These days, it can seem that the world is in a crazy, mixed-up state in which cruelty, meanness and hate have gained the upper hand. You’d be forgiven if you thought it had gotten worse in recent years, but such negativity has always been part of the human experience.
So on this Mother’s Day, we thought it would be appropriate, indeed fitting, to discuss a topic mothers — and fathers, too — dread: school bullying. Too often, as it does in this case, it involves the suicide of a child who endured all he or she could until concluding the only way out was death. But there’s also a family left behind who, in the midst of their overwhelming grief, decides to do something — anything — to help the next child, the next mom, the next dad avoid the pain and anguish they’re experiencing.
Less than a month ago, on the evening of April 17, Lainey Smith, a 13-year-old student at Chatham Middle School in Pittsylvania County, shot herself at her home. Despite emergency life-saving steps taken by police, fire and EMS personnel, she didn’t survive. Her family is left behind, grieving and wondering why their beautiful child would take such an extreme step to rid her soul of the enormous emotional pain she had been living with.
You see, Lainey had been the victim of school bullying. Her family said, from what they could discern, it focused on the complexion of her skin, of all things. Indeed, “bullying” just isn’t quite the right word to describe what her older sister and family say Lainey Bug, as they called her (after “lady bug”), endured. Torture is what this child underwent. Torture at school in person from other students. Torture on social media. And, worst of all, torture in her own mind as the taunts and insults and “jokes” played on a constant loop.
Her older sister and her family knew some of what she faced, and her sister, writing online, said Lainey had opened up to them, but only to a degree. It seems no one could glimpse the degree of pain and anguish this child lived with every minute of the day, waking and sleeping.
As a way to cope with their loss and comfort their grief, her family has launched The Lainey Project, an online community dedicated to raising awareness of school bullying and helping families recognize the physical and emotional strains it takes on a child before that child reaches a breaking point. It’s online at www.facebook.com/thelaineyproject.
School bullying — school torture — statistics show an extent of the problem that may surprise you. A 2016 National Center for Education Statistics survey cited by Campus Safety magazine indicated that 4.2 percent of K-12 students were tortured almost daily. What the victims endured ranged from being the subject of rumors and threatened with physical harm to actual physical harm (pushing, shoving, purposefully tripped and spat upon). Online, they would be the subject of hateful social media posts attacking them for any number of reasons or taunting text messages. Girls were 21 percent more likely than boys to be victims. And the children most likely to be targeted were those perceived of as “different”: students who are introverts or loners with issues of low self-esteem, students with disabilities, students of color, students of a different faith than the majority of their peers and students who were gender non-conforming.
Statistically, the years most fraught with danger are in middle school, just when children are undergoing the profound physical and emotional changes of puberty. Often, the bullying can continue into high school. Sadly, less than a third of students who are the target of school torture notify an adult of what is going on or share the extent of what they are enduring. The federal government has a vast trove of data and resources for parents, families and educators online at StopBullying.gov.
We can’t imagine what this Mother’s Day must be like for Lainey Smith’s mom and her family. We do know, however, that this family is strong, evidenced by their overwhelming desire to publicize their tragedy in the hope of helping the next child, the next mom and dad, the next sibling. That’s courage, that’s fortitude, that’s the epitome of caring for others.
Lastly, if you suspect your child is the target of school bullying or if they tell you “it’s only a little bit,” contact school officials immediately. And if you have even a fleeting thought that your child might harm themselves, reach out to mental health officials. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available with trained counselors around the clock; the number is 1-(800)-273-8255. Hug your children, and hold them close.