Part 2: Teens can be cruel

Daughter was bullied
Judy Kuczynski of Belle Plaine holds up a photo of her daughter Tina, who was severely bullied while a student in the Burnsville School District.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

The most pervasive form of bullying is verbal and in-person, researchers say. But bullying can also be physical and include everything from someone punching another person repeatedly or blowing up a mailbox.

Kuczynski, president of Bully Police USA, the group of bullying prevention advocates and researchers, knows that first-hand.

Her daughter Tina, who died in a car crash in 1998, had been repeatedly bullied by high school classmates. Popular and pretty, Tina Kuczynski likely would not have been considered a typical victim. But her tormentors were other popular and pretty girls.

One night before her death, someone drove to the family's house and placed a bomb in the mailbox.

Judy Kuczynski can't forget her daughter's reaction.

"She threw up and trembled and shook and said 'see how much they hate me? See how much they hate me?' "

A growing body of research shows bullying adversely affects a student's life and schoolwork. For some students, bullying becomes one of several factors that lead to suicide.

That's something the western Minnesota town of Marshall is still dealing with. Last month, two eighth graders at Marshall Middle School, Paige Moravetz and her best friend Haylee Fentress, hanged themselves during a sleepover.

Their families say the girls had been bullied. Haylee, who had moved to Minnesota from Indiana about a year ago, was targeted for her weight and red hair. Both girls were being treated for depression.

The girls' parents have stopped giving interviews, saying they're still grieving. But in the days following the suicides, the two mothers told NBC's Today Show that most of the nasty comments came via social media.

"Bullying in the traditional sense is different to me from what it is nowadays," said Tracy Fentress, Haylee's mother. "Kids are so mean and cruel to each other, the things they say to each other — it's horrible."

Paige Moravetz
Paige Moravetz, an 8th grader at Marshall Middle School, killed herself in April, along with her best friend Haylee Fentress, in western Minnesota. Paige was a starting goalie for the high school varsity team, even though she wasn't yet a high schooler.
Image Courtesy of Andrew Behnke

Researchers note the link between bullying and committing suicide is complex. They say there's rarely a single reason why young people take their own lives. When bullying is a factor it's usually one of many.

Minnesota officials say there's been a slight decline in the suicide rate for young people between the ages of 10 and 19 over the past decade. In 2009, the last year for which data are available, 39 people in that age range committed suicide.

If suicide related to bullying is rare, bullying itself is decidedly not.

The prevalence of bullying was confirmed by the Minnesota Student Survey given every three years to 6th, 9th and 12th graders throughout the state.

Last year, more than 130,000 students answered questions about everything from smoking to seat belts, sex and whether they've been bullied at school. Bullying was reported in every district.

Nine percent of students reported bullying other students, and another three percent reported being both bullies and victims at least once a week.

Maren Carter counts herself as both a former victim and bully.

Carter, a sophomore at Park High School in Cottage Grove, said she has been called fat so many times that she once grabbed a bottle of pills.

"And I had them in my hand and texted friend and said 'I can't do this anymore,' " said Carter, 15. "I couldn't live anymore; I couldn't live with the fact that couldn't change who I was. And I was prepared to die that night."

Her friend talked her out of taking the pills. But in her own torment, Carter said, she eventually turned to bullying others.

"I started picking out things that were wrong in my friends," she said. "I said 'well this is wrong about you' because by making them feel bad about themselves, I felt powerful.

"I was so insecure in who I was, that I had to make other people feel bad, too."

The recent analysis of the Minnesota student survey data reached this conclusion: It doesn't matter if students are the bully or the victim. All students involved with bullying are more likely to report other negative associations in life.

"The kids who are hurt need support," said Nancy Riestenberg a prevention specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education. "The kids who are hurting need support."

Students involved with bullying — whether as victims, perpetrators or both — are less likely to report earning A's and B's on report cards. They're twice as likely to be obese as non-bullying involved students.

Both victims and perpetrators skip school more often than the average student. At least a quarter of all students who are somehow involved with bullying have thought of suicide in the past year, according to the state analysis.

"I think this is going to provoke us to think differently about the issue," said Jennifer O'Brien, adolescent health coordinator at the state Department of Health. "It's a little more nuanced than a black and white issue of bad guy, good guy."

Such findings highlight the need to balance discipline and supportive measures when addressing bullying.

Part 3: School boards sought weaker law >>>

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