More than 3 million students are victims of bullying every year — in and out of the classroom. Bullying can be physical, emotional, verbal, sexual or racial in nature. It may also involve exclusion or isolation and can occur face to face, in writing or through social media sites. Bullying that occurs online or via electronic devices is known as cyberbullying. Statistics show an alarming rise in cyberbullying, as more than 80 percent of teenagers use cell phones and computers regularly.
Sheryl is a grieving mother who says her only son, 16-year-old AJ, took his own life as a result of relentless bullying. At the age of 15, AJ informed his parents that he was gay. “We accepted him for who he was,” AJ’s stepfather, Jeremiah, says. “From that time forward, it was like the biggest weight was lifted off AJ’s shoulders.”
Although AJ’s parents were supportive of his sexual orientation, his mother had reservations about him coming out to his peers at school. “I’ll never forget AJ saying to me, ‘No, Mom, it’s OK. My friends are all right with it and for the first time in my life, I can be who I really am, and I’m so happy,’” Sheryl says. “AJ appeared so happy to all of us on the outside, [but] in reality, he was holding on to some very sad things inside of him.”
On July 27, 2013, Sheryl and Jeremiah left their house to pick up dinner, and AJ stayed behind with his 12-year-old sister. On the way back home, Sheryl received a call from her daughter, saying that AJ had hanged himself in his closet.
“If I have any regrets, in light of my son’s passing, it’s that I didn’t kiss and hug my son in the last hours of his life … that I didn’t grab him by the arms and tell him that he’s the most important person in the world to me,” Sheryl says.
After AJ’s death, Sheryl read his diary. In an entry from December 2012, AJ described the emotional pain he was dealing with on a daily basis, and he alluded to committing suicide to end his suffering. At the bottom of the page, AJ had sketched a picture of himself hanging.
A recent study published in Pediatrics , the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, reports that frequent and unexplained physical symptoms are common in bullied children, and can be markers to alert parents and teachers to a potential problem. The research is a combined look at 30 studies representing nearly 220,000 school-aged children from 14 countries. The findings show that bullied children are more than twice as likely to report feeling ill than children who are not bullied, even when there is no obvious explanation for their symptoms.
Warning Signs of Bullying:
• Pattern of withdrawal, shame and fearfulness
• Onset of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem
• Persistent, vague and unexplained physical complaints
• Damaged or missing belongings
• Unexplained bruises or injuries
• Diminished social contacts
• Excuses to avoid school
• Decline in grades
• Trouble sleeping or eating
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