Student Bullying and Suicide: Signs of a Toxic School
I am seeing an alarming trend of toxic school climates and students who do not feel a part of their school community.
During my seventh-grade year in school, I was the target of a bully. I was small for my age. I wore glasses. I was new to the school again. My siblings and I attended the school three years earlier, but my dad was transferred to another part of Ohio, and we lived there for three years. He was transferred back to our hometown, and I figured I would just pick up where I left off before we moved. My bully had other plans for me.
I will spare you the details, but the culminating event was fight in the hallway. I was pummeled pretty good, but I landed a lucky shot to his nose, causing a nosebleed. Sitting outside the office, waiting for the principal, I tried to apologize. My bully said he was going to kill me. I believed him. The principal did everything wrong when it comes to dealing with school bullies, but that was the last time I was ever picked on by the bully.
That took place over 50 years ago. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was lucky. I had friends. A great set of parents. Brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I never once thought about suicide, but I remember how what was happening to me consumed that part of my life.
I thought about that time in my life when I read about the tragedy of 14-year-old New Jersey student Adriana Kuch. A recording of a recent attack on her by four teens was spread around social media and lead to online bullying and hateful comments. Her family says she died of suicide just days later.
“It happened because these two haven’t liked each other for a couple years, and she had been threatening my daughter online,” Michael Kuch, Adriana’s father, said in an interview with WNBCTV.
There is no sliding scale for a parent or a community’s pain, but for as heartbreaking as it is for a killer to enter a school and kill innocent children, for me the death of a child by their own hand because of treatment from the peers is gut-wrenching.
In my case, I was lucky because my bully could only torment me while I was at school. He tried calling a couple of times to harass me, but I had five sisters and two brothers who could screen my calls. Maybe my story would not have had a happy ending if it happened today with technology and social media creating a barrage of harassment 24/7.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among those ages 15 to 19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A newly released report from the agency found that teen girls are experiencing record high levels of sadness, suicidal risk and violence. Teens who identified as LGBTQ+ are also under high emotional distress, according to the data collected in 2021. More than half experienced poor mental health.
The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey Found:
- 30% of girls seriously considered attempting suicide, a nearly 60% increase from 10 years before.
- 57% of high school girls felt persistently hopeless or sadness, also a nearly 60% increase. About 30% of teen boys reported those same feelings over that same time period.
- One in five girls experienced sexual violence that past year — a 20% increase over 2017 when the CDC started monitoring that measure.
- This guest column may contain details that are disturbing. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.
- 22% of LGBTQ+ reported that they had attempted suicide in that past year. Forty five percent of them seriously considered attempting suicide.
- Nearly 25% of LGBTQ+ teens were bullied at school in 2021. Thirty percent reported being bullied online.
After a horrific tragedy, millions are poured into schools to prevent another shooting. We seem to have this mentality that the only deaths of students that warrant funding are shooting deaths at school. But fortunately, very few students die by gun violence at schools in America each year.
We lose many more students to suicide every year.
Alarming Trend of Toxic Schools
There are many who say school shooters are or were the victims of bullying. Others say the school shooters were bullies. The truth is bullying at school is the sign of a toxic culture.
Bad behavior by bullies, both students and teachers, is either tolerated or ignored. There is no social control to guide the correct behavior we want from our staff and students. Because of a weak family structure, students may lack a set of beliefs that guide most of us to know the difference between right and wrong.
Students see the culture and become disengaged from the school. There is no social or emotional attachment to those who attend or work on campus. That school is more likely to have a target act of violence when the person is a member of the school community because the shooter does not feel an attachment or commitment to the school. Weak social bonds lead to school violence.
I do not profess to have all of the answers. I work with schools all over the United States, and I am seeing an alarming trend of toxic school climates and students who do not feel a part of their school community.
Yes, we can blame some of this on the pandemic and remote learning, but blame does not fix problems.
Good teachers are leaving the profession, and many positions are being filled with warm bodies rather than those with a degree in education with an emphasis on child development. We must start spending more on culture, climate, and student wellness.
By doing so, not only will we prevent school shootings by moving a student from a pathway to violence to a pathway of hope, we can also reduce the number of student suicides.
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can text TALK to 741741 or initiate an online chat at suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/. Additional resources can also be found at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources. Gary L. Sigrist, Jr. is CEO and president of Safeguard Risk Solutions, a security and emergency-preparedness consultant and training firm in Grove City, Ohio.
The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.
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