For Omar, getting up for school every morning was a nightmare and coming home in the afternoon with a bruise or two wasn’t so unusual. However, a trip to the hospital following an after-school jumping was the last straw.
An eighth grader at a Maryland middle school, Omar has dealt with severe verbal taunting and physical abuse at the hands of classmates but has made a personal commitment to try to put that past behind him.
But sometimes, on the American playground, it’s eat or be eaten and the codes of the classroom dictate that pride is worth a punch or two.
With nearly one out of every three kids being bullied in schools, according to government statistics, there are few that haven’t stood toe to toe with their juvenile oppressor and fewer still who haven’t, at any given point, felt as though the gates of a school campus were bars that eliminated any hope of escape from the daily torments and teases of classmates.
Years of abuse, verbal or physical, can have a lasting toll on young men and women who either do not have the courage to report their offenders or who find their complaints fall on deaf ears.
Omar said he tried everything to get out of the situation, even transferring schools at one point, but he ended up in a worse position than he started. For him, it’s been a two year ordeal, a handful of fights, and a suspension.
“[In the 6th grade] I had a lot of problems...like being called a terrorist and Ossama,” said Omar. “ It gets me mad, how they say it and how they’re spreading it. More people say it and it got me kind of upset. A lot of people started to pick on me. I would get mad. I wouldn’t just stand there and let them do that to me.”
Omar has faced five or six altercations since the bullying began.
Like many bullied kids, the stress of verbal and physical altercations resulted in poor academic performance.
Omar’s father requested the school board allow Omar to transfer. After several attempts, permission was granted. While a small victory for Omar, he still felt slighted by how long the process took.
“They finally decided to transfer me after all that, after I had been beaten and stuff,” he said.
Omar’s transfer came with conditions. If he was to remain at his new school, he would be required to maintain good grades, good behavior and good attendance.
He spent seventh grade at his new school and said that he stayed out of trouble and that he wasn’t picked on or bullied. Perhaps he said, the diversity at his new school made it easier for him to fit in.
However, after poor academic performance the first half of his eighth grade year, Omar was forced to return to his old stomping grounds.
“[They said] Ossama’s back!,” said Omar.
The bullying began again.
“One kid made a paper airplane and he made it [hit] a tower and break,” said Omar. “I didn’t want to blow my record or anything. I would report it. The teachers and staff wouldn’t do anything. I didn’t want to get my dad involved in anything. Kids would call me a snitch,” he said.
After an incident a few weeks ago, where a classmate approached Omar and punched him the face, Omar reported the offense to a guidance counselor. The offending student was made to apologize and said that someone had dared him to do it.
The following Monday as Omar waited for the school bus with a friend, he saw that same student approaching him.
“All of a sudden that kid, him and two other kids were running at me. I knew right away they were after me,” said Omar. “I tried to pretend that the bus in front of me was my bus so that they would leave. All of a sudden one of them comes, smacks me in the face then the others started. It was three on one. They kept hitting and hitting.”
If it wasn’t for the driver of the bus, Omar said he saved his life.
“[He] yelled for the kids to stop. [He shouted] ‘You’re going to kill him. You’re going to kill him,’” said Omar. “If it wasn’t for the bus driver I’m pretty sure I would have been dead.”
The students fled the scene.
“My dad came and called the cops. We pressed charges. My dad, my mom and my sister, we all went to the hospital,” he said. “My mom was crying and stuff. My sister witnessed it, the attack. We all went in and wrote statements. I was shocked and embarrassed. All the kids were laughing and stuff. No one tried helping.”
Since the attack, Omar has been out of school.
“I’m happier at home...I feel like no one can hurt me,” he said.
Omar said that while he has friends at school who have shown him some support and asked about his well being, he can’t help but wonder why none of those friends tried to help him during the attack.
“I’m wondering to myself why didn’t they jump in or at least try to hold them back or tell them to stop. To me its just like they’re standing there and enjoying the moment but they’re my friends too,” said Omar. “Why did they just stand there and look at me and they were acting like I”m a stranger to them …. like I don’t know them.”
Though Omar did not fight back during the attack that landed him in the hospital, he still wishes he could prove himself.
“In my mind I kind of just want to fight them and just prove to them that I can beat them but at the same time I don’t want to do that because it’ll make the situation worse.”
He hopes that pressing charges will end the problems for him and for others who are bullied.
“I think if I [press charges] they’re never going to do this again. They’re going to get in a lot of trouble at home and having to go to court is a lot of trouble,” he said.
For Omar, even as the situation is being addressed, its impact is something that he feels has changed him.
“I think it kind of makes me a little bit more mature and mad. In class I’m just quiet. I used to be talkative. I don’t want to talk. I’m just mad because of all of this,” he said. “It changes me. I’m just mad all the time.”
The family has been impacted as well.
“My mom is always crying whenever she remembers it and my dad is always worried about me. He doesn’t want me to go out anymore. He’s afraid something is going to happen to me,” he said.
As cases of severe verbal and physical bullying have been thrust in the limelight in recent years, fewer parents or children are chalking it up to normal adolescent behavior and treating it more like serious cases of juvenile delinquency.
Where years ago some may have considered a fight in the schoolyard as a normal teenage coming of age, some parents aren’t taking any chances and those who are concerned about the reasons behind the attacks fear their children might become continued targets for hate crimes.
“I know those kinds of personalities. Some people think they can do anything to the kids and maybe they think the parents don’t care,” said Mohamed, the father of a young man who recently got into a fight at school after being bullied, resulting in a seven day suspension.
His son was eating lunch on a bench in the cafeteria when a peer approached him and demanded he move. He refused and a fight broke out. While Mohamed admits that this particular incident was not as severe as bullying others may have faced, he is taking action to nip it in the bud by opening a dialogue with school officials and demanding students have proper supervision.
“Of course I’m worried. I’m worried if it is a real bullying in the school. Sometime some people start to pick on people who look different,” Mohamed said. “Some schools or certain people start to pick on certain people. Sometimes I worry if it’s this situation, or if someone starts bullying because of that. I’ve seen [bullying] happen to other people.”
With parents, students and schools feeling more responsibility and pressure toward addressing cases of bullying as they happen as well as in terms of prevention, those in the health field are looking at the long-term effects bullying has on development.
Physical abuse is often dealt with more urgency and the ramifications, more severe but constant verbal abuse can leave a young person with neurological scars, something that neurologists are now finding can have lasting effects on the development of the young brain.
Scientists who studied the impact of bullying on the brain of adolescents found similarities between the neurological response to verbal and sexual abuse, a short-circuiting of normal brain development, and the taunting and teasing by peers. Studies reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that emotional abuse from peers can actually be just as damaging to mental health as abuse parents.
Perhaps the old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” is due for a rewrite.