When I was in fourth grade, I slipped a note on my teacher's desk asking to speak with her about a girl who was bullying me.
It wasn't physical bullying; it was the "mean girl" variety of cruel remarks, dirty looks and social exclusion. I was miserable. But when the teacher took me aside, she told me the problem was all in my head, and that I needed to get over it.
I sat, staring at my shoes for a long time, and silently vowed never to ask a teacher for help again. In my eyes, she was now part of the problem.
Years later, when I was in high school, a lonely girl walked into the packed quad at break time. Suddenly, a deafening chorus of taunts and insults erupted. The jeering was aimed at the girl, a new student who was the subject of some malicious rumors.
I stood by, frozen, unsure what to do as I watched her walk, head down, and escape into a building. Later, I heard that the girl was suicidal, and had been moved to yet another school.
That episode has haunted me ever since. I had witnessed an egregious act of bullying, and I did nothing. Like my fourth-grade teacher, I was part of the problem.
That was a long time ago, but some things never change. Today, bullies still torment victims. Educators are too often still clueless, parents disconnected, and other kids afraid to speak up.
What has changed is that the growth of the Internet and social media sites has perpetuated the problem and taken bullying to a new level, allowing abusers to pick on their victims relentlessly, leaving no safe haven.
It's welcome news then that we are now witnessing a shift in the public consciousness and attitudes regarding bullying. Whether or not we're undergoing an epidemic of bullying — a point of debate in the media — behavior that was once met with a shrug and an attitude of "kids will be kids" is now inviting closer examination.
Along with this new awareness is a growing realization that everyone has a part to play in stopping bullying.
"To me, it truly is the core issue of the problem," said Dr. Jerry Weichman, a Newport Beach psychologist and noted authority on bullying. "I tell kids, 'You're giving this bully a red light or green light based on your actions.'"
Fueling the national discussion are some high-profile cases, including one in which guilty verdicts were leveled against a Rutgers University student earlier this month on 15 charges related to his secret videotaping of his roommate's romantic encounter with another man. The roommate committed suicide.
The issue will be pushed further to the forefront of public commentary by the theatrical release this Friday of the provocative documentary"Bully."So far, the film has attracted more attention because of the controversy over its R rating, for occasional foul language, than for its content, a turn of events that has served to raise the movie's profile.
Last week I attended an advance screening of the film, hosted by the Orange County Film Society, followed by a panel discussion.
Despite the rating kerfuffle, "Bully" has the potential to have a profound impact.
The film is spare in its style: There is no narrator, and no barrage of "experts" pontificating on the problem. It simply shows the stories of several bullying victims and their families.
"Bully" is at times excruciating to watch. Two of the victims discussed in the film committed suicide, and others were so wretched and misunderstood that I constantly fought back tears. Along with the rest of the audience, I winced at some of the shocking episodes caught on film, and groaned at the fatuousness of some adults.
Yet the film left me with an inkling of hope; the feeling one gets when tragic circumstances finally force us to change how we think and act.
The post-screening panel consisted of Weichman; Dr. Kevin O'Grady, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center of Orange County; and four Corona del Mar High School students, all members of the school's Human Relations Council.
Much of the discussion centered on the often-brutal language kids use on social media sites. All the panelists — even the students — stressed that parents need to monitor their kids' activities online. They also talked about the pressure teenagers feel to conform, and the importance of empowering them to speak up.
"You guys are the first responders," Weichman said. "If you see something online, you have to say something."
As one of the students noted, "There are no innocent bystanders."
The bullying issue is complex, and answers won't come easily.
Complicating the picture is the reality that many bullies are also victims of abuse. Indeed, Weichman counsels kids to realize that bullies are themselves often living in a world of pain, and act out because of their own feelings of inadequacy. A danger exists that attempts to address the problem will employ a sledgehammer approach that fails to get at the root of the trouble.
Nevertheless, the fact that bullying is now part of our national conversation is an encouraging development, one that hopefully will lead to a deeper understanding of the issue and a real effort to reach kids in need. It begins when more of us, the bystanders, summon the courage to act when we see someone suffering.