By Sarah McGowan, TT Writer and Producer
In the past decade, bullying has transformed from a once-accepted fact of adolescent life to one of the most pressing issues facing America’s youth. Thrust into public consciousness after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, the media’s coverage of this tragedy searched for meaning behind the killings and demanded justice. Money was thrown blindly at this shocking epidemic in the form of School Resource Officers and zero tolerance policies quickly gained traction.
“Although bullying was once considered a rite of passage,” reports the National Crime Prevention Council, “parents, educators, and community leaders now see bullying as a devastating form of abuse that can have long-term effects on youthful victims, robbing them of self-esteem, isolating them from their peers, causing them to drop out of school, and even prompting health problems and suicide.”
The consequences of inaction are clearly enormous. The National Institute of Health reports that every 30 minutes a teen attempts suicide due to bullying. But the search for answers and a permanent solution still amount to a largely wild, if not well-intentioned, goose chase.
It’s been over ten years since Columbine – most of the youth in school today don’t remember the horrifying footage or the tears of a community stricken with heartbreak and disbelief. But in this time, the bullying landscape has grown enormously, the movement to address and eradicate it has reached a fever pitch, and some might say that bullying has transcended from crisis to commodity.
With all the work that’s being done by so many organizations, including Teen Truth, why hasn’t the conversation changed?
The harsh reality is, bullying will likely never become obsolete. A large part of the problem is the way we’re talking about and framing it as a society. While administrators, community leaders and concerned parents single out the bullies and the victims, there’s one important place they’ve overlooked – the face staring back at them in the mirror.
At the age of 17, Soeren Palumbo was by all accounts an average high school senior. He was popular, exceled in school and seemed the portrait of a regular kid without any great burdens to bear. But in May of 2007, he let his peers and teachers in on a secret that would forever change his life and many around him.
In a passionate speech, Palumbo shared his truth – that for years he had coped with the discrimination, social rejection and bullying that his little sister Olivia faced because of her intellectual disabilities. The staring in the grocery store, the quiet requests from nearby diners to be moved to another table, the terribly cruel comments from passengers on airplanes – they all added up, but remained largely internalized.
Palumbo’s home life did not co-mingle with his school life. But overnight, what he now describes as “a simple act of love from a big brother to a little sister” evolved into something much larger than he could have ever imagined when he spoke these words:
Look around you and thank God that we don’t live in a world that discriminates and despises those who cannot defend themselves. Thank God that every one of us in this room, in this school, hates racism and sexism and by that logic discrimination in general. Thank God that everyone in this institution is dedicated to the ideal of mutual respect and love for our fellow human beings. Then pinch yourself for living in a dream. Then pinch the hypocrites sitting next to you. Then pinch the hypocrite that is you.
Pinch yourself once for each time you have looked at one of your fellow human beings with a mental handicap and laughed. Pinch yourself for each and every time you denounced discrimination only to turn and hate those around you without the ability to defend themselves, the only ones around you without the ability to defend themselves. Pinch yourself for each time you have called someone else a “retard.” – Soeren Palumbo, 2007.
Whether we like it or not, judgments and slurs like the r-word are too often the fabric of our negative social norms. Thrown around carelessly, hurtfully and with disastrous consequences, words like these divide and dehumanize. And most of us are guilty of perpetuating them. Those of us who aren’t are certainly guilty of indifference each time we fail to intervene.
“Words, especially labels,” explains Palumbo, “serve to crystalize a lot of our preconceptions, misconceptions and stereotypes about others. If we don’t think about our words, abusive prejudices go on without reconsideration.”
And when these prejudices persist, large segments of society become marginalized. “There are thousands of people out there who say, ‘when you use this word, it makes me feel less than human and that I’m not a part of what you’re a part of. And it makes me hurt in very deep, deep ways,’” he says. “How is that the rest of us can’t stop and see what it is that needs to change so we stop making people hurt like this?”
Simply put, our words matter.
Palumbo’s decision to step forward and courageously share his truth garnered the attention of Special Olympics, and together with Timothy Shriver Jr., he developed its first-ever youth-created campaign, “Spread the Word to End the Word” – a movement that has gone from grassroots to international in scope.
Joanne Maldonado is the Senior Manager of Communications for Project Unify® at Special Olympics. “Spread the Word to End the Word was our first major campaign [outside of our traditional focus],” she explains. Though Special Olympics is a sports organization, she says it is also very concerned about community health and empowering people, not just those with intellectual disabilities. “[Before the campaign] I think we’d always thought that bullying is just one of those things that’s never going to really go away. And a lot of it has to do with violence, but there’s a lot of bullying that happens outside of that violence.”
Countless stories fill today’s media: the special education student who was bullied physically and mentally by classmates while a teacher stood by laughing, another who recorded his teacher calling him “stupid” repeatedly, the newscaster who received an email chastising her for being overweight. Bullying doesn’t always lead to physical violence, but while the bruises can heal, the pain we experience from being called names can last a lifetime.
“We need to fix whatever it is that we’re doing that makes people feel so badly,” says Palumbo, “And that’s why we need to think critically about our language. We need to stop the bleeding.”
By challenging his audience to think about their often-unconscious actions, Palumbo effectively put a mirror up to those in his community and asked them to take a hard look. The result was nothing short of transformative. “In those 10 minutes,” he says, instead of the usual victim versus bully paradigm, “there was a joined community grappling with this issue.”
Palumbo’s experience and partnership with Special Olympics heralds the potential of youth-led movements.
“If young people don’t speak out, nothing gets fixed. If a high school student doesn’t stand up and work to solve injustice in their communities then injustice isn’t going anywhere. It’s going to feed on itself until someone from the inside does something about it,” he explains. “Nothing compares to the power of a student – they are the ones who affect their own sphere of influence.”
His example is a powerful one because as Maldonado points out, “youth see that they can become instrumental in helping spread the campaign, become advocates and work to educate the next generation. It took Soeren and Timothy coming together to take the charge.”
But as Palumbo points out, no one needs to be a “knight in shining armor” to create change. He says that over-glorification of advocacy and action may actually prevent many kids from getting involved.
“We need to bring the rhetoric down to earth and make it more accessible so it becomes seen as a task that all of us bear to move us in the right direction” – a simple philosophy embodied by his campaign. Changing the conversation also requires reconsidering what the incentive structure is around bullying, he explains. “People don’t realize what they’re being robbed of when they allow bullying to continue.”
He says that on a larger level, creating community awareness is the first step towards what he sees as an important part of the solution: moving more towards a society that listens to and values the experiences of every person. His campaign is certainly a step in the right direction.
In recent years Special Olympics created its own platform to combat bullying in very specific ways. “We’re using our initiatives so that we’re building schools and communities that are inclusionary,” says Maldonado, “so that hopefully, this isn’t even a second thought,” – a goal that undoubtedly takes time, resources and the work of many. One part of their platform has been to partner with Teen Truth to develop a new interactive assembly experience where Special Olympic Athletes tell their stories.
As a community, the stakes are simply too high if we fail to act.
“When someone withdraws or is forced out of the community through bullying, we all lose out on what that victim has to offer. And not only today, but tomorrow, next week, next year,” cautions Palumbo. “If we have any sort of goal of moving toward the richest human experience we can find, whether at school, our neighborhood or workplace, then these perspectives are part of that.”
Palumbo even says that he “kicks himself” for not acting sooner after seeing the tremendous impact his “simple act of love” created. His sister and her friends are no longer victimized at school because of his awareness campaign – a huge victory for him personally. He’s now pursuing his J.D./M.B.A. at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania to learn how to create even more social impact in the non-profit sector – a passion he says was born from his experience with Special Olympics. He has also given Teen Truth director Erahm Christopher permission to transform his influential speech into a short film that they both hope will be seen around the world.
“In all my studies I have not learned more from anyone than my younger sister Olivia. For people not willing to learn from that, it’s to their own detriment. Everyone has something to gain by ending bullying. It’s all of our problem,” he says. “We just have too much lose.”
To learn more about the power of words, labels and stereotypes, and how you can empower youth to create change, BUY THE BOOK – Teen Truth: Why Youth Have Something to Hide. Teen Truth is a proud partner of Special Olympics and Project Unify, an education-based project that uses sports and education programs to activate young people to develop school communities where all youth are agents of change.
To learn more about the important work of Special Olympics and their bullying prevention programs, check out Spread the Word to End the Word, Project Unify (Teen Truth is a proud sponsor) and Unified Sports.