Girl Trouble

Today’s bully isn’t always the testosterone-driven thug on the playground. A teen girl armed with a cellphone and a grudge can wreak havoc with devastating consequences. Many local families have the scars to prove it.

It was the last day of seventh grade, Tina* remembers, when her daughter Sara said, “You’ll never believe this.” 

Another girl at Sara’s Arlington middle school had created a “Hate Sara” website. The nonchalance of the posts on the site (some of them from girls whom Sara had considered friends) was staggering

“Hey!” one girl typed with rapid-fire exuberance, “i became a member because i hate Sara…, also because

the person that created the site is my bff. this might seem harsh, but she got what was coming. i love music, classic movies, and i want to be a doctor when i grow up.”

Other comments, making liberal use of “bitch” and the F-bomb, listed various reasons “why Sara should go away”—from “she’s a lesbian” and “needs a life,” to “she is sooo gay, she needs to die.” (Sara is not gay and is “totally fine with people who are.”)

“The site was a total shock. I never thought this would happen to my child,” says Tina, who turned to her daughter’s school for help, only to be told by the principal that the school’s hands were tied because the incident had occurred outside of the classroom and the semester was over.

So Tina and her husband confronted the parents of the girls who had created and posted comments on the site. One of the girls sent a “lovely” apology letter. Another couple prodded their daughter to scrawl “I’m sorry” on a fast-food napkin. The ringleader’s parents completely denied that their daughter could have been involved in such cruelty.

Ultimately, Sara’s parents transferred her to another middle school. But even in this new environment, her anxiety became debilitating. She hid in the backyard some mornings when it was time to leave for school. She started picking at her skin until it bled regularly. Her moods became erratic.

“The thing that saved Sara’s life was to send her away,” her mom says in retrospect. After enrolling their daughter in a boarding school for a year, the family decided “to reinvent themselves” by moving hours away from Arlington.

Now two and a half years older, Sara has some perspective. “Middle school is a really horrible, horrible social environment,” she says. “Everyone’s trying to find themselves, and it’s not pretty.”

Sara’s experience is not an anomaly. A study released in September by the Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth & Families reported that nearly 28 percent of Arlington eighth-graders and one in five high school sophomores said they had been bullied in the past year.

Nationally, 33 percent of girls report being bullied, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

And although bullying in the old days often involved playground scuffles and stolen bikes, today’s harassment is much more cerebral and technology-driven. In a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, more than a third of teenagers who use the Internet said they had been the target of online taunts, from threatening messages, vicious rumors, and private emails or texts forwarded without their permission to embarrassing pictures posted on the Internet for all to see.

 

In this world, the perpetrators are often females who prey on other females. Among the teen participants in the Pew study, 38 percent of girls reported being bullied online, compared with 26 percent of boys. That number was even higher—41 percent—among girls between the ages of 15 and 17. Hate lists, snarky texts and mean-spirited social media posts are weapons that many teenage girls have learned to use with heartbreaking adeptness.

 “It’s been hell,” says Patti, an Arlington mom who feels torn between the parental instinct to protect her girls and the need to let them fight their own battles. She and her husband have spent $130,000 out of pocket on counseling to help their daughters cope, she says. Their oldest is in college now, but for the younger one, “there’s been no place she could go unmolested. Not church, not the grocery store, not the mall.”

One fellow student told her daughter, “Why don’t you just kill yourself and get out of everyone’s life?” 

Though academic pressures are rampant in area schools, “relationships are the ‘class’ that girls are paying the most attention to,” observes Rachel Simmons, author of the best-selling seminal works Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls and The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls With Courage and Confidence.

A childhood victim of bullying herself, Simmons, now a leadership development consultant for the Center for Work and Life at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., explains relational aggression as “the use of friendship as a weapon.” An aggressor will often form covert alliances and set out to isolate her victim by undermining both her friendships and status. Sometimes these attacks are launched without cause or provocation. Often, as in Sara’s case, the aggressor is someone who was once a friend.

Fear often prevents bystanders from stepping forward to defend the girl who has been arbitrarily singled out. A Pew survey of students between the ages of 12 and 17, released in November, found that 90 percent of teens who had witnessed incidents of online cruelty admitted to ignoring the behavior.

“Girls often won’t differentiate themselves in front of their peers,” says Cindy, a mom in Falls Church. “They won’t step up to tell what’s happening or comfort a victim.” 

One reason girls so often favor subversive forms of sabotage (and fail to intervene on behalf of victims), Simmons says, is that they are ill-equipped to handle confrontation. Parents, teachers and coaches expect them to be “pleasers” and “nice girls,” even as they swim the piranha-infested waters of their teen years. They end up internalizing that message to mean that they must make everyone around them happy—often at their own expense.

 “Girls learn somewhere around late elementary school that it’s not acceptable to be angry with your friends or to challenge or confront them openly,” Simmons explains. “So they resort to indirect and unhealthy ways to manage their feelings.” Rather than verbalizing their dissatisfaction with a situation, they might project their feelings of anger or insecurity by whispering behind others’ backs, spreading rumors, or ganging up on one girl whom they perceive as defenseless—for example, by creating a hate web site.

Katrina, a McLean mom and past PTA president whose two daughters have been victims of bullying, agrees that the paradigm needs to change. “As a mom, I went too far saying, ‘Be kind, always be kind,’ ” she says. “Girls need to have a backbone. They need self-preservation skills.”

Parents often tell their kids to “just ignore” a bully, but this “does more harm than good,” says Samantha Kramer, a counselor at Longfellow Middle School in McLean—particularly when the silence is perceived as acquiescence. Instead, she says, we should teach girls to say, “Please don’t say that to me” or “Please don’t do that to me.” 

Experts are quick to add that the patterns girls develop as teens can stretch far into adulthood. “Girls’ not being able to tell their friends or their coaches or their parents how they really feel becomes a professional leadership problem 10 years down the road,” Simmons contends. She is now studying how the residual demons of adolescence affect women and their career success later in life. Women who fail to develop strong relational skills are  less likely to ask for raises or to take jobs that might involve confrontational situations.

 

Although bullying is not a new problem, the rise of social media has created unfamiliar territory for parents and educators who struggle to keep pace with today’s weaponry of choice.

“Social media has allowed girls to explore their identities in very exciting new ways,” says Laura Sessions Stepp, an Arlington resident and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The Washington Post. She’s the author of Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both. “[Girls] can remain connected to their friends, no matter where those friends are, but the dangers are extraordinary as well.”

Platforms such as Facebook, Formspring and Twitter have become almost addictive for girls who crave close friends and constant reassurance to maintain a sense of value.

“If someone ‘likes’ your post [on Facebook], you feel like you’re still a member of the community. You feel as though people still care about [you],” says Kara, a recent Arlington high school graduate. She is quick to acknowledge, though, the questionable value of a “like.”

 “There’s a lot more pressure now to expand your social circle and to project a certain image,” she says. “You’re expected to be happy, funny, have lots of friends, to be pretty and involved.”

For many girls, Facebook and other social networking sites are one more mirror they have to gaze into every day. And the reflection they see isn’t always kind—or accurate.

 “Because [the Internet] makes relationships public and tangible, it exposes girls to heightened levels of insecurity and anxiety about those relationships,” Simmons says. “They can see when they’ve been excluded. They can see their status in a way they never could before.”

For aggressors who would exploit those insecurities, social media has opened up a whole new arsenal of humiliation tactics. Sometimes it’s a camera phone “crotch shot” of a girl getting on a bus that is posted online. Or a text message rumor that goes viral.

Reckless comments on Formspring (which allows users to post anonymously) have been associated with several teen suicides. This fatal phenomenon has given rise to a new term in the counseling lexicon: “bullycide.”

When an embarrassing message receives instant and widespread dissemination, the victim feels like everyone—everyone who matters in her world—knows. “That’s when it gets to be a desperate situation and they feel like they can’t escape it,” Katrina says. “That’s when they feel like they’re not even safe at home.” 

“The ability to post anonymously is the real ugly,” agrees Lynne, a Falls Church mom. “Old-fashioned bullying takes thought and planning. With social media, it’s spontaneous and instantaneous. Kids don’t have that filter that allows them to step back and consider what they’re doing.” 

At the National Institute of Mental Health, studies of the adolescent and young adult brain have found that the impulse control center in the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully functional until the age of 25; yet even pre-teens often have free rein on the Internet. It seems wildly counterintuitive to put such a powerful tool in the hands of someone who lacks impulse control.

The need to be constantly plugged in (for fear of missing something) also tempts many girls to stay up late and sacrifice sleep, thus further inhibiting their judgment.

“Teens don’t realize the implications of what they’re saying and that it’s out there forever,” Kramer says. Kids often tell her naively, “But it’s my Facebook page,” not understanding how truly public every post becomes.

Responding to direct complaints from parents, as well as what many perceive as a growing national crisis, schools in Arlington, McLean and Falls Church have begun implementing formalized anti-bullying programs. Some offer “Stop Bullying Now” days with guest speakers and special training for guidance counselors. Others have set up “bully boxes” where kids can submit anonymous complaints, as well as online reporting forms and assemblies on aggression.

In November, Corporal Jim Tuomey, a school resource officer with the Arlington County Police Department, conducted a bullying seminar for teachers at Yorktown High School. The presentation is expected to expand to other Arlington County public schools.

But intervention on an individual, case-by-case basis remains tricky.

“If it’s not done during the school day, we can’t take [direct] action,” Kramer concedes, even though she often spends time counseling kids who are upset about something that has happened outside of school.

Even in cases of bullying on school property, victims must bear the burden of proof. This frustrates parents like Wendy, whose 15-year-old daughter, in addition to being “tripped up in gym class and knocked up against the lockers” was “routinely intimidated, followed and threatened.” Because her daughter refused to name names and the high school had nothing on camera, administrators could advise her only to avoid the bullies, find another route to classes and eat lunch in the school counseling office.

Wendy feels the school fell back on excuses and failed to provide a safe learning environment for her child. Later, she found out that because she had not specifically authorized the front office to inform her daughter’s teachers about the harassment, none of the teachers knew what was going on. Without knowledge of the problem, how were they supposed to intervene? Wendy finally pulled her daughter out of public school and is having her home-schooled.

“There’s a lot of denial at the high schools and concern about the schools’ reputation,” says Nora, a local mom and teen advocate. “Sometimes that gets in the way of putting the kids’ well-being first.” 

 

Still, many area schools have become more proactive. Seidah Ashshaheed, the principal of Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School in Falls Church, recently sent several school counselors and her assistant principal to a “Mean Girl Seminar,” where they learned techniques for recognizing relational aggression and promoting positive interactions between girls. The school’s PTA also offered an evening program for parents on how to recognize and prevent cyber-bullying.

This year, Wakefield High School began piloting “Project Upstanders,” a program that strives to eliminate bystander indifference by engaging students who are known to be influential among their peers. The counseling department chose 70 such students—kids involved in activities ranging from football to drama—to train as “upstanders” who will intervene in harrassing, bullying or prejudicial situations. The first upstanders are also making presentations to freshmen, creating public service announcements and helping to orchestrate school-wide initiatives, such as polling students and then mapping out locations where students often feel uncomfortable or on edge. The school aims to monitor such areas more effectively.

“Sometimes we underestimate kids,” says Dr. Amy Shilo, the head of counseling at Wakefield. “I’m always in awe of what kids can do if you let them.”

Longfellow Middle School in McLean is one of several local schools to have implemented a Restorative Justice program. Built on a remediation model, the program gives victims an opportunity to confront their aggressors face-to-face in a safe setting.

“It definitely is a great experience with empathy,” Kramer says, “especially for an offender.” Longfellow’s interventions are held roughly four times a year, on an as-needed basis. Sometimes the bully has no idea how deeply she has traumatized the other student. Often it’s the victim’s family that ends up sharing that story.

“More often than not, the bully is going through something, too,” Kramer adds. These revelations tend to emerge in the same sessions, making it possible for the bully to get the counseling help she also needs.

This nuanced understanding is key, given that the divisions between aggressor and victim are not always clear-cut. A girl who is the bully of one may well be the victim of another, notes Robert Faris, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who recently co-wrote a report on bullying for CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360.

The report was based on a pilot study that surveyed more than 700 students (boys and girls) at a nationally ranked high school on Long Island. It found teens in a constant state of “social combat” to maintain position in the social pecking order. “When kids increase their status, on average, they tend to have a higher risk of victimization as well as a higher risk of being aggressive,” Faris told CNN.com.

The same holds true in affluent, educated Northern Virginia. Around here, “it’s a race on the treadmill for status,” says Elizabeth, an Arlington parent who worries for her teen girls.

At the countywide level, Arlington Public Schools (APS) recently approved a new strategic plan to combat bullying. Under the plan, every staff member receives a yearly reminder letter that it’s his or her responsibility to act in instances of harrassment. Elementary school counselors are also trained in “Steps to Respect,” a research-based program that, according to a pilot study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, reduced bullying and victimization by 31 percent in schools that participated in the program for two years.

Still, bullying is on the rise in APS schools, according to recent surveys.

“With more awareness of bullying in the community comes more reporting,” says Alvin Crawley, assistant superintendent for student services for APS. “Is the reporting going up because kids feel more empowered to report it?” The county is conducting a “root-cause analysis” to determine that answer.

One key strategy in the APS initiative is to teach bullying prevention in grades K through 5, before it blooms into an intractable issue in middle school. Such efforts are already under way in select elementary schools throughout the county.

“Raise your hand if you’ve ever been bullied,” counselor Janet Stockman says during one such session for third-graders at Abingdon Elementary School in Shirlington. Every student in the class raises a hand.

“Now,” she says, “this is harder. Raise your hand if you have ever been the bully.”  Five kids, the majority of them girls, raise their hands. “That takes a lot of courage to say,” Stockman tells them.

The school’s anti-bullying curriculum includes a short story (a parable on respectful behavior); role-playing exercises on conflict resolution; and videos depicting the power dynamic between bullies, victims and bystanders. It also stresses the difference between “reporting” a bullying incident and “tattling” on another student.

“Prevention is the key,” Stockman says. “We’re able to help kids identify what bullying looks like and sounds like. And we give them the tools to handle it themselves. We tell kids they can be assertive. There’s a difference between being assertive and [being] aggressive.”

Sara, who is now 15 and enjoying high school in a new city, has developed some perspective on her own traumatic middle school experience.

“That part of life is really short and really meaningless,” she says in retrospect. Since then, she has taken her journey into her own hands by pursuing writing and photography outside of school. She has also joined her new school’s crew team.

Still, she feels for the girls in the trenches. “Find something that defines you other than the role of the student,” she advises. “If you find that passion, it gives you another role to play and hope for the future. Also, it distracts you.”

Spoken like the wise realist she has become.

Amy Brecount White is an Arlington parent who teaches writing and writes fiction for teens. In her novel, Forget-Her-Nots (HarperCollins, 2010) the language of flowers comes magically alive in the hands of a 14-year-old girl.

Categories: Parents & Kids
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