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The Paramus Post - Greater Paramus News and Lifestyle Webzine
Sunday, May 31 2020 @ 02:45 PM EDT
The Paramus Post - Greater Paramus News and Lifestyle Webzine
Sunday, May 31 2020 @ 02:45 PM EDT
The Paramus Post - Greater Paramus News and Lifestyle Webzine

It doesn't take physical contact to leave scars

All the popular girls in Elly Troxell's third-grade class at Ashland Grade School in Peoria, Ill., took tumbling at Vickie B's gymnastics and dance studio.

And they all had the shoes to prove it.

The girls told Elly that without the special shoes, she was nothing. She'd never be considered "cool" unless she had a pair.But Elly's family couldn't afford tumbling classes or brand-name clothes. Elly's attire came from Goodwill. She was a self-described tomboy, an athlete, a little chubby.

If only she could get the shoes, she thought, everything would be OK. She'd be accepted. Elly begged and begged her parents, but they told her no.

Finally, one day, they relented.

Elly got the shoes. Excitedly, she put them on and wore them to school the next day.

When the other girls saw that Elly had the shoes, they decided never to wear theirs again.

Elly was crushed. It wasn't about the shoes for those girls. It was about making Elly feel bad about herself.

It was about bullying.

Now 20, Elly is a junior at Western Illinois University and appears to be having the last laugh over the girls who once made her life miserable. She holds down several jobs and is a bright, attractive, petite blonde.

She is engaged to a man who, she said, "is the best thing that ever happened to me. He has such a good heart."

But Elly still hasn't gotten over how she was treated when she was younger - how she was the target of hurtful teasing and was socially shut out by girls in her class.

"They told me they hated me," she said. "I hated going to school.

"I have no friends that are girls. It's sad. I just want people to know that this can affect girls for their whole lives. I have very, very low self-esteem. I think I'm fat and ugly. I'm engaged, and no matter how much (my fiance) tells me I'm not, I don't believe him.

"I wish for no one to go through what I went through."

- - -

Elly is not alone. Girls in local school districts - regardless of size, location, affiliation and socio-economic status - share similar stories of bullies' effects on their lives.

This is nothing new. However, the nature of bullying among girls has become more sophisticated as participants use increasingly manipulative, psychologically painful ways to direct aggression at one another.

"(Girls) do not always act out. They avoid confrontations. They go under the radar and manipulate situations," said Jennifer Gauvain, a licensed clinical social worker in St. Louis. "What's surprising is that these things happen in first and second grade, and then it's growing worse by sixth and seventh grade."

Girls are expected to be caregivers, Gauvain said, and are not expected to express anger or aggression. As a result, they lack a socially acceptable outlet for such emotions and behaviors. This double standard prompts girls to find other, less obvious ways to channel their aggression such as purposefully leaving a girl out of a social activity, Gauvain said.

Because many girls hold grudges and often act out away from adults, their torments can go on for months, she said, although on the surface, everything seems fine.

Even victims at times can be unaware that the girls they believe are friends act viciously behind their backs. The line between a girl's friends and perceived enemies also can become blurred; such duplicity in female relationships leads many girls to feel insecure and distrustful.

Marica Cullen, assistant principal and guidance dean at Lanphier High School in Peoria, offered an example: "(Girls) have messengers that go back and forth; then you have the 'friend' who says, 'I just want to tell you what Suzy said about you because I think you should know.' And then what Suzy said always got 10 times worse than what was originally said. It's a telephone game."

School officials interviewed for this story agreed that the issue of girl bullying is serious, but most were reluctant to specifically acknowledge the problem or speak about instances in their schools.

Those willing to discuss it said adults often are surprised to realize what some girls are capable of doing to one another.

"That ongoing, relentless bullying is a small percentage (of what happens with female students)," Cullen said, "but the ones that do it are painfully good at it."

Girl bullies typically don't operate as stereotypical, tough schoolyard ruffians who pick on one or two weaker students, she said. Instead, girl bullies tend to work in groups with a leader or "queen bee" that turns members against another who is marginal and not as secure in the group.

Cullen said this behavior often makes the leader feel she can maintain her own desired social status and reputation by making others feel inferior.

Dr. Bill Moredock, director of family services at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Peoria, said girls who bully also sometimes are acting on a need for attention and/or power, such as older girls who pick on younger students to assert their dominance in a school.

"Girls get mad by committee," Pleasant Plains (Ill.) High School Principal John Marsaglia said. "Girls get together and find five other girls that will listen to them and they start running people down."

Victims will have quiet signs of disapproval sent to them that are just as hurtful as saying it to their faces, he said.

Such tactics - glares, whispers, rumors - are frustrating for schools because there's little proof for disciplinary action, Cullen added.

"When they start to escalate is when then we can intercede ... when they finally write it down in a note and call her a name," she said.

At that point, name-calling often is laced with profanity and sexuality, she said, such as calling one another sluts and whores. This often comes out in verbal confrontations.

- - -

Many students contacted or interviewed for this project declined to go on record for publication. One girl, though, has been on both sides of the issue.

Amy McClanahan learned at a young age how vulgar and degrading other girls' insults can be.

"I've had so many rumors started about me it's not even funny. That I'm bi, a lesbian, that I had sex behind the soda machine at school, in the bathroom ..." said the 13-year-old middle school student. "There's this girl who walks past me every day in the hallway and will scream, 'Amy's a bust down.' Everybody looks at me and starts laughing."

"Bust down" is a nickname for a girl who is sexually promiscuous.

The taunts first began, Amy says, in sixth grade because, like Elly, she didn't wear popular designer clothing. The name-calling escalated from picking on her shoes to rumors about her sexuality, shoving her in the hallways and leaving violent threats on her answering machine instructing her not to come to school.

"I could not stand it every day. Something different, every day. Another rumor, every day. Another girl, every day," Amy said, adding that her anger led her to smart off to teachers and a drop in her grades.

The names and threats frustrated Amy and worried her parents.

"I was almost dumbfounded in the beginning when she started coming home and saying, 'Gosh, Mom, they started a rumor that I'm a lesbian,'" said Amy's mother, LaDonna McClanahan. "What are you supposed to say when your daughter comes home upset, saying she's not going to school anymore?"

When one girl in Amy's sixth-grade physical education class wouldn't stop picking on her, LaDonna told her daughter to fight back.

"I said, 'You know what, if she goes up there today and takes her claws on you, take her head off ...'" LaDonna said. "I'll deal with the suspension, and you'll deal with the suspension. But you know what, that girl won't touch you again ...

"Now how are you supposed to teach your kids to do right when you have to tell them to go in there and knock their damn head (off) to get them to stop?" McClanahan said. "That aggravates me to no end because I teach her not to fight ... but the girls don't stop."

Amy did fight the girl and was suspended from school. Since then, some of the other girls who bullied her have become her friends. Others continue to spread rumors, start fights, even damage her property. And Amy no longer is the shy, quiet girl that she was at the start of middle school, LaDonna said.

Now, Amy fights back - physically, verbally and emotionally. She knows how to use the same hurtful names and tactics used against her.

- - -

Jane Chard said she has seen a rise in the number of girls who, like Amy, exhibit more outwardly aggressive and violent behavior in response to problems. Chard is the principal at Douglas School, an alternative school for students in sixth through 12th grades in Peoria.

"A lot of kids seem to be (angrier) about sometimes life in general than they used to be," Chard said. "These are headstrong young women who feel, 'It's my way or the highway.'

"They're not all here and bullying. I think over time, girls have learned to stick up for themselves ... they have to be more aggressive, and maybe some of that aggressiveness goes beyond determination."

Most girls turn on another because of jealousies, Chard said, especially over boys, or if they feel their social status or reputation is threatened.

Another reason some students bully, Moredock said, is that they may be acting out because of stress in their family or home life.

Elbert Betts, education chair for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, runs the organization's alternative education program in Peoria at Calvary Baptist Church. He also is a former teacher and administrator, retiring in 1999 after a 34-year career in education.

Betts says girls today largely are influenced by peer pressure and competing with other girls.

"Once you start to get to a certain age and start to get in middle school," Betts said, "you think, 'Do I have my hair groomed right like Mary?' 'Am I wearing the same outfit as she's wearing?' 'Do I really have anything going for myself?' 'How can I compete with Mary?'

"When they are not able to do that, their ego lets them do something they shouldn't do to keep up with Mary."

A particular challenge with girl bullying is that the players don't always fit a defined role of bully or victim.

Like Amy, a girl who is tormented may adopt abrasive behavior herself as a means to survive, making it difficult for adults to determine how a problem originated.

"I see more girls yelling back in this building," Chard said. "I know that we have some true victims and some of the young ladies are trying really hard to do the right thing, but sometimes it gets to be too much for them.

"I find it to be more will fight back."

Some victims of bullying are girls who appear to have it all together, and no one knows what's going on. Similarly, those who bully can be the girls who act nicely around adults, who are unaware of how she undermines others.

"You can't specify a physical set of characteristics of the abuser," Moredock said. "Sometimes, kids appear to be the sweetest kids, and you're shocked at what you hear. Nothing surprises you."

Elly hid for a long time what she was going through. She often would go to the school's kitchen, where her mother worked as a cook, and cry. When her mother asked what was wrong, Elly would say she was upset because she wasn't getting straight A's.

Finally, she told her mother what was happening. Her parents asked the school to intervene.

"It never helped," Elly said. "They made me and this girl sign a deed saying we would get along. We got back to class, and she ripped it up right in front of me."

Elly said the girl who bullied her the worst was manipulative.

"She manipulated everyone," Elly said. "I would gut a deer with my dad, and the boys (in my class) would be there and they'd all talk to me. Then she'd talk to them at school and tell them not to and they quit.

"She probably has no idea that what she did to me had such an effect."

- - -

Bullying often is perpetuated by bystanders, or the silent majority, Gauvain said. Eighty-five percent of children fall into this category, she added, and they aren't empowered enough to stand up for their friends and classmates.

In the last five years, Gauvain said that she's noticed a general lack of coping skills in youth as children and teenagers have become more technologically savvy - using e-mails, instant messages, blogs, etc. - to communicate, and torment, each other.

As a result, children don't have the emotional strength or "armor" to block such abuse, she said.

"Most adults can't imagine that our sweet children could possibly be involved in (cyberbullying), but it is out there and not to be ignored," said Deidre Zobrist, principal of Rochester Junior High School in Peoria. "Kids should think before they click the 'send' button as to how what they are saying will be interpreted.

"Students should be instructed to block the cyberbully."

A girl with tendencies to bully may find it easy to sit at a computer and send insulting messages because with no face-to-face contact, she won't see how her words affect the other girl on the receiving end.

With cyberbullying, the bully can't observe and doesn't learn to read the non-verbal cues - slumped shoulders, a sad expression, crying - and reactions of others, Gauvain said. Nor does she understand the power of her words or actions.

"Kids lack a sense of empathy," she said. "They can't put themselves in someone else's shoes. Anyone can be a bully."

Counselors agree there also is a misconception among many adults that bullying is a right of passage and that it goes away with adulthood.

"The bully affects everyone," Gauvain said. "The bully sticks with you."

Bullying involves the use of terror tactics, which can be particularly devastating to adolescent girls. They're at an age when they pull away from parents and gravitate toward friends to define themselves. If their peer support system breaks down, Gauvain said, they don't know where to go.

Betts said that he's alarmed by the growing number of girls trying to avoid school.

"It's got to the point where, to even think about this, fourth- and fifth-graders are refusing to go to school because they're being bullied by a classmate or classmates," Betts said.

That unhappiness in school can lead girls to act out and find other ways to avoid being there, he said. Betts noted that girls make up the majority enrollment in the NAACP alternative education program, which began in 2001 with two boys. Current enrollment is about 30 students.

Polly Poskin, head of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said a key difference in the tactics used by girl bullies versus boy bullies is their ability to instill feelings of rejection, isolation, distrust and the sentiment that, "I must not be good enough."

"(Girl bullies) demean (other girls) and sully their reputation and denigrate them to make them less appealing or attractive to boys," Poskin said. "Guy-upon-girl bullying has the effect of making a girl more vulnerable and less respected in relation to that guy. It gives (the victim) an increased sense of vulnerability to sexual violation."

Moredock said bullying victims often are left with emotional damage, such as feelings of discouragement, bewilderment and asking, "Why me?"

"The worst is to suffer in silence," he said.

Elly said her fiance is so bothered by what happened to her during her formative years that he won't allow their future children to go to A-C Central, the school Elly attended.

Meanwhile, Elly is planning to become a teacher. She wants to help combat the same problems and behaviors that she faced.

"I want to go into schools. There are so many kids who don't have direction, and they're just there," Elly said. "They feel like they don't have a purpose, and I just feel like if they had someone who felt like they cared for them, it would be OK.

"I think if they knew there was a teacher looking out for them, they'd feel safe."

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