By Rory Fleming
Today, I am an attorney and civil rights activist. But even as young as 7 or 8, I was a victim of pervasive bullying by both my peers and teachers. From that experience, I can tell you that additional criminalization, as proposed by Rep. Kyle Mullins, D-Lackawanna, and others, will do nothing to address bullying.
Growing up in the southern suburbs of Charlotte, N.C., I was different. My parents were outspoken Staten Islanders and we were Roman Catholic when we moved in 1998 to what was then the cultural Deep South.
I had a lisp and a feminine affect, which meant I was labeled “gay” and “faggot” by the time I hit middle school. The jocks pushed me into the urinal when they caught me peeing; I learned to only urinate in the stall, which I do to this day. I was sexually harassed and assaulted in gym class.
In high school, I was a complete outsider. No one would talk to me in my classes. Girls would pretend they liked me, so I could fall for it later.
Whole classrooms would laugh at me when I realized what was going on. A teacher once called me to the front of the classroom because of a minor behavioral infraction when I was fourteen, commanding me to do push-ups for the class. He knew I was weak, and I did about one real push-up.
Then he asked a girl from the soccer team to come up and she did about fifty push-ups. The entire purpose of the exercise was to utterly humiliate and emasculate me.
My first girlfriend made up an older, cooler ex-boyfriend who mysteriously moved back into town, after we started dating. She would chat to me on instant messenger as that ex-boyfriend. Whenever I didn’t follow through on her demands, she would “chat” with me as her ex, saying things like “Look what she’s doing now, she’s slitting her wrists in the tub.” She cheated on me, then started dating my only friend, who she told couldn’t hang out with me anymore.
My parents knew almost everything, but their attempts to address the problem only made things worse. They were met with an indifferent school administration, always attempting to cover for the bullies. The bullying was arguably encouraged by my school’s response and the response of the bullies’ parents.
Now I work in criminal justice reform, a field in which “hurt people hurt people” is a type of slogan. That is undeniably true in many cases of bullying. I know that my ex-girlfriend had mental health issues, that kids often bullied me publicly due to peer pressure but would apologize in one-on-one conversation, even if it was years later.
Instead of upgrading bullying — which is often ambiguously defined — to a misdemeanor to further criminalize children and young people, we should be telling parents to teach compassion for people who are different.
We should be informing our students that when their peers act “annoying,” “weird,” or “creepy,” it is not infrequently due to mental health issues or problems at home.
We should be encouraging empathy.
Often, the kids who bully are the most privileged. My biggest bullies were the “popular” kids who were also in honors and AP classes. They ended up going to the most elite schools, getting top-paying jobs, and receiving community accolades.
In North Carolina, it always felt like I could never escape them; I bumped into several while attending law school. They no longer recognized me or knew who I was. That said, I would never name these bullies or wish for them to get in trouble, because I believe that people change, especially from childhood to adulthood.
As a child bullying victim, I would much prefer for our legislatures to figure out ways to reduce criminalization and our prison population. I know I am not alone, as I have traded stories about middle school and high school abuse with other decarceration advocates and public defenders throughout the country.
We should be focusing on more empathy and justice for all.
Rory Fleming, of Philadelphia, is the founder of Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors nationwide. He previously worked for the Fair Punishment Project, which was founded as a joint project of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute and its Criminal Justice Institute, as well as the National Network for Safe Communities.