Our View: Bullying’s legacy: Anguish, anger and regret

/ 2 May 2012 / jennifer

Rochester Post-Bulletin Editorial, May 2, 2012 –

“Beautiful.”

“Pretty.”

“Amazing.”

These are some of the recurring words in a YouTube tribute to Rachel Ehmke, the 13-year-old from rural Mantorville who took her own life Sunday, apparently after being the victim of bullying.

One friend wrote, “You didn’t deserve it. You’re such a beautiful girl.”

Everything we’ve learned about Rachel in the past two days indicates that she was smart, talented and beautiful, an athlete, artist and dancer for whom the future held unlimited promise. Her friends are right: She didn’t deserve to be bullied.

But the short, overweight boy doesn’t deserve it, either. Nor does the plain girl in thrift-store clothes. Or the boy with a learning disability and a speech impediment. The girl with severe acne. The shy, skinny boy with bad hair. Kids who are questioning their sexual identity. The brainy kid with glasses. The girl who hit puberty too soon — or too late. The geek. The nerd. The wimp.

No child should awaken each day with a sense of dread. No teenager should have to live in fear of what they’ll find about themselves on Facebook, or feel like crawling into a hole when they see peers reading a text message, then smirking in their direction.

Yet it happens. And most of the time, the consequences are known only to the victim. The Post-Bulletin has never published the headline, “Girl, 14, cries herself to sleep,” or “Boy feigns illness to avoid locker-room humiliation.” The typical victim of bullying suffers in silence.

That’s not to say that bullying — especially cyber-bullying — isn’t getting its share of attention these days. It is. The Governor’s Task Force for the Prevention of Bullying has been traveling the state, hosting forums and gathering “best-practice” ideas that could serve as models in schools across the state. In Austin, the aptly-named “Scary Guy” brought his anti-bullying message to every school in town. Saturday’s edition of the Post-Bulletin featured a story about Lexi Grafe, a Mayo High School senior who is waging her own personal war against bullying, having created an anti-bullying “lesson plan” that has been taught to thousands of students.

Indeed, we must admit that anti-bullying campaigns — and news reports about anti-bullying campaigns — have become so commonplace that they’ve begun to take on a “white noise” quality.

But not anymore. Suddenly, Kasson and indeed our entire region is on the front lines of the battle against bullying. We’re there because a girl was pushed past her breaking point — and because Rachel’s grieving parents are bravely telling their daughter’s story, hoping to keep other families from enduring the same anguish, the same senseless loss.

The next few weeks will be unspeakably difficult for Rachel’s friends, family, teachers and teammates. Countless tears will be shed, tributes will be read, and we’ll learn more about Rachel’s unfulfilled hopes and dreams. And yes, the students who bullied her will endure their own private hell of regret, struggling to comprehend the finality of what has happened.

Calling Rachel’s death a wake-up call seems a vast understatement, a hopelessly inadequate attempt to find meaning in a senseless tragedy — but it’s a call that must be heard.

Parents, listen to your kids. Use whatever means necessary to know what they’re saying online, and what’s being said about them. Remind them that once they hit “Send,” they lose control of their message or photo. And if they’re depressed or distraught, don’t dismiss their feelings as adolescent growing pains. Never miss a chance to tell kids that they’re special, they’re beautiful, and that their future is full of promise and hope.

But just as important, we urge parents to talk to their children about basic civility and human kindness. Let them see you treating people with respect, even when circumstances might tempt you to be rude, crude or dismissive.

Bullying, after all, isn’t limited to those under the age of 18. Adults, too, have opportunities to build people up or tear them down. When we choose the latter option, we inflict emotional wounds that don’t always heal — and even if they do, the scars remain.

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