“That’s what you get!”
Does anyone else remember that? Being four or five and punching someone who upset you and shouting, “That’s what you get!” Then you got in trouble for hitting and you cried because it wasn’t fair. They started it. But nobody saw that part.
That’s what I imagine the two girls who have been charged in the Rebecca Sedwick suicide are feeling these days. Last month, 12 year old Rebecca killed herself. On Monday, a 14 year old and a 12 year old were charged with aggravated stalking. They wrote Rebecca things like “You should die” and “Why don’t you go kill yourself?” Rebecca told a friend the night before she died, “I’m jumping. I can’t take it anymore.”
The police say they were compelled to arrest the 14 year old after she posted, ”Yes IK I bullied REBECCA nd she killed her self but IDGAF.” (My readers are smart, you can decipher the code.)
Reading that I am torn between thinking this is obviously a kid putting up a front and “My God, you are one warped little chickarina. What is wrong with you?”
I mean, really. What goes through someone’s head when they do and say things like this? Who does not know it’s wrong to bully?
But even though she uses the word “bully,” I bet this girl doesn’t think of what she did as bullying. You think of bullying and you get an image of the big jerk on the beach kicking sand into the skinny kid’s face. It’s Karofsky and Kurt on Glee, the Mean Girls. The Powerful Pack and the weak, helpless victim.
I bet this girl thinks of it as “That’s what you get!”
As with the Phoebe Prince case, the perception on the part of the kids who targeted Rebecca was that she had messed with someone’s boyfriend. In other words, she started it. I suspect a lot of the kids who “bully” feel somehow oppressed by the kid they target. It could be an argument over a boy or a difference that challenges them in ways they don’t like. How many times have we heard someone say of gay people, “I have no problem with it. It’s just when they shove it in my face.” They see someone living their everyday life and they interpret it as an assault. So, if the gay kid gets teased or beaten up, well…that’s what they get. I mean, come on.
Or that girl who’s loud and weird and doesn’t quite get that you don’t want to hang out with her—because, let’s face it, she doesn’t care so much about you, she just wants a friend—you have to be a little mean to get her away from you. And you have to let other kids know how much you despise her otherwise you’ll be stuck with her. If she had left you alone, you’d have left her alone. So that’s what she gets. Sorry.
When I wrote Season of the Witch, I never thought that Chloe and her friends were bullying Toni. In their eyes, Toni is a girl who steals other people’s boyfriends. They’re letting her know she can’t get away with it. They’re letting her know her actions have consequences. Mess with us and we’ll hurt you. They threaten her, they shred her reputation, they beat her up in the bathroom. But they would be shocked if you called them bullies. As would Toni and Cassandra when they start working their black magic on Chloe. Toni feels powerless through the first half of the book; it’s only when tragedy happens that she understands that she has the ability to hurt.
According to the police report, Rebecca was targeted by these girls for over a year. Which leads you to wonder…where were the adults? Neither of the girls’ families cooperated with the investigation into Rebecca’s death. One family insists their daughter didn’t write the infamous IDGAF post; her computer was hacked. (The police politely disagree with that assessment.) The denial here is shocking—and telling.
Why did no one sit these girls down and say What is going on? Maybe if someone had helped that 14 year old with her fear and rage—and in the process let her know that her actions were unacceptable in a civilized, humane environment—we might have had a different outcome. As the always-wise Emily Bazelon says, ” I know that it’s very hard to try to feel compassion rather than loathing for the 12 and the 14 year old in this case right now—and that asking for it will be scorned as making excuses for them—I do think we have to try to understand what was going on behind those loathsome posts.”
Why? Because that may be the only way we get anywhere with this problem. Studies indicate that punishment is not an effective tool in tackling bullying. Usually the bully just blames the kid who “got them in trouble.” (Did you feel sympathy for the kid you punched after they bugged you AND got you in trouble? I know I didn’t.)
That doesn’t mean we say kids will be kids and cross our fingers. It means we spend a lot more time listening—both to the kids who get bullied and to the kids who bully them. Yes, some people are just miserable, mean spirited jerks who want to show their power by stomping someone’s face. Some see the adults in their lives abuse everyone around them and think that’s what life is. Some are breathtakingly arrogant and insensitive and have never have been told they don’t have the right to treat someone like that. No one wants to make excuses for any of these kids—except possibly their parents. But calling them bullies is not stopping the toxic, ugly behavior. Getting them to explain why they feel the need to abuse someone, helping them to understand that it is abuse, not justified retribution, might give them a vision of conflict resolution that goes beyond “That’s what you get.”