Missy Jenkins Smith was only 15 years old when a victim of bullying changed her life.
She says she remembers going to prayer circle that chilly Monday morning after Thanksgiving break. Her twin sister went, too. They went every day.
She says she remembers hearing the first shots. They sounded like firecrackers, not like how shots sound on TV.
She says she remembers the girl next to her falling to the ground. She heard three more slow pops before seeing the spray of bullets coming at her.
To the sophomore, it didn’t seem real.
“I guess I was in shock,” Smith says. “I kept thinking that this whole thing was a joke. I kept thinking she was going to get back up, and she was going to be fine.”
Michael Carneal was 14 years old when he sneaked a shotgun, rifle and .22-caliber pistol into Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky.
Shortly before 8 a.m. Dec. 1, 1997, the freshman fired eight rounds at the prayer circle. Five students were injured. Three were killed.
“When I was hit, I didn’t even feel the bullet hit me — I just went numb,” Smith says. “The first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t feel my stomach. I didn’t even notice that I couldn’t feel my legs. I don’t know why.”
Carneal had shot Smith in her left shoulder. The bullet traveled through her body, hitting her lung and spinal cord, paralyzing her from the chest down.
Doctors found the bullet stuck in her shirt.
As Smith recovered from her wounds, a disturbing picture of the teen shooter emerged.
According to reports, when asked by police why he shot his classmates, Carneal replied it was in part because he was tired of being bullied.
“He was funny,” Smith says of Carneal. “He was what you might call a class clown. But I saw him get bullied. What I think happened is he was tired of being made fun of.”
Smith says Carneal was teased daily. She saw him get spit on. He was called names like “Stupid” and “Crack Baby,” and his sexual orientation was questioned and ridiculed.
As a former counselor, Smith says, she can now see the impact the persistent bullying had on the teen.
“He held it all in and never asked for help when he was hurting from the bullying,” she says. “He essentially exploded. It drove him to the point that if he brought a gun to school, people would fear him and respect him, then leave him alone.”
October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and parents, teachers and students are pushing harder than ever to bring awareness to the sometimes detrimental effects bullying can have on young people.
According to the PACER Center, which began the initiative in 2006, bullying can affect school attendance, self-esteem and anxiety levels, and can cause depression and also lead to retaliatory bullying and self-harm.
The initiative promotes events throughout the month and encourages young people to take an active role in bullying prevention.
“Most people can say they have had experience with bullying — that they have been bullied,” Smith says. “And it affects them, even as adults. Kids don’t understand the power of their words.”
BACK TO THE CLASSROOM
Paul Nail says bullying is a social event, and as a social psychologist, he finds it fascinating.
“Bullying is when there is aggression from one or more children to another,” explains Nail, professor of psychology at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. “The aggression is intended to hurt the person and can be physical or emotional. There’s a power differential between the bully and the victim. And it is repeated over time.”
Nail and co-workers associate professor Joan Simon and professor Elson Bihm are completing more than two years of research on the attributes of middle-school bullies, victims and defenders of victims.
Nail and Simon recently co-edited a book on the subject, Bullying: A Social Influence Perspective.
In January 2014, the National Institutes of Health awarded a grant to Nail, Simon and Bihm to study social relations in middle-school children. The research was conducted in conjunction with the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
“We picked middle school because bullying tends to come out in transitional periods,” Nail says. “We studied a middle school where sixth-graders had been in three separate elementary schools before joining in the middle school and establishing status. Bullying and aggression have a lot to do with
establishing status, establishing a pecking order so to speak, so this middle school was ideal for our research.”
The researchers were studying the relationship between bullying and defensive egotism, a personality trait that predisposes one to take offense easily and to overreact to perceived threats, he says.
After two pilot studies, Nail, Simon and Bihm asked 355 sixth-grade students to identify the degree to which each of their classmates “always wants to be the center of attention, thinks too much of himself or herself and can’t take criticism,” prior to telling them why they were asking, Nail says.
The researchers also measured teacher-reported self-esteem and aggression, and self-reported self-esteem and empathy in conjunction with peer-reported self-esteem and social status.
The students were then asked to identify the degree to which each classmate “bullies others, starts bullying, always finds new ways of harassing the victim, urges others to harass the victim and/or makes suggestions about bullying someone,” Nail says.
The researchers found that there was a high correlation between defensive egotism and bullying, which Nail says was not surprising.
“Our research is based upon a theory that bullying is a form of compensation to make up for one’s own perceived weaknesses and inadequacies,” he says. “What we found was a positive .65 correlation between bullying and defensive egotism, which is high and what we expected.”
The .65 correlation was determined using the Pearson product-moment correlation, which measures the relationship between two variables, Nail explains. A correlation of a positive 1 means that there is a perfect relationship between two variables.
The result, he says, is about a 48 percent overlap of the ratings of bullying and defensive egotism.
“In research, anytime we find a single variable accounting for 48 percent of the differences in another variable, we know we’re most likely onto something,” he says. “So we see bullying as a psychological, behavioral defense against this defensive tendency in personality.”
Students were placed into four groups: controls, pure victims, pure bullies and bully-victims, bullies that had been victims themselves. Bullies, much to Nail’s surprise, ranked highest in status among their peers. Bully-victims ranked lowest.
The research also found that boys were more likely to engage in physical aggression than girls, and both sexes equally participated in social aggression, including exclusion, rumors and gossip.
“The picture of bullying that emerges in the middle school we studied is not a pretty one,” Nail says. “Pure bullies, who are high in both self-esteem and social status but low in empathy, rule the roost, apparently dominating and intimidating weaker classmates. Bullies’ self-esteem and social status may be maintained, at least in part, by their bullying.
Nail says the results were not entirely negative.
“Not all high-self-esteem and high-status children bully, and it is these children who are most likely to defend the victims of bullying,” he says.
TAKING ON THE PROBLEM
Bullying isn’t allowed in North Little Rock schools, says Micheal Stone, student services director for the North Little Rock School District. But it does happen, he says.
Luckily, the district is in a good position to combat the problem.
“We have policy and practices in place to deal with the issue,” he says. “It is our responsibility to our kids to deal with anything that interferes with the learning environment.”
North Little Rock School District policy 4.43 outlines the “No Bullying Allowed” initiative, defining bullying as “the intentional harassment, intimidation, humiliation, ridicule, defamation, or threat or incitement of violence by a student against another student or public school employee,” and it includes bullying through electronic acts committed off campus, particularly through social media.
“Social media has been somewhat of a nightmare for schools,” Stone says. “It can be very remote. And sometimes, it is hard to even find who did it. But if we find that bullying is taking place through social media and it is affecting the school environment, we will deal with it the same way as if it happened on campus.”
Like Nail, Stone says he sees bullying at its most prevalent in middle schools. As a result, the district is taking its greatest stand against the issue in these hallways, he says.
“Kids can sometimes be cruel, especially in middle school, so we try to focus on doing something really big for them there,” he says. “The administrators in those schools have really taken this on.”
The district has created a method for reporting bullying that investigates, documents and remedies reported acts of bullying in the schools, he says.
“We have what you call F1 through F4 forms,” Stone says. “They allow us to track anytime a bullying incident had been reported.”
The forms refer to the level of bullying that occurs. If no instance of bullying is found, an F1 form is completed and filed with the student’s record for documentation in case needed in the future, he says. F2 and F3 forms are completed when an instance of bullying has occurred and outline the steps the administration has taken to remedy the issue.
An F4 form is for repeated behavior, he says.
“What we do in that case depends on what has taken place,” Stone says. “The minimum we do is talk to the bully. The maximum is to suspend or expel the student.”
Parents are immediately contacted once a bullying incident has taken place, he says. The district also employs counselors to work with students who have been the victims of bullying, ameliorating some of its negative effects.
This is all done with the goal of better reporting and ending bullying in the district’s schools, he says.
“The children and parents of North Little Rock can be confident that if bullying occurred, we will handle it,” Stone says. “But it is important also that you report bullying so we can investigate that. If it is unknown or unsaid, there is no way we can deal with it.
“We really encourage anyone, if you see it happening to someone right next to you, not against you, to report it. It helps everybody,” he adds.
A GROWN-UP ISSUE
Bullying isn’t limited to childhood, Nail says.
“My personal observations of three bully-bosses I’ve had in my life would indicate that bullying in adulthood is driven by the same traits as in childhood: defensive egotism and narcissism,” Nail says. “Measures of defensive egotism and narcissism are usually positively correlated. So in my opinion, bullies tend to bully others for defensive compensation, be they children or adults.”
According to a 2010 survey conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute, up to 35 percent of workers have experienced
bullying firsthand. Fifty-eight percent of these victims were women.
And like childhood bullying, adult bullying in the workplace can have long-standing effects. Adult bullying victims are likely to experience the same health and psychological effects of bullying as child victims do, according to the institute.
Steve Rauls, a 2011 graduate of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s William H. Bowen School of Law and a member of the Sanford Law Firm in Little Rock, says he gets many calls from people frustrated with abusive bosses and co-workers, but unfortunately, the law doesn’t often protect workers from these workplace bullies.
“Workplace bullying doesn’t have a legal definition because no state has passed a law against workplace bullying yet,” he says. “Some states have considered bills that define workplace bullying as verbal or physical acts that are intended to intimidate or humiliate a co-worker.”
Although Arkansas is on the leading edge of social legislation, Rauls says that as far as he knows, no one has proposed a workplace bullying law in the state.
“We won’t really know where we should draw the line between behavior that is merely rude and behavior that should be against the law until a few states pass laws and try to enforce them,” he says. “The laws that protect workers from harassment only apply if the harassment is based on the victim’s race, religion, national origin, gender or disability. That is, it’s legal to be a bully, but it’s illegal to be a bigoted bully.”
As no laws on bullying are on the books at this time, remedies can be hard to come by from a legal standpoint, Rauls says, and employees are at the mercy of employer’s policies.
“If the employer can’t or won’t get the bullying under control, then the victim’s job performance is bound to suffer, and he or she may have no choice but to quit the job altogether,” he says. “The bully’s job performance may suffer, too, simply because no one wants to work with a bully.
“Employers who don’t take reports of bullying seriously and fix the problem are taking a bigger risk than they may realize. If an employee gets frustrated enough to call me, one of two things will happen: I’ll either advise that employee to file a lawsuit, or I’ll advise that employee to quit and find another job. Either way, it won’t be good for the employer.”
Chandler Barnwell was 16 years old when he committed suicide on Dec. 7, 2010.
His mother, Anna Barnwell, says the freshman at Parkview Arts & Science Magnet High School in Little Rock had been relentlessly bullied.
On Nov. 27, 2013, a lawsuit filed in the Eastern District Court of Arkansas claimed Chandler’s suicide was a result of him being bullied due to a disability and his failure “to fit the regular gender stereotypes.” The suit blames the Little Rock School District for not protecting him.
The Little Rock School District says it will not comment on pending litigation.
“Suicide is an act of desperation and hopelessness, and suicide is seen as a way out,” Nail says. “Bullying-induced suicide shows the power bullies can have over their victims. Especially when I think of three to five bullies or bully-assistants ganging up on an already weak or marginalized kid to begin with, I can see such adolescents thinking that suicide is their best option, as much as it pains me to say this.”
For students like Carneal, retaliation, not suicide, might have seemed like a reasonable response to constant ridicule.
“Bully victims bully and have been victimized,” Nail says. “That is what you could call retaliatory bullying. It makes sense that if a bully victim is outnumbered, he or she might use means like getting a gun. That being said, there’s got to be better options than bringing a gun to school, even if you are a victim.”
Smith couldn’t agree more.
The mother of two travels the country speaking at schools, churches and events to raise awareness for the ongoing social issue of bullying.
She will make stops at Arkansas schools during National Bullying Prevention Month.
In 2008, she published I Choose to Be Happy with co-author William Croyle. The book outlines the horrific events of that day, as well as her struggle to forgive the man who put her in a wheelchair.
She uses the book as part of her speaking series, using her story to encourage children to stop bullying each other before it’s too late.
Croyle says that sometimes, just seeing Smith makes kids realize the effect bullying could have on their peers.
“When kids see her in a wheelchair, it doesn’t get any more real than that,” he says. “When she goes into a school to speak, they see it. There’s the proof of what can happen when someone is bullied relentlessly.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five children is bullied, and only about one-third will report the abuse.
The National Education Association estimates that 160,000 children miss school each day for fear of attack or intimidation by other students.
The National School Safety Center states that at least one out of 20 students has seen a student with a gun at school, and harassment and bullying have been linked to 75 percent of school-shooting incidents.
“We have to teach children that there is a better way to handle things than bullying,” Smith says. “I’ve seen the effects of what it can do to someone. It’s devastating.”