by Erin DaCosta
Bullying is a topic that has been weighing heavily on my heart. The thought of one of my students being hurt, either physically or emotionally, is heartbreaking. I want my students to feel safe each and every day.
What happens if you know bullying is occurring, but you never witness it firsthand? What happens if you overhear an incident, but no student is willing to discuss what happened? What happens if the fear of being a “snitch” is so heightened that a student is not willing to disclose what is happening to them?
These are the questions I’ve been struggling with. Students have come to me this year to discuss issues of bullying they have witnessed in their community. They are worried about their peers, and they want to help. Yet they sometimes do not want to share what happened. Students are willing to say, “It’s bullying,” but they are not willing to share more specific details. Students have also shared their own experiences of bullying, but often refuse to name other students as the perpetrators, out of fear of being a “snitch” and ultimately becoming more outcast as a result.
Students have come to me in tears, sharing details of their days. They have written in their journals about incidents of bullying. I have overheard conversations that seem alarming. All of these incidents are reported to the Guidance Department, and guidance does their best to resolve these issues, but students are not willing to talk authentically about what is going on their community. They are fearful, and confused. And more often than not, the bullied find themselves on the other side of the fence days, weeks, or months later, and they are so relieved to be out of the spotlight that they don’t dare stand up for the bully’s latest victim.
I want to help these students. I truly do. But more often than not, I feel as if I have failed them. Educators can offer a listening ear, and pass these issues on to appropriate authorities. But is this enough?
Every time a student shares an incident of bullying with me, my mind inevitably flashes to Episode 13 of the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why. This series follows high school student, Hannah Baker’s, suicide, and each episode highlights one of thirteen cassette tapes she recorded before taking her life. Each of the cassettes are addressed to one person who played a role in her death, and in each she explains why their actions (or lack thereof) contributed to her decision to end her own life.
In episode thirteen, we learn that Hannah Baker’s thirteenth tape is for her guidance counselor, Mr. Porter. Over the course of the episode, Hannah shares that Mr. Porter’s lack of action left her feeling hopeless. In her eyes, he didn’t do enough. This episode haunts me. Am I Mr. Porter to my students? Do I do enough to help them feel supported and loved, particularly in instances of bullying?
How do we, as educators, show that we care so deeply about students, particularly when they are being bullied? How do we show them that we are so much more than Mr. Porter? How do we build a community of trust, where students can name their bullies without fear of retaliation?
Sadly, I have no answers, only the fear that what we’re currently doing is not enough.
Erin DaCosta teaches theology to sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Mount Alvernia High School in Newton, MA. Previously, she served as a campus minister in a co-ed environment.