Commentary

Time to do something about bullying

Updated: April 23, 2009, 6:03 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | Page 2

This story has been updated. Read below

Kerry Rhodes went to a high school in Bessemer, Ala., that, according to him, was "99.999 percent black."

The handful of white students who attended his school were routinely greeted with such pleasantries as "cracker" and "faggot" as soon as they walked through the door. It would continue as they walked through the halls between classes.

And as they left the building after school.

It would not be uncommon for the targets to be involved in fights because of the bullying.

"I'm not sure why they stayed," the New York Jets safety said. "I guess they had no other way of getting out. It was zoned and to go to another school may have been too expensive for them.

"I'm sure it scarred them in some kind of way. I'm not sure to what extent, but I can see them being really messed up growing up that way."

To his credit, Rhodes, the school's quarterback and captain of the football team, would intervene whenever he saw the bullying happening, but sadly admits his voice was one of few who tried to do anything. That includes teachers and administrators.

"That's why I am so against bullying in schools today," Rhodes said. "I've seen what it can do, and it's not right."

No, it's not right.

But obviously, that doesn't mean it doesn't happen every day, everywhere.

Carl Walker-Hoover, just 11 years old, hanged himself in Springfield, Mass., a couple of weeks ago because of constant taunting and bullying at his school. But sadly, he is hardly alone.

This week, mourners held a candlelight vigil for another targeted 11-year-old, Jaheem Herrera of DeKalb, Ga. He hanged himself last Thursday after months of complaints about being bullied in school fell on deaf ears.

Now, the cynic would dismiss these "bullycide" victims as being too weak to deal with the kinds of antics most everyone supposedly has to deal with in school as a sort of a rite of passage.

You know, survival of the fittest.

But I would say the cynic would be conveniently forgetting Matthew Shepard, who was savagely beaten, hung on a fence and left to die more than 10 years ago in Wyoming. That story shocked the nation, and yet a decade later politicians are still slothful in universally addressing the issue of bullying, primarily because they are using proposed laws as bargaining chips for other favors. Teachers are still not dealing with complaints diligently because they either don't know how or they don't have proper administrative support. Most importantly, parents are not talking about the issue at home.

According to the National Youth Violence Prevention Center, nearly one in three youths nationwide said they were bullied, have been bullies or both. That statistic may not seem significant, but when you factor in the effects bullying have on teen depression, which can lead to poor grades, dropping out or worse, then it's not just some random number. It's about a healthy life for all of our kids.

After Curtis' death, I visited the Web site for the National Education Association, which provides a lot of information on bullying for parents as well as teachers. As the parent of a 12-year-old son, I would be very upset to discover he was being bullied daily in school and no one did anything about it. But I would be equally upset if I discovered he was a bully … or remained silent as he observed another student being targeted daily. As far as I'm concerned, not speaking up in that situation encourages the behavior.

Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford admits he wasn't one of the protectors like Rhodes growing up, but rather one of the bullies.

"I should've been punished," he said. "I don't think I said anything so malicious that someone would commit suicide, but you never really know how someone deals with being bullied in school every day."

Horford, like Rhodes, said he was "deeply disturbed" when he heard about Walker-Hoover's death and is equally emotional about hearing what happened to Herrera in his own backyard.

"Something needs to be done," Horford said. "Students who bully should be severely punished so that everyone knows that kind of behavior will not be tolerated."

Horford said by the time he made it to the ninth grade, he was no longer bullying kids.

"I am not proud of the way I behaved when I was a kid because I know I made it hard for someone else and that wasn't fair," he said. "And it doesn't really matter why the kids are being teased … what matters is that they know someone cares."

Both Rhodes and Horford said they are interested in doing a PSA addressing bullying in schools and hope some of their fellow athletes will as well.

"When I spoke up in the past, I was just trying to do something nice," Rhodes said. "I wasn't thinking about the long-term effects or anything. But now I have a better understanding of how bullying can hurt people, and I want to do more to help stop it. We all should."

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Page 2. He can be reached at l_granderson@yahoo.com.

In an April 23 Page 2 column by LZ Granderson, a reference to bullying being involved in the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 has been removed from the story.

LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine