According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), one in five high school students falls victim to bullying each year. Approximately 4,400 teenagers die by suicide each year, half of which is attributed to bullying.
Kevin Epling is a parent who was inspired to join the bullying prevention organization Bully Police after his 14-year-old son, Matthew Epling, died by suicide after several bullying incidents.
Epling, who is involved in passing several bullying prevention laws nationwide, occasionally visits schools to talk about teen depression and suicide. The Matt’s Safe School Law in Michigan is an achievement which Epling finds the most pride in and this law took six years to pass. This law further enforced school policies that prohibited bullying.
“[Matt’s Safe School Law] is named after our son who took his own life in 2002 after a bout of bullying and harassment from upperclassmen,” Epling said. “That, in its own way, I believe has made it safer for students because schools now understand that bullying is an issue they have to deal with.”
Believing that the issue of bullying is complex, Epling emphasizes the need for schools to address bullying head-on. According to Epling, bullying can inflict pain in both the victim and the bully. He believes that the bully’s actions were caused by their underlying personal issues.
Jyoti Rau, a mother of a sophomore and senior at MVHS, sees additional reasons behind bullying other than problems back at home. She believes that students may fall victim to bullying because of pure social pressure from a group other than just one individual with distress outside of school.
“Sometimes there’s peer pressure to do things that [victims] may not be comfortable with at an age earlier than they would want to,” Rau said.
Rau and Epling both agree that parents should converse with their children about bullying and create an open environment for teens to feel comfortable consulting with them.
“I think one thing is talking to your child about what is considered the right thing to do or what a child is comfortable with regard to everything in life,” Rau said. “Their choices, their behavior, being out, relationships, all of those things. First is having a discussion as a family.”
Once a teen has opened up to a trusted adult, Epling believes that they create an opportunity to face the problem together, parent and child. He suggests that parents understand what their school policy is and how it relates to the state law.
According to Epling, when a parent is informed, they have the knowledge to correctly respond to the situation, whether it be reporting bullying to the school or trying to solve the problem with their child first.
Isabel Echezerria is a mother of two girls, a sixth grader and a junior who attends MVHS. She too supports the idea of building trust with her children, not just trusting her daughters to consult with her about bullying but also to handle the situation if they believe they can.
“If my daughter wants to take care of it and try to deal with it herself, I would support that,” Echezerria said. “But I would monitor how it goes and if it is not something that she can take care of, then I would intervene.”
However, Epling believes there is a limit to how far parents’ trust in their children can reach. According to him, most students may want to stay silent in the hopes that their parent won’t intervene.
“If you’re seeing noticeable changes in how your child lives their life,” Epling said, “that’s an opportunity for a parent to ask the student what is going on.”
Epling provides a few examples of these noticeable changes: a change in sleeping schedule, lost items, dirty clothes and bruises - all telltale signs of bullying that a parent might want to investigate further. However, with almost 28 percent of U.S. students in grades six through 12 experiencing bullying across the country, according to the National Center for Education, parents at MVHS are left to hope their child isn’t one of them.
“I sincerely hope that MVHS is a good place in terms of a child’s emotional health because that’s the one thing that kids need, a place where they’re safe,” Rau said.
Rau’s concern for high school students has a strong foundation when taking into account Epling’s beliefs. He reminds parents such as Rau and Echezerria that bullying today has drastically changed from bullying years ago.
“Students today now live in a 24/7 cycle,” Epling said. “Technology has really impacted how students can verbally and emotionally harm each other more so than any way than their parents could ever have thought of.”
Echezerria acknowledges these drastic changes in bullying over the years and strongly believes that there should be more discussion with teenagers about what bullying is compared to just being mean.
“We talk about bullying but we don’t talk about the specifics of it so it can get deluded and confused sometimes with other things,” Echezerria said. “That is not effective in eliminating what we want to eliminate.”