Originally published in Daily Journal, Nov. 25, 2019
by Christa Ramey
The beloved holiday movie “A Christmas Story” features a laugh-out-loud scene in which the film’s bespectacled hero is forced to confront a pair of terrifying bullies blocking his way home from school.
It’s an amusing moment, especially when viewed from the relative safety of adulthood and through the lens of a nostalgic comedy. But for children regularly experiencing this kind of torment as their presentday reality, bullying is, in fact, a matter of life and death.
Bullying and teen suicide are deeply intertwined. One study by researchers at Yale School of Medicine estimated that bullying victims are anywhere from two to nine times more likely to report suicidal thoughts than other children were. For adolescents, suicide is the second leading cause of death. “Bullying-suicide link explored in new study by researchers at Yale,” Yale News, July 16, 2008.
In a move of critical importance, the California Legislature has acknowledged this reality by passing three new laws at the intersection of bullying and suicide:
• AB 1767, which offers age-appropriate suicide prevention education;
• AB 34, which requires school district to post bullying prevention policies information about cyberbullying online; and
• AB 984, which allows taxpayers to send their excess tax payments to a Suicide Prevention Voluntary Contribution Fund, which funds the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
I’m an attorney whose job it is to hold school districts accountable when they fail to protect students from bullying. In my work, I’ve seen vast inconsistencies in implementation of anti-bullying policies. All schools are now required to have such policies in place, but requiring a school board to write a set of rules on a piece of paper is a far cry from having students abide by them in the hallways, or more important, having teachers and administrators effectively put them into practice in a way that meaningfully changes students’ lives.
Some schools embrace anti-bullying policies wholeheartedly, creating programs that educate both students and faculty. Students are instructed in how to recognize, cope with, and halt bullying, through peer interventions and with faculty support. Crucially, teachers too are given an education. They are instructed in how to identify those students most likely to become victims of bullying before such treatment begins, and how to recognize situations which in years past might have been ignored as trivial or dismissed as typical — a mindset embodied in the blithe adage, “boys will be boys” (though it’s girls who are actually at higher risk for suicide). Teachers are also taught appropriate interventions that can prevent an imbalanced power dynamic from burgeoning into full-blown bullying.
I would love to live in a world in which all campuses handed such tools to every adult and child who walked through the school gates, and would feel completely satisfied to find myself out of a job. Unfortunately, so far that hasn’t happened. In many districts, I’ve seen the same dramas play out again and again — lax policies create similar victims (special needs children are consistently at risk), and are explained away with similar excuses (district officials typically try to save themselves by blaming the victim). It’s gratifying to play a role in empowering bullied children and their families, and in taking school districts to task when, much like the vintage scrappers in “A Christmas Story,” they haven’t yet caught up with the modern understanding of the devastating impact bullying can have, instead remaining stubbornly mired in an antiquated world.
It’s encouraging that state lawmakers and our governor, who signed all three bills, support educating children about selfharm from a young age. This is a remarkable turnaround from the formerly common code of silence around suicide and suicidal thoughts, stemming from a misguided attempt to “shield” children from something they may already be experiencing every day. Still more encouraging is the law that will make it easier for Californians to donate to suicide prevention organizations. The requirement for schools to make their anti-bullying policies easily available is a strong step along our path away from the shrugs or callous incitements to “toughen up” that kids bringing complaints of bullying used to be handed in the past.
However, these online anti-bullying policies shouldn’t merely be artifacts committed to the internet. They need to exist in the form of living, breathing plans of action that are being used in every school, every day — as if students’ lives depended on it. Because they do.
Christa Ramey, a Los Angeles-based attorney who specializes in school bullying cases, is a principal at Ramey Law, PC. Find her at https://www.rameylawpc.com.