Adults might call them awkward, backward or shy. To kids, they're just weird. And whether their "differentness" means they are picked on mercilessly or, even worse, routinely ignored, these children need to be rescued from their desperate situations before they take drastic measures.
Jodee Blanco brought her urgent message, titled "It's Not Just Joking Around," to teachers, parents and students last week during activities sponsored by the Ohio County Partners in Prevention, Crittenton Services Inc., Youth Services System and St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Wheeling.
Blanco said at least 90 percent of bullied children fit the above description. She calls them "ancient children," or what some might call "old souls." Ancient children, she said, are "little enlightened adults" who are socially, intellectually and verbally sophisticated, and who exhibit "tremendous sensitivity and compassion."
"But they are still their chronological ages, and so they are driven to fit in. The more driven they feel to fit in, the more desperate they become. The more desperate they become, the more they are pushed away by their peers," Blanco said.
Blanco said she lived that life from ages 11 to18.
"I was humiliated at sleepovers. I was forced to sit alone at lunch," she said in a phone interview Friday morning prior to her afternoon presentation at St. Vincent de Paul Parish Hall, where more than 90 local professionals gathered to hear her and counselor/motivational speaker Heidi O'Toole.
It got to the point, she said, where she spent the lunch period sitting in the girls' bathroom because her classmates wouldn't let her in the cafeteria.
"The adults did nothing," said Blanco, who is 47 and the author of "Please Stop Laughing at Me ... One Woman's Inspirational Story" (2003). She said bullying wasn't recognized as a problem at the time she grew up, and the entire scenario was deemed a "rite of passage."
A former publicist, Blanco was spurred to act after watching the way television pundits reacted to the Columbine massacre. While she maintains killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were mentally ill and don't fit her bully victim profile, she said she was "getting physically sick to my stomach" watching the media focus on the teens' access to guns.
"If they couldn't find guns, they would have used rat poison or rocks," she said. The Columbine administration, she said, knew the two boys were being brutalized daily, and they knew they were dangerous.
She decided she needed to tell her story to promote change at schools and in homes. Blanco said adults in post-Columbine America know bullying is a problem, but they still don't do enough to protect bullied children.
She said the first thing parents should do if their child is being bullied - either by acts of cruelty or "deliberate omission of compassion" - is immediately find the child a new social life apart from school. This will eliminate the imminent threat of suicide driven by the child's loneliness and isolation, and it will buy the parents time to address the situation at school. How does one "find a new social life"? Blanco said the best way to start is by contacting the largest park district or public library two or three towns away from the child's school. With the child's input, find an activity he will enjoy and enroll him. Blanco said this focused activity, enjoyed with other children who are just as enthusiastic about it, eliminates many of the social dynamics that led to the bullying at school. The school situation won't have changed yet, but the child will have something positive to look forward to, and she will be able to manage school until things there change. Blanco said for her, it was a theater group that served as her lifeline.
Second, the parent should approach the school with a collaborative, not defensive, attitude; and, the parent should not give up until change is achieved. If the teacher does not act, go to the principal. If the principal does not act, go to the superintendent. If that goes nowhere, address the school board.
"Maybe one disgruntled parent is not enough to motivate change. Then, ask your child who else is being bullied, and call their parents. Go to the school board together," Blanco said. If the stonewalling continues, contact the local newspaper, she said.
"If you are a parent and you have a lonely, frustrated child who's struggling to make friends, and every night your child cries herself to sleep, with every breath one breath closer to a desperate act, you are your child's last best hope."
Educators, Blanco said, should not allow themselves to be distracted from affecting change in the school environment. They need to recognize the "elite tormentors" in their classes: the kids who are popular, dress the best, respect their elders, get good grades, participate in community service and extra-curriculars, and who are mean to their classmates, using exclusion "literally as a weapon."
She recommends "compassionate discipline," a supplemental approach to traditional discipline because traditional discipline (detention, suspension) only make "angry kids angrier and insensitive kids more insensitive."
Compassionate discipline involves finding innovative ways to expose these bullies "to opportunities to access their empathy and develop it." For example, require a student who is habitually mean to keep a daily journal in which she must record one act of kindness she exhibited. She has to write a paragraph about it, record the recipient's response, and how it made her feel. The recipient must sign it and include a phone number, and the teacher or counselor must follow up to verify. If the student fails to do the assignment, then traditional discipline can be implemented, Blanco said.
"Part of the problem with the current punishment system is it only exposes kids to the consequences of being cruel, not to the joys of being kind."