Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 2002 / 9 Mar-Cheshvan 5763

Clarence Page

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Consumer Reports

A beauty and the bullies | Like many of us, the new Miss America, Erika Harold, was picked on and threatened by her fellow students in the ninth grade.

Now, it's payback time for the former Miss Illinois and she's doing it in a positive way. She's using her bully pulpit to fight what she had to put up with: bullying.

"I'm not going to say I am here to bring world peace because you've heard that before and probably don't believe it," she said, evoking laughter from reporters and others in a recent news conference at the National Press Club in Washington. "But I am here to be an advocate for kids."

Good for her. After a report by the U. S. Secret Service after the Columbine High School massacre linked student shootings to bullying, teachers, parents and principals increasingly realize we grownups can no longer shrug off bullying and harassment as regrettable but inevitable teen rites of passage.

The 22-year-old Urbana native came to Washington to launch her year-long campaign against bullying and youth violence as a spokeswoman for Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national organization comprised of police chiefs, prosecutors and crime victims-like her.

As much of the nation knows by now, Harold was called a variety of unmentionable names in the ninth grade. She received anonymous telephoned threats against her life. Eggs were thrown against her family home and somebody mysteriously cut off its power one night.

Perhaps it was her friendly but outspoken independence that got Harold into social trouble. Kids can be terribly cruel, especially to another kid who seems vulnerable and doesn't hide his or her individuality, racial or otherwise.

Like Tiger Woods and many other multiracial people, Miss Harold refuses to be ethnically boxed. She proudly talks about her mixed background of black, American Indian and Russian on her mother's side, and Greek, German, Welsh and English on her father's.

And, no, she explained in answer to my question, her school was not a stereotypically poor or high-crime institution. Quite the opposite; it was a school for gifted students drawn from throughout her hometown area, and that became a major part of the problem, in her eyes. The school's progressive-minded administrators tended to allow a pretty freewheeling environment so their little darlings would not have their creativity stifled. Harold compares the resulting atmosphere to that of "Lord of the Flies," William Golding's novel about young boys marooned on an island who revert to savagery.

Fortunately, when Harold's parents transferred her to a conventional public high school, her harassment problems evaporated. She went on to graduate with honors from the University of Illinois and has been accepted by Harvard Law School.

"Teens need structure," she said.

Yes, they do, say I, speaking as the father of a 13-year-old boy. Oh, yes, they do.

They also need our help. Bullying is a crime against kids by other kids -- and it can lead to more serious crimes.

We parents cannot count on our children to come forth and tell us their troubles, the experts remind us. We have to find gentle but persistent ways to bring up the topic of how our children are getting along with others and how their schools handle bullying and other forms of harassment.

So says James Garbarino, co-author of the recent anti-bullying guide, "And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment and Emotional Violence," for which he interviewed the parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the two Columbine shooters, among many other families.

"It is not just the stereotypically menacing losers who do the bullying," Garbarino, a professor of human development at Cornell University, told me. There are "all kinds of bullying and harassment," he noted. "Different groups take the lead. Athletes do physical and sexual harassment. Girls do elitist in-crowd harassing. It is not just a question of finding bad kids and putting them out of school. It is the culture of the schools that needs to be changed."

Which means the culture of the communities surrounding the schools must change, too. If our kids have to suffer through adolescence, they should not have to do it alone.

That's why I admire Erika Harold's candor and courage. It's not easy for most of us to talk about the humiliations we suffered in high school. It takes some people a couple of decades or more to regain enough self-confidence to show up at a class reunion, if they ever do. Miss America doesn't have all the answers, but I hope she helps more of us understand the problem.

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