Editorial: Saving lives with positive relationships

October 23, 2012 Jonathan Teghtmeyer

The tragic story of B.C. teenager Amanda Todd has attracted the ­attention of people worldwide and galvanized support for antibullying movements.

Fifteen-year-old Todd died by suicide on October 10, a little over a month after posting her story on YouTube. Her heart-wrenching video features Todd holding up a series of flashcards that tell her story.

According to Todd’s video, a stranger who had obtained an image of her topless during a webcam chat attempted to blackmail her for more nude photos. The person then posted the photo on the Internet for all her schoolmates to see, and it became source material for bullying incidents. Todd struggled with anxiety and depression and turned to drugs and ­alcohol to cope. She changed schools numerous times to escape the ­torment, but the online image and bullying followed her. Later, Todd had a sexual encounter with a male friend whose girlfriend and others sought revenge by assaulting her. Todd attempted suicide after the assault.

Her suicide attempt became known and fuelled further online bullying. The accelerated bullying increased Todd’s anxiety and depression; she cut herself and again attempted to take her life, ending up in hospital for two days after overdosing on drugs.

Todd’s second-to-last card in her video cries out for help: “I have ­nobody … I need someone  ”

Unfortunately, Todd’s story is not unique. YouTube is stocked with similar flashcard stories posted under the title “If You Really Knew Me.” Schools are dealing daily with increasingly severe issues of bullying. And the stakes are high—suicide is the second leading cause of death among people between the ages of 10 and 24.

Let’s hope the increased attention on bullying will result in some positive outcomes that will benefit all students. However, there will be no shortage of ideas for how best to solve the growing problem. Online comments, which highlight just how many people have experienced bullying, describe the variety of steps that can be taken. Some advocate standing up to bullies, others suggest zero-tolerance policies, a few seek violent retribution and others bring up age-old adages like “boys will be boys” or “sticks and stones.” I think as teachers we understand that there is no quick fix. Every idea has its strengths and weaknesses—good ideas will be fraught with negative side effects, and each solution will work in some cases and fail miserably in others.

I’m not going to suggest any solutions; instead, I’ll advance a principle.

Like everything else we do that matters, the key to success will be meaningful professional relationships: positive relationships among students and positive relationships between students and teachers. Collectively, such relationships create a culture of mutual respect and understanding. Students pick up on culture, respond to it and react accordingly.

Unfortunately, because of the power imbalance at the heart of bullying, students (whether the bully, the bullied or the bystander) go to great lengths to hide incidents. This often leaves teachers powerless to react. But a focus on relationship can be a powerful pressure for prevention.

By fostering positive relations, would-be bullies are less inclined to lash out. At the heart of bullying is usually a child who is seeking to regain control that he or she lacks elsewhere in life. A safe and caring environment can go a long way to alleviate someone’s feelings of low self-worth. And in cases when bullying is not prevented, a learning environment built on positive relations can help witnesses feel more empowered to intervene in a positive way to stop incidents from starting.

But perhaps most important, by focusing on strengthened student relationships, we make it clear to victims of bullying that they have somebody who is there for them, who is trustworthy and who will listen. If the support of a positive adult role model will not prevent incidents of bullying, perhaps it will prevent potential suicides that could result.

Practical advice on how to build safe and caring learning environments is found on the Society for Safe & Caring Schools & Communities website (www.sacsc.ca). For information on the ATA’s work supporting student mental health, visit www.canwetalk.ca.

I welcome your comments—contact me at jonathan.teghtmeyer@ata.ab.ca.

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