By Kimberly K. FritzJanuary 31, 2011
FORT LEE, Va. (Jan. 27, 2011) -- Joseph Williams Jr. is a lot like other military kids his age. He enjoys sports and video games, and regularly participates in Fort Lee Youth Center programs. During casual conversation, he seems optimistic and easy to like ... not much different than most 16-year-olds who grew up as an Army dependent.
So, why would this young man become the victim of school bullying'
Last year, in the hallways of a local high school, Joseph experienced frequent harassment. On one occasion, a student punched him in the face for no particular reason that anyone could discern. The attacker, who was later charged with assault, admitted that he didn't even know him. He just targeted someone who stood out from the rest.
"Joseph assures me that everything is okay now ... that the bullying has stopped," said worried mom, Alicia Williams. "He's so eager for acceptance; he'll conform his way of thinking to convince himself it isn't happening anymore. Peer pressure ate him up and still does."
Alicia cited other bullying incidents at past duty stations, and said they were probably instigated by Joseph's physical appearance. He was born with his hands fused as if they were mittens and the premature closure of the soft areas of his skull left little room for his expanding brain. Having undergone reconstructive surgeries, Joseph's appearance these days is not dissimilar to those of his peers. More importantly and sometimes overlooked, his abilities and interests are the same as any average young man.
Joseph's story is likely one of many in our community, despite the programs that encourage youths to accept differences and teach peaceful problem solving techniques. Researchers suggest that one in four children are bullied every day.
The Virginia School Boards Association has designated January as Bullying Prevention Month. A partnership among school board members, superintendents, teachers and parents plays a critical role in creating a climate where bullying is identified, understood and eradicated so future generations of students don't face situations like Joseph's.
Now a junior in high school, Joseph is convinced that the days of bullying are behind him. He and his family agreed to share his story to help others.
He hopes telling his story will give someone else the courage to stop the harassment. More importantly, he wants bullies to understand how their actions affect their target long after the laughing, teasing and name-calling.
Victims of bullying may suffer short and long-term negative consequences such as depression and poor health ... or worse. Bully-related suicides were on the rise in 2010. Christian Taylor was enrolled at Grafton High School in Yorktown when he and his stepfather, an Army staff sergeant, were transferred to the area from Texas in December.
By the end of May, Taylor had hung himself. He'd endured months of name-calling and ridicule. The alleged bully reportedly told Taylor to "go commit suicide and get it over with." Taylor's mother filed a $10 million lawsuit against the York County School Board and the principal of Grafton High School in July claiming school officials had failed to protect her son while at school.
"They were calling Taylor names, calling him weird. Why ... because he doesn't dress like you' Because he just came from Texas and he likes to skateboard'" said Alise Williams, the victim's mother, during a recent interview.
Taylor's harassment and subsequent suicide aren't isolated events. Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, 11; Lance Lunden, 18; and Tiffani Maxwell, 16 are a few of the bullying-related suicides that occurred nationwide in 2010.
For military kids, being different is a way of life. They don't benefit from the lifelong relationships their civilian counterparts do. Every two or three years they pack up and begin their lives again often bringing different customs and styles to their new duty stations, sometimes making them the targeted outsider.
It's a problem that has garnered the attention of parents, educators and law-makers. CYSS programs Army-wide incorporate a character-building curriculum into their offered programs. The Youth Center here uses the curriculum to reinforce moral awareness in development of character in hopes of producing a community sensitive to transcendent values, said Geraldine Ragin, the Youth Center's director.
In addition, CYSS helps participants to understand what bullying is, why people bully, how not to be a target for a bully and what to do if someone is bullying you.
"It's a six-week program provided by military life consultants which addresses the whole concept of bullying," Ragin said. "It is just one of the ways we've been proactive in the battle against bullying."
CYSS staff members are continually trained to recognize verbal and nonverbal bullying and Ragin notes that zero incidents of bullying are tolerated.
The truth is bullying is a constant problem that needs constant attention.
Joseph said his life is vastly improved over earlier school years. He has a circle of friends and enjoys their company. He says the key to surviving bullying is to stay positive.
He tries to convince his mother that he's OK but the past haunts her. Alicia recently received a phone call from the school. A teacher was concerned about Joseph's class participation, a noticeable change in his behavior and the way his classmates react to him.
"She says he's become an attention getter; they call him 'Swaggman'," she said.
Alicia worries it's another way his classmates are laughing at him while Joseph insists it's a harmless nickname spurred from his gaming tag used on XBOX Live.
His mother remains skeptical and vigilant.
"As a parent, it's my job to protect him," Alicia said. "I keep waiting for that phone call from the school saying he's been pulled into the bathroom and beaten again."