As the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier showed the nation, Internet sites such as MySpace have opened up new opportunities for cyberbullying. Megan's suicide was allegedly triggered by an adult neighbor, Lori Drew, pretending to be a 16-year-old boy who not only dumped her but also initiated a cyberpile-on by other kids. A 2008 study of more than 40,000 adolescents by the Rochester Institute of Technology revealed that 59% of cybervictims in grades seven to nine were bullied by kids whom they knew.
The Underlying Costs
The social costs of bullying are often ignored. A federal study found that 60% of boys who were bullies in middle school had at least one criminal conviction by the age of 24. Bullying is also routinely tied to suicide attempts, drug abuse, and drop-outs or worse, violence by the victims.
In Littleton, Colo., the killers at Columbine High School in 1999 had complained about being bullied. In Hoover, La., Felicia Reynolds sued the school district after her son, Ricky, stood up to an alleged bully named Sean Joyner after years of complaints to officials at Hoover High School. After being removed from the school due to a separate incident, Sean was allowed to return and fought with Ricky. Sean died from a knife wound, and Ricky was put away for 20 years. Unlike the Hollywood formula of bully movies, when the Karate Kid in real life stands up to bully Johnny Lawrence, he ends up doing one to five years in the county jail.
While many will chafe at the notion of moving from hall monitors to personal injury lawyers, litigation could succeed in forcing schools to take bullying more seriously.
The first step, however, is to dispense with the image of bullies as mere Scut Farkases waiting to be challenged and conquered. Bullies are not adverse object lessons for an educational system; they are the very antithesis of education. They are no more a natural part of learning than is parental abuse a natural part of growing up. That is one lesson Mathew Mumbauer learned all too well.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.