October 12, 1998
Matthew Shepard dies after being tortured and assaulted by two men in an anti-gay hate crime.
Five teenagers in Mentor, Ohio commit suicide. Parents of two of the victims sued the district, saying the bullying contributed to the deaths of the five young people.
January 14, 2010
Massachusetts high school student Phoebe Prince committed suicide after enduring bullying from her classmates. Six of her classmates faced criminal charges after the suicide.
September 22, 2010
Eighteen-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi jumps off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate posted a video of Clementi's gay sexual encounter on the internet.
Fourteen-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer takes his own life after allegedly relentless bullying related to his sexual orientation.
March 17, 2010
President Obama signs the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. The law expands previous hate crime legislation and includes crimes based on sexual orientation, gender and gender identity.
New Jersey's so-called Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, said to be the toughest law against bullying, takes effect. Teachers in the state must receive anti-bullying training, and schools are required to have anti-bullying specialists and safety teams made of teachers, parents and administrators to investigate complaints. Investigations must begin within one day of the bullying and finished within 10 days.
Dan Savage posts a YouTube video with his partner, telling victims of bullying that "it gets better." The video spurs an international phenomenon, with thousands of videos uploaded to the channel.
March 22, 2011
It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living, a collection of essays edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller, hits bookstores.
September 25, 2011
Lady Gaga meets with President Obama at a Silicon Valley fundraising event, asking what he plans to do to prevent bullying. She asked the question in response to Rodemeyer's death.
Photos courtesy of Nokia KSA, federico novaro, soundfromwayout and visionshare on Flickr, Wikimedia Commons and penguin.com. Licensed under Creative Commons. Production by Katherine Mirani and Katie Park / North by Northwestern.
It's a moment recognizable to everyone. Whether it was during second grade or last month, that sting after a rude, offhand or cruel remark is a universal feeling. The term "bullying" covers so many manners of sin against fellow classmates, coworkers — really anyone. But, for some kids, being bullied doesn’t just stop with inconsiderate comments.
Communication junior Ben Leventhal knows this. He started It Gets Better Project: NU with three other students in light of the hostile environment created by bullying. The group, which hosted its first informational meeting on Oct. 10, is an offshoot of the national organization started by columnist Dan Savage in September 2010.
"We want teens to know there are people out there that are there to help them, and it won't always be so difficult," Leventhal said. "To create a safe space for all different kinds of identities was really the impetus."
Several cases have garnered media attention in the last few years showing the tragic results of these hostile environments — and countless others occurring in quiet anonymity. Most recently, it was Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14-year-old boy allegedly bullied for his sexual orientation and hanging out with girls. His death — an apparent suicide — didn’t even stop his tormentors from allegedly bullying his sister in the following days.
Seriously? If this is true — and I can’t fathom a reason as to why Rodemeyer’s sister would make this up — there are some very disturbed kids attending that high school. Culturally, much of middle school and high school is predicated on the fact that "kids can be mean." But when this kind of sick act persists, what can be done to stop this horrific chain of events?
Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey decided last year after the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi that the solution was a new state law — that is, the most comprehensive bullying law in existence in America.
The law, which went into effect on September 1, mandates that school staff members be given extra anti-bullying training, report cases of bullying to comply with new guidelines and puts into place a system to grade each school district on its anti-bullying efforts. Notably, it doesn't protect the schools from liability, should a case of bullying continue without due diligence on the part of the school district.
But the law — known as the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights — faced controversy. Critics complain that the law doesn't include additional resources for schools to take on these anti-bullying programs. Some even say that the law goes too far in addressing a problem that is widely considered to be rampant throughout the country.
Will Christie's Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, a bill that enjoyed rare bipartisan support, be effective in curing this social virus in New Jersey's school systems? As the law has only been in effect for a little more than a month at this point, it is hard to tell whether it will be as effective as its proponents claim.
The law seeks to change a culture rooted in American tradition and, to an extent, human nature. Although some may view it as antiquated and cliché, the idea of a social hierarchy based on looks and athleticism still reigns supreme in many places. Especially in high schools, it's not outlandish to think that a kid can still occasionally get perks on the virtue of being a first string linebacker. It's also not crazy to think that adults can look the other way for some of these kids when it's clear bullying is occurring.
Psychologically, humans aren't wired to fully understand the damage done by bullying if they're not on the receiving end. The "empathy gap" occurs when people who have never been bullied can't fathom the emotional pain involved for the child in question. This can influence teachers who have never been bullied themselves to be less likely to punish bullies, according to a Northwestern study.
This "empathy gap" clearly shows what needs to change in schools to alleviate this problem. Yes, it's great to alter school guidelines to make them harsher on bullies and schools that don't support victims, but more importantly, the culture needs to keep pace with these changes. As the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights entails, young kids must receive lessons that revolve around the negativity of bullying. And these lessons should be taught early and reinforced often.
When it comes to older kids in high school, however, the problem is harder to address. As Emily Bazelon, a senior writer at Slate writing a book on bullying called, Sticks and Stones, points out, it is much harder to influence the opinions of kids in high school when it comes to being told what to do by adults.
That's why organizations by college and high school students — like the one Leventhal is co-founding — will be so important going forward. These groups will be able to raise awareness about situations that some school staff members don't even understand. "Teachers need to be aware of these kind of things to help. When they don't understand that bullying is occurring, that creates an environment where bullying is allowed to happen," Leventhal said.
No one can know for sure whether legislation will be effective yet, but here's to hoping that the New Jersey law, and others following it, can change a flawed culture in conjunction with some of these grassroots youth movements. That will be vital to making bully-free zones a reality in this country.