By Sydney Quinn
I was in sixth grade when Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge.
I didn’t know it when I first watched the news story, but his suicide would ignite the New Jersey Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying Law (known informally as HIB). I would spend most of middle school sitting through presentations by local police officers, parents of students who had been affected by harassment and bullying and administrators enforcing the HIB guidelines at the beginning of each year. Every time it was the same message: Be an upstander. Be empathetic. Make a difference.
After the Parkland shooting, when the first “Walk Up, Not Walk Out” post started circulating, my initial thought (after being drilled for years and years with anti-bully education and prevention) was: “That’s nice.” I agreed with the post’s idea about empathy. Yes, be empathetic. Be nice to people. Be good human beings.
But the more I looked at the post, the more I was reminded of the assemblies I had sat through and my simmering frustration. I can’t explain how many times I left assemblies feeling distraught and outraged. I didn’t want to hear more news about kids who had been cyberbullied, how parents had woken up to find their children dead due to harassment on social media, how we were supposed to be Upstanders. We were supposed to recognize the signs of peers who might be distressed or were being harassed.
Do I think that being an Upstander is a bad thing? No, I don’t. Do I think that being an Upstander can be applied to the prevention of school shooting the same way it is applied to the prevention of bullying and harassment? My answer to that is more complex.
I don’t think there is a black and white when it comes to bullying and harassment. Yes, being nice to your peers is a simple act and it generates a lot of positivity. Yes, standing up for a peer who is being bullied is something all students should have the courage to do. But being an Upstander can’t change mental illness, nor can it change years of emotional neglect from parents or other emotional turmoil. Why a student chooses to take their own life is their own choice at the end of the day. Even if they have been harassed or bullied, as sad as it is, it is their own decision.
It took me years to really understand why I was always so frustrated after leaving anti-bullying assemblies: because between the lectures about the growing epidemic of cyberbullying and the reminders to be Upstanders, there was an underlying accusation towards my generation. As if all of the adults in the room were saying, “If only someone had been nicer, someone had stood up for them, they wouldn’t have done it.” As if we were the ones who pushed Tyler Clementi off that bridge; as if it wasn’t just his decision, but ours too.
And now the same idea has erupted again with the “Walk Up, Not Walk Out” debate. If only someone had been nicer to these school shooters, if only someone had included them more. As if students are the ones who handed shooters the guns.
I remember in eighth grade, after the events of Sandy Hook, we had a lockdown drill to practice security. I remember crouching behind a math teacher’s desk with one of my friends and we whispered quietly about the school shootings and what they were going to do about it. And my teacher said, “I know how harsh this sounds, but if someone is sitting in the corner not talking to other people, if someone is obsessed with guns and violence, how can they blame other people for not wanting to be friends with them?”
The reality is that being nice to someone can’t change whether they are a psychopath or a sociopath. It can’t change the years of emotional neglect that has afflicted that person. It can’t change their mental illness or the hardships they have faced in their life that have brought them to the point where they bring a gun into a school, just like it can’t always change what brings someone to stand on the ledge with their own life.
We can no longer continue to put the liability of addressing violence caused by mental illness on students. There is a fine line between what students can control and what they can’t, between when their intervention can be helpful and when it can’t, and between what the adults who call themselves lawmakers need to get through their heads and what they aren’t. Please continue to teach students to be empathetic. Please continue to encourage students to be proactive about how they treat their peers and how they use social media. But please don’t make them believe this bullshit myth that they have the ability to prevent gun violence the same way they have been taught to prevent bullying.
Sydney is a freshman.