Authorities say a planned massacre at a New Bedford, Mass., high school could have been another Columbine — or perhaps even worse — if police hadn't gotten wind of a group of students' alleged plot to detonate explosives, shoot classmates, and then kill themselves.
The students have pleaded not guilty, but according to police reports, the five teens who allegedly planned the attack had complained of being picked on and called names. A note found by a janitor at the school spoke of "getting everyone back for calling us names and beating us with ugly sticks."
The statement is reminiscent of the suicide note left by Eric Harris, one of the two attackers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo: "Your children who have ridiculed me, who have chosen not to accept me, who have treated me like I am not worth their time, are dead."
Experts say bullying is a serious and widespread problem that can lead to school shootings and suicide. At the same time, they say, it is dangerously underrated, as schools and adults are not taking the problem seriously enough.
"For the child who's been targeted by a bully, their life is a living hell," said Glenn Stutzky, a school violence specialist at Michigan State University. "Bullying is probably the most frequently occurring form of violence in American schools today and it's really the engine that's driving the majority of violence. It's a huge problem."
Even though several states have now passed anti-bullying legislation, Stutzky said the American school system is 10 to 15 years behind countries like Australia, Scandinavia, Great Britain and Japan, all of which deal with bullying as a serious social problem.
"We have allowed a culture of abuse to thrive unchecked in our nation's schools," said Stutzky, "and we are paying for it with the bodies of our children."
Physical and Emotional Toll
Though it seems so hard to understand the anger that would fuel children to plot a massacre at their high school, sadly, many children can relate to the feelings of loneliness, abuse or resentment.
"Once I got teased, I could see where that anger comes from and what can make someone want to kill," said Stefan Barone, a 14-year-old from Staten Island, N.Y., who said he was bullied during seventh and eighth grades. "Even though I never got to that point, I could understand where it was coming from."
Day after day throughout the country, kids wake up terrified to go to school, knowing they will be the victims of teasing, taunting, name calling or physical abuse.
For Rachel Fannon, 16, being abused by her classmates in Littleton, Colo., for 5 ½ years took both a physical and emotional toll.
"They had actually a contest: They'd high-five each other if they come up with the best name how to describe how ugly I was," she said. "They'd kick me in the back of the knees and give me small bruises or they tripped me."
Fannon, who has a heart condition, would suffer attacks of rapid heartbeats after being harassed. Her grades dropped. She became withdrawn and had no friends. After school she would lock herself in her room and cry.
"All day, every day, they kept harassing me," she said. "Everywhere I went, there they were."
Fannon said teachers told her to "tough it out" or to "just ignore it." She said she was too embarrassed to tell her parents, but she finally confided in her mother. Principals of her school say the complaints never reached them, but they admit that despite their anti-bullying policies, Fannon somehow fell through the cracks.
Fannon — who now goes to a new school where she says she is treated "like a human being" — is hardly alone.
Despite being 6 feet 11 inches and 280 pounds, Chris Velasquez, now 14, said he was beaten so badly at his middle school that one time he was taken to the emergency room.
"They caught me in the stairwell and jumped me and I couldn't see anything," he recalled. "I had one kid punching me a lot of times in the face, and one just repeatedly hitting me in the back."
Though the incident was reported to school authorities, Velasquez said the boys who beat him up were not even suspended. His family is now suing the school district.
"We have a whole generation of adults in the educational system that still view bullying as 'just that's the way it is,'" said Stutzky. "It's a rite of passage, it's boys being boys … stop whining about it, life is tough, you just have to put up with it and make your own way through."
Possible Consequences: School Shootings and Suicide
To deal with being bullied, some children seek revenge. Velasquez can understand. "I do think about going into school and doing something," he said. "But then I think what will that make me look like? A criminal."
Other children turn their anger inward. Each year, one out of 13 kids under the age of 19 attempts suicide, a rate that has tripled over the last 20 years. Last year, more than 2,000 of them succeeded — a staggering number Stutzky blames largely on bullying.
"We're not even realizing the fact that suicide is bullying's quiet little secret," he said. "It's picking off our children one at a time."
Twelve-year-old Tempest Smith was one of them. From the time she was in the second grade, said her mother Danessa Smith, Tempest was the brunt of cruel jokes and constant humiliation.
One time, recalls Smith, a group of kids pretending to be Tempest's friends came over to her house, only to ransack her room. Tempest would also be pushed in the lunch line, and her classmates would purposely knock things off her desk.
Smith said the school wouldn't even acknowledge there was a problem. "If it was not done in front of them, there's nothing they could do," Smith said she was told.
By the time Tempest reached the seventh grade, Smith was so fed up that she planned to home-school her daughter. But she never got that chance. On Feb. 20, Tempest took her own life.
Smith is now suing the school district, which has denied any wrongdoing.
Though Tempest cannot benefit from her peer's advice, Stefan Barone wanted to share advice with others who feel isolated and alone: "I'd like to say that there's going to be an end to it sooner or later … One day it's going to end and everything's going to turn around … you have to have hope."