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."