At 38, Rock Hill resident Veronica Morris is still dealing with trauma from being bullied in elementary and middle school. She lives with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Morris was diagnosed with bipolar disorder along with PTSD and has a psychiatric therapy dog named Hestia. Morris also volunteers as president of the nonprofit Psychiatric Service Dog Partners, which advocates for and educates people on psychiatric service dogs.
“I was bullied really badly starting in fifth grade going until about ninth grade,” Morris said. “I was bullied not only by the students, but also by the teachers. It definitely has affected me years and years later.”
Morris said she recalls an incident where her fifth grade teacher made her stand in front of the class because she had been crying. The teacher allowed other students to laugh at her. Morris also said a male student tried to strangle her as they worked on a school project.
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Morris never told her parents.
“At that point, I was so used to the bullying, I figured I deserved to be bullied,” she said. “I didn’t realize it wasn’t something that every other student was going through. I thought it was just normal.”
Bullying is considered unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children. It includes a real or perceived imbalance of power, according to the Stop Bullying website from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Power can be defined as popularity, physical strength, or one child having embarrassing information about another, according to the department of health.
Bullying can be social, verbal or physical.
The department of health lists making threats, spreading rumors or attacking someone physically or verbally as forms of bullying.
Verbal bullying includes teasing, inappropriate comments or threatening to cause harm. Social bullying refers to a type of bullying that aims to hurt someone’s reputation or relationships and can include intentionally excluding someone, spreading rumors or publicly embarrassing someone, according to the health department.
Spitting, hitting or kicking and trying to break someone’s possessions are all considered types of physical bullying. Bullying behaviors are repeated, according to the health department.
No single factor puts a child at risk of being bullied, or bullying others, according to the health department. However, children may be more at risk of being bullied if they are perceived as different, weak, depressed or have low self esteem, or do not get along well with others.
Children may be more likely to bully others if they are well-connected to their peers, are overly concerned about popularity, or like to be in charge, according to the health department. Children who are isolated and may be anxious, easily pressured or have difficulty relating to the emotions of others also may be more likely to bully.
Fort Mill native Amelia Joubert, 20, said she has spoken to people who once bullied her in school and have since apologized.
“A lot of times kids want to fit in,” she said.
Joubert said people who face bullying, as she did, may already be dealing with a mental illness. Joubert lives with Dissociative Identity Disorder.
DID, formally known as Multiple Personality Disorder, is a condition characterized by the presence of two or more distinct, independent identities typically associated with the need to dissociate from childhood trauma, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Joubert, who graduated from Fort Mill High School in 2016 and now lives in Florida, said she was bullied often in middle and high school. She said people with mental illness can be more of a target.
Joubert recalls a time a peer wrote “kill yourself” in her notebook.
“It’s very important for people to know that a lot of the time, the kids who are targeted and who are sometimes considered weird or different are people who are already dealing with mental illness,” Joubert said. “People tend to be mean to people because they don’t understand them or might on some level be scared of them.”
Joubert said she felt isolated in grade school but eventually found people she could open up to. She now works with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and speaks to high school students.
“I know that if I had a better support system earlier, I wouldn’t have felt that I had to keep everything to myself for so long,” Joubert said.
Bullying and suicide
Bullying is not a direct cause of suicide, but can be a factor.
Alexandra Karydi, program director for the South Carolina Youth Suicide Prevention Initiative, said multiple factors -- bullying, disease or trauma -- along with a teen’s perception of those challenges may lead them to consider suicide. The Initiative is a federally-funded Department of Mental Health program designed to reduce suicide in youth and young adults 10-24 in South Carolina.
“All those things and how you perceive them could put you at risk of suicide,” Karydi said. “It depends on the person and how they perceive it.”
Teenagers are more susceptible to peer influence. That can make them more at risk for mental illness and suicidal thoughts, said Kristy Freeman, Piedmont Medical Center’s psychiatry director.
“They have less of a sense of self and are much more influenced by their peers and what their peers think of them,” Freeman said. “(Those opinions) can directly influence how you think and feel about yourself in a big way. Sometimes that peer group voice is louder to them than the adult voice around them.”
Children who are bullied can develop depression and anxiety, feelings of sadness and loneliness and health and academic problems, according to the U.S. health department. Children who bully are more likely to have criminal records as adults, drop out of school or abuse alcohol and other drugs.
Modern society also plays a role, Freeman said.
She said 30 years ago, students got away from bullying once they were at home. Social media now allows bullying to be constant.
Bullying in schools
Antwon Sutton, executive director of student services for the Fort Mill school district, said bullying does not include incidents such as students telling their peer they do not like him or her. A single joke about another student or disagreements between individuals or groups of students also are not considered bullying.
“(Bullying) is a buzz word that is being used in our society right now,” Sutton said.
Sutton said school administration will try to mediate and resolve incidents when possible.
“A lot of times it is a big misunderstanding,” he said.
To be considered bullying an action must be intentional and repeated, Sutton said. He said bullying usually includes one person or multiple people in a position of power.
Incidents must be reported so there is a record showing it has happened multiple times, Sutton said. Parents can help by telling school administrators when they suspect bullying has happened.
“The key thing is reporting,” Sutton said.
If an incident proves to be bullying, actions taken by the school will depend on the circumstances.
In Fort Mill, bullying is considered a level two, disruptive conduct offense and may lead to a meeting between the student, a school administrator and the student’s parent. Possible consequences of bullying include removing the student temporarily from class, in-school or out-of-school suspension, referral to an alternative education program or expulsion, according to the district’s policy.
Schools are focusing on teaching students coping mechanisms, said Karen Monahan, coordinator of psychological and related services for the Fort Mill school district.
“Bullying has been around since the (beginning) of time and we’re never going to eradicate that,” she said. “We’re better served focusing... on resiliency building and teaching kids how to respond when they are bullied or someone is mean to them.”
Morris said students also should stand up for their peers they see being bullied. Morris said she once had a birthday party where no one showed up because another student pressured her peers not to come.
“If someone’s doing that, than you show up to the birthday party,” Morris said. “If you see bullying happen, step up and say something.”
By the numbers
- 21 percent of students ages 12-18 experienced bullying (2015 School Crime Supplement from the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics)
19 percent of students in grades 9-12 report being bullied on school property (2017 Youth Risk Behavior survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
According to a 2017 youth risk behavior survey from the South Carolina Department of Education, 17 percent of high school students reported they had made a plan to kill themselves, and 15 percent of those have attempted suicide. In the same survey, students indicated bullying, fighting, feelings of sadness and hopelessness were some of the problems they face.