Today, in Verona, there are four young girls who need to have their cell phones taken away for a very, very long time. They used them to send hateful messages that could have caused a death.
According to a report by the Verona Police Department, four girls repeatedly called a 13-year-old with harassing messages, telling their target “to die” and, the Police said, “other things that are too inappropriate to memorialize in this post.”
Four bullies tried to harm someone with their words and to encourage that person to harm themself. The bullies may say now that it was just a prank, but pranks can have serious, unintended consequences. And the Police statement makes it clear that what happened was anything but light-hearted.
Thankfully, the bullies did not succeed, because the 13-year-old reported the calls to the Police. As a community, we can hope that the consequences that the four girls face for their hateful, revolting behavior are swift and severe, but that’s not enough. We need to ask ourselves why these four girls ever thought it was acceptable to talk to anyone the way they did. We need to ask ourselves whether our safety net is wide enough or deep enough or strong enough to catch and support students who don’t have the strength to go to the Police for help. We need to ask ourselves why, seven years after the death by suicide of a Verona student who had faced years of bullying in our schools, there is still bullying in our community.
These four girls are perhaps too young to have known the student who died. They are not too young to know what is acceptable: Verona’s student Code of Conduct, first presented in elementary school, spells out expectations for decent behavior. Maybe they were exposed to the peer mediation and conflict resolution program pioneered at F.N. Brown School. Maybe they’ve heard about the case of Mallory Grossman, the 12-year-old in Rockaway Township who took her life in 2017 after being bullied by classmates. Maybe, hopefully, they were told by their parents that bullying is wrong. Despite all the avenues for doing right, they still tried to bully someone and encouraged that person to die.
So what do we, as a community, do now?
While the Police investigation and the school investigation for harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) are more than warranted in this case, they are downstream actions. Had it not been for a courageous victim, these actions could have come too late. We need to stop bullying before it starts.
We need to make it clear to every Verona student, and every member of our community, that no two people are alike, and that we respect and celebrate our differences. We need to build the self-esteem of our children so that they have a front line of defense. We need to identify best practices to stop bullying and measure our progress toward that goal. We need to make it clear to the Police and our educators that more of the community supports efforts to curtail bullying than wants to sweep it under the rug.
We need to make it clear to every Verona student, and to every member of our community, that bullying is not a harmless prank. It has real consequences, both immediate and longer lasting. We need to make it clear to every Verona student, and to every member of our community, that the hate speech that occupies so much of the national stage has no place in Verona.
We also must hold the four bullies accountable to their victim and to this community. They have done us all harm.
That is the work that needs to be done to stop bullies, and stop their bullying. It will not be easy and the job may never be finished. But it must be done.