Taking Bullies to task for those who suffer at classmates' hands

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 28, 2012

Editor’s note: The identities of the victims and their parents have been changed to provide anonymity.
By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — Twelve-year-old Ethan Matthews lies awake most nights playing out in his head what might happen the next day at Knox Middle School.
“I can’t sleep well thinking about what’s going to happen,” the seventh-grader said. “I’ve basically kind of become paranoid.”
That paranoia stems from nearly two years of bullying on a daily basis.
Ethan’s teasing runs the gamut with insults about everything from his weight to his “crooked hair.”
“Most of it is verbal, but there have been a couple of encounters where it’s been physical, you know where they were coming at me or where they were getting too close,” Ethan said.
Classmates put Ethan into a chokehold about once a week, his mother Catie Matthews said. They also use the end of their sleeves to slap him in the face and occasionally knock the books from his hands as he moves through the hallways.
“Whenever it first started I wasn’t at my happiest, but I was kind of OK with it,” he said. “But as it got worse and I didn’t really know why this was all happening, I started feeling more and more depressed about it.”
So depressed that he didn’t want to go outside to shoot hoops with his brother and sometimes asked to skip school.
“That’s not him; he’s normally happy-go-lucky and sweet,” Catie said. “He’s never been one who loves school, but he knows he has to go and he always has, but the day before an early release day he asked if he had to go. He said, ‘I just don’t want to have to deal with it tomorrow.’ ”
Alyssa Newton said her 9-year-old son, Aiden, would literally make himself sick worrying about bullies at Hurley Elementary School. Stomachaches from stress would keep him out of class.
“He just didn’t want to go to school,” she said. “It was a bad situation, they called him names, and a few times they would throw balls at him during P.E. class.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 30 percent of students nationwide are teased or emotionally bullied during their lifetimes.
About 20 percent of students report being physically bullied, according to the center.
On guard
Many of Ethan’s school days are spent waiting for his next attack.
“I feel like I have to be on guard all the time,” he said.
His bullies can be found sitting beside him in class, in the cafeteria during lunch, and even in the bathroom.
“There was one day that he wet his pants when he got home because he didn’t make it to the bathroom in time,” said Trey Matthews, Ethan’s father.
Ethan said he’d rather hold it than risk using the bathroom at school.
“I’m afraid they’re going to come after me,” he said.
Catie said it’s frustrating that her son can never fully relax at school.
“He should be able to go to school and learn and not have to deal with that kind of environment,” she said. “We’re not talking about occasionally, we’re talking about every day.”
Although Ethan currently makes A’s and B’s, Trey said he thinks his grades would climb if he didn’t have to deal with bullying.
“We spend a lot of time with him at home,” he said. “But I just can’t help but wonder how much better things could be.”
When Ethan gets an occasional break from his bullies, Catie said he immediately notices a difference in his school day.
“He’ll come home and say ‘Mom, the assistant principal sat in my class today and it was just like a regular day at school. I didn’t have to worry about those kids harassing me,’ ” Catie said
The effects
Panic attacks have accompanied the depression and anxiety Ethan’s experienced as a result of bullying.
Stress has turned into physical illness for Aiden. He’s also become depressed and more secluded.
“He already had low self-esteem so this hasn’t helped, it really brought him down” Alyssa said.
Dr. Susan Crawley, a child psychologist at Carolinas Medical Center-NorthEast, said self-esteem issues are bound to arise.
“I think even when you tell a child that it’s not their fault, that they don’t have the problem, the bully has the problem, the child is going to think that it’s their fault and there is something intrinsically wrong with them,” she said.
Crawley saiddepression, anxiety, nightmares, trouble sleeping and bedwetting are common problems for victims of bullying.
They can also experience difficulty making friends, as well as irritability and anger.
In the long term, bullying victims can have difficulty developing normal peer relationships, have trouble concentrating at school or work and experience relationship problems as adults, Crawley said.
“We also find that children who are victimized are actually less likely to complete high school,” she said.
And in extreme cases, they are susceptible to suicide and a desire for revenge that has led to incidents like school shootings.
Fighting back
Crawley said victims of bullying shouldn’t just let it go.
“I don’t think ignoring works,” she said.
Instead, they should assertively ask their bullies to stop, Crawley said.
“If that doesn’t work, I tell them to tell an adult,” she said. “In middle and high school, they are reluctant to tell an adult because they’ve seen that often, adults don’t do anything to stop it, and they are afraid it will be worse.”
Ethan said he usually turns to his guidance counselor for support during the day and talks to his parents after school.
“The second I pick him up, I say ‘How was your day?’ And if he tells me he’s been picked on, I tell him I know it’s hard to hear, but it doesn’t make it true and sometimes you just have to have thick skin and not worry about it,” Catie said. “If it’s not something simple, we go right in and find the assistant principal.”
Crawley said parents should make it clear to school administrators that they want to set up a plan to deal with the bullying and “not to back down.”
“Don’t allow the school to put it back on the child and kind of get out of dealing with it,” she said.
The Matthews family documents Ethan’s bullying each day when he arrives home.
And Catie said although they’ve talked with administrators at Knox on several occasions, progress is slow.
“Every time they tell us they can’t give us specifics, but the child isn’t going to be bothering him for a few days and they tell us, ‘We’ve taken care of it, we haven’t ignored it,’ ” she said. “(Ethan) usually sees them gone or in ISS (in school suspension) for a couple of days, and then they come back and do the same things all over again.”
Catie said she believes the school administrators are trying to remedy the issue, but they are “overwhelmed” looking for ways to deal with it.
“They’ve asked me when I call ‘What do you think we can do?’ ” she said. “I wish I had an answer, but I know whatever they’re doing right now is not working, it’s not enough.
“It’s like their hands are tied and you have to go through so much before anything is done.”
Looking for answers
The Matthews switched Ethan’s schedule around earlier this year to get him away from his bully, but within days the boy’s friends started attacking him.
They’ve considered selling the house they’ve lived in since before Ethan was born so he can attend school somewhere else. But fear the issue might arise at another school has kept them where they are for now.
The family also doesn’t want to split Ethan up from his friends or take him away from extra-curricular activities he enjoys.
“We don’t know what to do,” Catie said.
Newton said her son’s teacher did essentially nothing about his bullies last year, continuing to pair him up with his attacker for group activities during class.
“I finally went to the principal and she moved him to another class,” she said. “He still sees his bully in the hallway, but other than that, he hasn’t had any more issues.”
Both Ethan and Aiden are seeing counselors once a week to cope with their bullying.
“We have to send our kid to counseling to learn how to deal with it, but the other kids just get away with it,” Trey said. “Why is our kid the problem? He’s not.”
The family said at this point, Ethan has permission to fight back when things get physical.
“We’ve given him the green light to defend himself, to take a stand against it,” Catie said.
Despite Ethan’s issues with bullies, he said he doesn’t get the worst of it.
That poses a moral dilemma for the family because they want to teach him to not be a bystander when he knows something is wrong, but they don’t want Ethan to become even more of a target while he’s defending someone else.
“I pray for him every morning when I drop him off at school,” Catie said. “It worries me the things I hear about that go on there, so I pray for him and put him in God’s hand.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.
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