By now the tragic story of Amanda Todd has become the kind of Internet age-parable that parents use to warn their children about online bullies.
The 15-year-old Canadian’s suicide, brought on by cyber and real-life bullying, has unleashed an emotional response around the world.
Moreover, Amanda Todd’s death has raised important questions about how children and their parents can respond to intimidation.
“It’s struck a cord with people,” Julie Hertzog, director of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center in Minnesota, tells TakePart. “Between Friday and today, I’d say our email traffic has doubled. Their immediate reaction is that they want to do something.”
In some instances, doing something means bullying the bullies.
Amanda Todd’s anguish started when she flashed her breasts on a webcam three years ago. A photo was taken. An unknown man tracked her down online and threatened to send the photo to her friends if she didn’t “put on a show.” When Amanda refused, according to reports, her tormentor set up a Facebook page with the nude photo and linked it to her friends’ accounts.
The harassed child posted a YouTube video last week explaining in a series of note cards why she had decided to take her own life, and then killed herself.
The girl’s suicide prompted immediate reaction.
The hacker group Anonymous released a video in which an individual in a Guy Fawkes mask claims the hacktivist organization had tracked down the identify of the Internet troll presumed to be responsible for bullying Todd, who lived in the Vancouver area.
The Anonymous video names a 32-year-old male individual and cites his home address, a disclosure that the Canadian police have characterized as an “unfounded allegation” that is hampering the RCMP’s investigation.
The first step, for kids who are victims, is to tell someone that it’s happening. The parents, teachers or administrators who hear about it need to take it seriously because the child “wouldn’t be telling someone if it wasn’t a big deal.”
The aggressive response to Amanda Todd’s suicide is similar to a recent case in the Texas town of Victoria. Randy Duke, a father there, resorted to picketing his son Max’s middle school after the boy was suspended for reportedly standing up to a bully.
Randy Duke told reporters that 13-year-old Max confronted a fellow student after the bully stomped on a paper airplane Max had made for a classmate with special needs. A shoving match ensued, and Max received a two-day suspension due to school policy. Max also lost his chance to play with Victoria High School’s marching band, a punishment that irked his father, who trains police officers in Afghanistan.
“The school administration assessed the situation, and gave what I believe was a harsh punishment,” Duke told ABC News. “They looked at this as a fight—which it was not. Had it been, in-school suspension would be an appropriate punishment.”
PACER’s Julie Hertzog, whose non-profit group works on anti-bullying advocacy, knows something about what Duke was going through as the parent of a child who’s been bullied. Her daughter, who’s in the fifth grade, was recently pushed by a boy in the school hallway. The girl came home and told Hertzog the story.
Hertzog says she concluded: “This is something that we need to look out for so it doesn’t turn into something [larger]. Based on what she has for resources, that’s what I needed to do.
“Those are the [kinds of] situations that continue to build,” the mother explains. “There’s not just one specific action [for dealing with bullying]. You really want to tailor it to the individual child.”
Still, Hertzog says her group, which organizes National Bullying Prevention Month—it happens to be October—doesn’t advocate responding to bullies with aggression.
“It makes the situation worse,” she says. “When kids fight back, it compounds the issue. Fighting is ultimately going to put a school’s culture at risk.”
She continues: “From all the stories that we’ve heard from kids whenever they’ve responded that way, it’s gotten worse for them.”
So what should kids and parents do to respond to bullying?
The first step, for kids who are victims, is to tell someone that it’s happening. The parents, teachers or administrators who hear about it need to take it seriously because the child “wouldn’t be telling someone if it wasn’t a big deal,” says Hertzog.
The next step: Listen. “Just sit down and say, ‘What are we going to do as a strategy for this?’ It’s not about vilifying the behavior of someone else.”
That Gandhi-like approach may do little to comfort Amanda Todd’s family and friends, or the Duke family in Texas. But Hertzog says that dialogue is a surprisingly effective tool. “For so long we’ve just accepted bullying as part of growing up,” she says.
Why not try to talk it out?
The acceptance of bullying as a rite of passage appears to be changing. Still, what consequences should bullies face for their actions? Track the cause and effect in COMMENTS.
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Sean J. Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.