Luzerne County is fast approaching the anniversary of twin tragedies that capped a season of teen suicides so startling it could not help but grab public attention and spur debate.
In a matter of days, two Pittston Area School District teens took their own lives separately, on Sept. 21 and 24. They were the fourth and fifth teen suicides of the year. And most had been credited, at least in part, to bullying.
Those claims were never substantiated and even refuted by officials in different school districts the teens attended. Indeed, experts warned blaming suicide on a single cause such as bullying is a dangerous oversimplification of a complex problem. Suicide is third-leading cause of death for those 15 to 24 in the country, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
“What seems to happen is stressors accumulate … (leading) to isolation, hopelessness, anger and negative self-image,” Widener University Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Philip Rutter told The Times Leader last September. “Is bullying directly related to suicide? It’s not totally legitimate to say that. It is fair to say some young people who are bullied become depressed and feel helpless.”
None of which diminishes the very real problem bullying presents, made worse through social media that allows a bully to berate a victim 24 hours a day from anywhere.
Not that you’d know it from the state’s annual School Safety Reports. Districts provide a tally of a wide range of offenses, including bullying, yet it rarely shows up on the reports.
At the height of the tragedies last year, The Times Leader reviewed school safety reports for five years and found that, countywide, bullying comprised as little as 0.75 percent of total incidents to no more than 3.9 percent in any given year.
Yet last year’s tragedies prompted widespread public meetings, often heavy on personal testimony from victims. Several argued that bullying goes unreported or under-reported because the allegations are not taken seriously, or that bullies go unpunished and merely double down on their abhorrent behavior.
All of this is important context when considering news that Luzerne County District Attorney Stephanie Salavantis has arranged for anti-bullying speaker John Halligan to bring his presentations to students in 14 area high schools and West Side Career and Technology Center, as well as seven presentations geared for parents.
Salavantis deserves praise for such a concerted effort to keep the issue front and center at a time when many may have forgotten the outcry of last summer. Halligan’s crusade stems from his own son’s suicide in 2003 at age 13, and while he does not blame bullying, he believes it contributed.
Even without the shocking potential of teen suicide in the mix, bullying can be as devastating as it is devastatingly pointless, and efforts to curb it must be persistent and broad. By bringing Halligan to so many settings, Salavantis provides a timely reminder that the problem remains long after the headlines die down.