Shawn Hubler

School bullying, and what we should do next

Members of Ronin Shimizu's Boy Scout troop salute his image during a memorial service in January. Shimizu committed suicide in December after years of bullying.
Members of Ronin Shimizu's Boy Scout troop salute his image during a memorial service in January. Shimizu committed suicide in December after years of bullying. Sacramento Bee file

In first grade, he was thrown out of the boys’ bathroom for being “girlie.” In second grade, he was slammed into a bathroom sink and split his lip.

By fourth grade, he was afraid to go to school, having been shoved face down in the mud after joining the mostly female, school cheer club. In fifth grade, he was disciplined for cursing at a boy who’d dumped a fruit cup on his head.

His parents moved him to another school in the district. But by sixth grade, his pediatrician was recommending home school rather than the “firing squad” that was his middle school classroom.

Ronin Shimizu spent half of his short life being hurt by other children. At age 12, he committed suicide.

Tragedies like Ronin’s, who died in December at his home in Folsom, are the price of our inadequacy against the emotional issues and adult misconceptions that foster school bullying.

This week his devastated parents settled their lawsuit against the Folsom Cordova Unified School District. The district admits no wrongdoing, but will pay the family $1 million. His old elementary school’s website, with its prominent “Report Bullying” links and online report form, testifies to the desire to do right by his memory.

But what is right? State and federal lawmakers enact legislation. Advocates tell kids that it gets better. Schools haul students into assemblies on respect.

Laws and policies provide an important foundation, but the full solution has to be at least as close to the ground as the problem.

It’s on our radar, we tell ourselves. We’re doing more about this than any generation before us. And that’s true. But then there are casualties like Ronin, so obviously it’s not enough.

As a parent who has raised three children in public, private and parochial schools in California, I think the missing link is in our emotional education. Parents, teachers and kids need more understanding of the complex dynamics behind stories like Ronin’s, more compassion and wisdom, and better mental health care.

Just skimming the academic research on bullying is enlightening. It may help to know, for instance, that bullying isn’t an epidemic, headlines notwithstanding.

Most kids don’t do it, though studies show that the outliers who do are often also among the popular children. Nor does bullying alone cause suicide.

Bullying as experts define it – the sustained and repeated aggression of one or more kids with power against weaker children – has always been with us. It’s not some fluke of our social media age.

And not every incident that seems to be bullying is what it looks like. Sometimes the bully is also a victim. Sometimes there are more serious mental health issues. Sometimes it’s more like ordinary drama, and the victim is also lashing out.

Such nuance is hard to address with blunt instruments like zero tolerance policies and state legislation. California’s anti-bullying statute was 4 years old when Ronin took his life. It was named for a boy like Ronin, who was terrorized throughout his childhood for his effeminate demeanor and subsequently committed suicide.

Laws and policies provide an important foundation. And advocacy is immensely important. Campus Gay-Straight Alliances alone have, I suspect, saved innumerable lives.

But the full solution has to be at least as close to the ground as the problem. How do we teach our children, for example, that just a comforting word or a kind text can help a targeted child withstand harassment? How do we convince clueless teachers, principals and parents that child abuse by other children does real damage, and isn’t something kids can just “shake off”?

How do we get good psychological help for bullies and victims, and get bystanders to be braver and more empathetic?

That’s one-on-one stuff, requiring real therapists on the ground and real consciousness-raising. It’s hard, but for the sake of all the Ronins out there, I hope it informs our next steps.

Shawn Hubler: 916-321-1646, @ShawnHubler

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