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Jessie Klein PhD, MSW, M.Ed

CNN blog "My View: Another suicide could have been prevented"

Eden Wormer, 14, hanged herself earlier this month. She was bullied for two years at Cascade Middle School in Vancouver, Washington. It could have been prevented. Her suicide and the school shooting at Chardon High School in Ohio a few weeks ago - and the hundreds of other suicides, shootings and other acts of despair - happen in a culture of misery our children endure every day.

Students tell us over and over that they are hated, ostracized and/or harassed at school and no one helped them. They are right. The national efforts to pass anti-bullying legislation are doing little if anything to solve the problem. In many cases, they are making it worse. These kids need a school community that cares about them. They need teachers and students who are there for them, who stand up for them and who reiterate the importance of compassion and kindness in their school every day.

Kids don't commit desperate acts such as these when they feel loved and love others. But that's not so easy to do today. These atrocities occur at a time when - since the 1980s - social isolation in the United States has tripled, according to the 2004 General Social Survey. Depression and anxiety and related disorders are at extreme heights among adults and youth. In “Comfortably Numb,” Charles Barber tells us that we make up two-thirds of the global anti-depressant market. Jacqueline Olds and Barry Schwartz sum it up in the title of their book, “The Lonely American.”

Most schools are microcosms of our larger unhealthy society, pushing kids too hard, recommending success at any cost regardless of others’ feelings or needs and prepping them for more assessment exams in lieu of exciting and meaningful learning.

But schools don't have to be part of the problem. They could be the solution.

Right now schools are driving fast down the wrong road. Because of Washington's 2010 comprehensive anti-bullying and harassment legislation, Eden Wormer's school district has a website where people can anonymously report bullying by phone, text, or e-mail. The director of community relations at Evergreen School District, Carol Fenstermacher, said, however, that people sometimes don't report bullying because they fear retaliation.

That's because the important work is not routing out the bullying behavior once it happens. It is on the ground in meetings, discussions and exercises with kids where real bonds and friendships and a concern for everyone in the community are created.

I've been in schools that have done this, and it works. I've worked in schools where the kids experienced homelessness, gangs, child abuse, domestic violence, drug-ridden neighborhoods and worse. Yet they thrived in our community, where they felt cared about by other students and teachers, where they had a voice and where they led weekly meetings focused on creating and developing our caring and intellectually vibrant community. The year I left one such school, 100% of students got into four-year colleges and universities, 30% with full scholarships. Many went on to graduate programs, helping professions and other promising futures.

Kids from more privileged schools need this kind of community just as badly. In “The Price of Privilege,” Madeline Levine writes that wealthy youth are more depressed and anxious than those from more challenging backgrounds. The bullying cultures in their schools are generally unforgiving.

Miracles happen when kids feel cared about, especially in the midst of a harsh school culture where everyone is pressured to sell each other's secrets for popularity, and to ruin one another's reputation for more social status. The "popular" kids don't necessarily have real friends, they are just better at the game. And they kill themselves just as often as those considered outcasts - like Alexis Pinkerton, who was a popular cheerleader, and Phoebe Prince, who dated a varsity football player.

The zero tolerance policies aren't working, as an extensive report, "Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence," makes clear. The increase in suspensions and expulsions only fuel the wrath of already unhappy and ostracized students.

According to my data, between 1979 and 2011, 48 of 191 school shootings were executed by students who said they were retaliating against unfair disciplinary measures or bad grades. Between 1979 and 2008, there were at least eight of these kinds of shootings; the number doubled to 16 from 1979 to 1988, and increased again to 19 between 1999 and 2008. Another five occurred between 2009 and 2011. This increase accompanies a trend in school policies toward exclusionary disciplinary procedures such as suspension, other zero-tolerance policies, and an increasing emphasis on high stakes tests, grades and test scores.

Most of the other shootings related directly to school bullying. From 1979 to 2008, nearly 50% were by boys who felt they had to use violence to prove their masculinity when their manhood was questioned. Approximately twenty percent related directly to sexual harassment or other forms of violence directed at girls. About ten percent were by heterosexual boys who retaliated against other boys who called them gay, another 10% were committed by boys after they were rejected by a girl, and the few girls who perpetuated shootings largely targeted those who called them "gay" or "slut."

These kids, and all the others crying out in quieter ways, need someone to talk to about their confusion, hurts and anger. They need other adults and kids to care about them, and help them feel they are part of a larger whole: a school that needs them, depends on them and appreciates them.

The school shooters aren't the only ones sending these messages. We hear these and other cries of anguish from the kids who commit suicide, cut themselves and stop coming to school. The kids who commit shootings just say it the loudest.

Schools don't need more regulations. They need help creating a caring social environment in which students aren't ostracized and tormented in the first place. These after-the-fact policies and procedures often indicate a school's resignation to hosting a bully culture. Instead, they need to transform their bully society into a compassionate community.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jessie Klein.