Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Does a feature story on one boy's bullying warrant coverage in the Times?

I read the feature on Monday about Billy Wolfe, and his horrible bullying saga…but I’m missing the point. At the end of the article, I went, “That’s it?” It ends with a quote by him, in reference to an incident where he opens a textbook to find hate message directed at him. Maybe because the article is making no judgments, just simply laying the story out there, is why it feels incomplete. What’s happening? What’s going to happen? It’s sad to say that in situations like this, many families move, but I completely agree with the Wolfes in that it is incredibly unfair to make them move and that the school is basically forcing them to do so, or to take such dramatic action as suing them.

The idea behind an article like this would be to highlight bullying. But I think the paper did a poor job of it—by focusing on one boy in particular, we only get his story, not even if it’s indicative of bullying levels across the country. His story needs to be tied into something larger—or maybe that’s just me expecting traditional journalism. “A Boy the Bullies Love to Hate” is part of Dan Barry’s “This Land” column, which tells human interest stories from all areas of the United States. Ok, sounds cool. But…what is the point Barry is making, other than publicizing Billy Wolfe’s case? That’s not a bad thing at all, and he’s doing it in a low-key way, even if the article is currently listed on their most-emailed list. From reading articles like this, it seems like bullying has increased, or maybe it’s just that it’s getting more coverage—which always skews perception and numbers. The story, like most bullying ones, is sad. What breaks your heart is that the kid is probably going to grow up with a lot of problems, thanks to what he’s experienced. Focusing on school is hard if everything school-related is a source of constant anxiety, and only doing well will spur others to further their harassment.

The article notes, in the issue of fairness, that some people think that Billy has contributed to his bullying; that is, he’s instigated or egged on his tormentors. I’m sure he has—what teenage boy doesn’t snarl an insult or hurl his fist when he’s reached his breaking point? It may not be right, but it’s true. It’s also true that sustained beatings for several years when clearly he is the only one needs some serious monitoring and some serious questions answered pronto.

Being the victim of bullying is always an unwinnable situation. You tell your parents or other authority figures, and just about whatever happens will come back to haunt you: you feel like a sissy, weak, a failure, but often it’s as a last resort. And whatever disciplinary action happens, it just makes others angrier and can possibly start a whole new level of agony. Even if the bully goes away, the lasting scars—and his friends—still linger.

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