Campbell column: Being a bystander to bullying

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 10, 2012

I’ve been keeping a secret for quite some time now.
It’s been nearly a decade, but I still cringe and get nauseous at the thought.
The truth is I was a bully in high school.
But I’m probably not what you imagine when the word comes to mind.
I never taunted anyone with hateful words or shoved them into a locker. Instead, I stood back and watched as other people did those things.
But being a bystander makes me just as guilty.
There’s one incident that still bothers me. And if it haunts me, I can only imagine how the victim felt at the time.
I was sitting in the school common area one day during lunch, and a group of boys were screaming out “Ella-ella elephant” as Ella, a slightly voluptuous girl, was walking by.
I couldn’t believe it. I imagine Ella was well aware of her size and probably already self-conscience about it. She didn’t need such a rude reminder.
I should have told them to stop, but I didn’t.
And I’m still not sure why because I knew it wasn’t right. Maybe it was because I didn’t know Ella that well, maybe it was because I wasn’t sure what others would think, maybe it was because as someone with acne and frizzy red hair I didn’t want to become their next target.
Whatever the reason, I still regret sitting there frozen.
I recently wrote a story about bullying for the Post in which I interviewed a Knox Middle School student who has been the target of hateful name calling and violent chokeholds for nearly two years.
Listening to 12-year-old Ethan Matthews talk about the terror he experiences at the hands of bullying made me regret being a bystander even more.
It was jarring to hear that he has a hard time sleeping at night, wondering what could happen the next day and that he’s afraid to go to the bathroom because he never knows what awaits.
It made me wonder how many of my peers were suffering a similar fate while people like me stood by.
During another interview for the story, Dr. Susan Crawley, a child psychologist at Carolinas Medical Center Northeast, said bullying isn’t just harmful to the victim.
“It’s bad for everybody,” she’s aid. “Even the bystanders are negatively affected.
“As adults they often feel conflicted, feel shame and guilt for not supporting the victims.”
In that moment, I felt like she was reading my mind.
I hope the students of today are stronger than I was. Maybe they can find the courage to do what’s right so that when they’re my age they won’t be looking back wishing things had played out differently.
Sarah Campbell covers education for the Post.
Contact her at 704-797-7683.