WASHINGTON — Sirdeaner Walker was cooking dinner on April 6 when she went upstairs to check on her 11-year-old son, Carl Walker-Hoover, who'd gotten into a fight that day at school and seemed upset.
All year, bullies had been making his life miserable, calling him a "faggot" and threatening to kill him, and when Walker went upstairs, she found Carl with an extension cord wrapped around his neck, hanging from the ceiling.
"What could make a child his age despair so much that he would take his own life?" said Walker, of Springfield, Mass.
On Wednesday, Walker and others came before two congressional education subcommittees to tell them that bullying is a national crisis. School officials, the witnesses said, must halt what they called an atmosphere of complacency that can have devastating effects on children long into adulthood.
The subcommittees are considering the Safe Schools Improvement Act, a bill sponsored by Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., that would allow states to use federal grant money to gather data on and respond to bullying, as well as require schools to notify parents when their children are being bullied.
Experts say that bullying can cause children to become withdrawn and to struggle in school, and can have a lifelong impact. Sixty percent of middle school-age bullies had criminal convictions by age 24, according to a 1993 study, and adults who were bullied as children have higher rates of depression and lower self-esteem than those who weren't bullied, said a 2001 study on the health consequences of bullying.
To combat this problem, students must step in when they see bullying, instead of ignoring it or laughing along with the bullies, said Josie Andrews, 14, and Jackie Andrews, 16, school safety advocates from Haddon Heights, N.J., and the daughters of Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J.
Rona Kaufmann, the principal of William Penn Senior High School in York, Pa., and Steve Riach, founder and board chairman of the Heart of a Champion Foundation in Dallas, said that programs they'd started were extremely effective in reducing violence and bullying because they focused on changing the attitudes of the bullies, teaching them to understand how hurtful bullying can be.
Scott Poland, an associate professor and the coordinator of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, said that adults became part of the problem when they ignored or overlooked bullying or viewed victims as problem students. Walker agreed, saying that Carl's school wanted to suspend him for five days and then have him sit down with his tormentor to work things out. Those ideas clearly weren't effective, she said.
"I did everything that a parent is supposed to," Walker testified. "I chose a good school; I joined the (parent-teacher organization); I went to every parent-teacher conference; I called the school regularly and brought the bullying problem to the staff's attention. And the school did not act. The teachers did not know how to respond."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY