Effects of Bullying: What I Wish I Knew About Bullying Before Our Son Committed Suicide

After his son died, Kevin Epling dedicated much of his life to reshaping how communities think about—and address—bullying.

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Knowing the effects of bullying firsthand, anti-bullying advocate Kevin Epling played an integral part in getting 'Matt's Safe School Law' passed in Michigan. (Photo: MattEpling.com)
Kevin Epling is the national co-director and Michigan representative for Bully Police USA.

When my wife and I first started to speak out about the effects of bullying, we had to learn what “it” was because it was so different from when we were kids. Things have changed and become so much more vicious.

We found out very quickly that many adults, including those in school environments and law enforcement, were working with outdated information and methods.

All of this talk on the effects of bullying are very serious to us. You see, our son Matthew was assaulted by upperclassmen as a “Welcome to High School” hazing ritual in 2002. Forty days later, he ended his life. The connection was there but no one wished to see it. It was an assault plain and simple, yet it was brought on by years of “sanctioned bullying.”

There had been a history of the “ritual” at the school and it landed on our doorstep. We chose to speak out, but sadly we have seen it repeated time and time again across the country.

When it comes to bullying, adults have already failed miserably. For years, adults had not treated the effects of bullying as a serious problem, and the growing impact of cyber issues were ignored until it was far too late. By then, the students knew much more than we did. They exploited it and made it their own cruel art form.

The adults were outclassed and outgunned by the power of the cellphones their children used. (The average student has a far better phone than their parents. Why is that?)

Many adults fall into one of three “I” boxes: ill-informed about what bullying is, insecure about what to do about it, or just plain ignorant about the issue.

We need to rethink how we address this growing problem and how technology has fueled its growth. Adults, in particular, need to start over with a clean slate. We need to educate, engage and empower each other to push the process forward. Students can be some of the best teachers if we allow them.

What’s happening now is that everyone is in a rush to “tackle” bullying and to “bully-proof” their schools. They are grasping at programs rather than assessing what is causing the bullying behavior.

The strongest tool can be positive peer pressure. When every student in the school knows it’s wrong, and when the student body stands up for one another, great things can happen. The bullying problem cannot be placed solely on our youth; the adults must shoulder most of the blame and work with students to turn things around. 

The most important factor I tell adults is that when you choose to tackle this issue, you must understand it is a long-term commitment. This is not just something to teach or to highlight during the year as part of a program. It now becomes a part of the cultural shift of the school. From the superintendent to the bus driver, to the student and the parent—everyone has a role to play. Having one teacher or administrator dismiss the program in any way is a point of failure.

I am a realist, I know that we can never stop every incident of bullying or its effects from taking place. However, we can prevent the majority of it. We also will never be able to bully-proof our schools. That term denotes that schools are done—and schools will never be done. Bullying is something that will never go away.

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