel and volunteers to get some training on bullying behavior.
The measure would have also dealt with cyberbullying, which includes using cellphones, text messages and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, for bullying purposes.
One legislator that challenged the bill reportedly called it “overkill,” stating he didn’t understand why the Legislature would need to mandate to schools something that everybody in and out of school already knows – which is to apply the Golden Rule of treating other people with respect and expecting it in return.
Pittman argues otherwise, saying that statistics and public pleas for help by students and parents are proving that simply relying on the Golden Rule is not working.
“What I want to know is, why are we producing policies that we do not enforce? If we have a mandate for a school to have a policy, whose role and responsibility is it to check and make sure that that school is enforcing that policy?” she asks.
This past May, the annual anti-bullying rally that began after Ty Fields’ death was held at the state capitol, with approximately 500 children from around the state attending to speak in front of legislators and bring public awareness, asking lawmakers to get involved.
Smalley, who brings the Stand for the Silent program to the rally every year, says that the attending children who travel hours by bus come seeking help in passing laws that will give some backbone to existing legislation.
“What’s in place is almost spineless – it has no beef and basically states that schools have to have an anti-bullying policy, but it doesn’t say it has to be enforced or that they have to be proactive in it. We feel like it needs to be stronger than that,” he explains.
Despite the setback of HB 1461’s failure to pass in Oklahoma, there is a ripple-in-the-pond effect happening: The anti-bullying movement is in the forefront as long as the public keeps it there.
For every school and public meeting the Smalleys speak at, pebbles are being thrown. For every child who talks about how bullying affects them and their peers, many more will hear them and listen and spread the word. The more children are talking about it, the more parents will pay attention, and the more parents get proactive, the more schools will take it seriously and seek more information to better enforce policies and make changes.
At the end of the day, Kirk Smalley can’t stress the message enough that the public need to take a closer look at what bullying has become in today’s society.
“I made a promise to my boy a month and seven days after he killed himself – the very first Father’s Day that we had to endure after he died. I promised him that I was going to fight to help stop bullying in this world, and make a difference for other kids and their families – and I don’t break promises to my baby,” he says.