By Kay Hocker

Teasing and taunting. “Four eyes!” “Thunder thighs!” “Fag!” Games of keep-away with your shoes. Shoving and tripping.

How many of us make it through school without a legacy of war stories to tell our grandchildren?

Bullying often seems to be an inevitable trial of growing up, like chicken pox or acne. If we just endure it, someday we’ll graduate to adulthood and it will all go away. In the meantime, toughen up. Dealing with graffiti on your locker will build character and teach you to overcome hardship.

But is bullying really inevitable? Should we accept it as a normal part of childhood? Should we look for the silver lining and tell our kids that the schoolyard scuffles make them stronger and train them to deal with conflict?

The Diversity Council’s reply is an emphatic “No.” Bullying is unequivocally unacceptable, and it’s the responsibility of every one of us to create a culture that makes that clear to our children.

Half of all children experience bullying at some point, and one in ten is bullied regularly. And the problem is growing as cyberbullying opens new frontiers. More than half of all teens admit to online bullying.

Cyberspace makes it all so much easier. Taunts can reach a much bigger audience, much faster. The bully is able to remain anonymous and do the cruel deeds in private. Bullies are also screened from the consequences of cruelty, unable to see the immediate pain in the victim’s face that might otherwise inhibit them.

As for making our kids stronger, research demonstrates the opposite. Children who have been bullied experience higher rates of sleeping difficulties, depression, headaches, stomach pains, and low self-esteem.

Academically, children pay a price too. The National Education Association estimates that 160,000 students miss school every day out of fear of bullying. A Rochester fourth-grader wrote about the problem of teasing at school: “People discriminate against people about their size and a lot more. I know it hurts me, it affects my grades, and I can’t think straight.”

Another student explained, “It feels like your locked in a cage, and the more teasing, the cage gets smaller and smaller.”

The perpetrators are not immune from the effects either. Bullies are at higher risk for depression, substance abuse, delinquency, and psychological problems.

And sadly, these consequences are only the beginning. Studies show that victims of bullies are between 2 and 9 times more likely to consider or attempt suicide. Participating in the act of bullying has also been linked to higher rates of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

The tragic side of bullying was brought home to Minnesotans in July of this year when Jason Aaberg, a 15-year-old student from the Anoka-Hennepin County School District, hanged himself in his bedroom. He had been systematically harassed at school for his sexual orientation.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Nonsense. Too often, bullying kills.

Can we stop bullying? Should we bother trying, or is it hardwired into children’s brains?

Research shows that anti-bullying programs make a difference. The Scandinavian countries, which began using widespread anti-bullying curricula in the 1970s and ’80s, now have some of the lowest bullying rates in the world.

The Rochester school district has a comprehensive anti-bullying policy, aimed at those who condone or support the actions of the bully, as well as at the aggressors.

The Diversity Council also partners with the school district to offer our Spark! program to K-12 students once a year. Spark! teaches kids to recognize and stand up to prejudice of all kinds, whether it’s based on weight, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or anything else. Our 4th- and 7th-grade lessons focus specifically on the problems of teasing and bullying.

But once a year is not enough. To make a deep impact, research shows that anti-bullying messages must be consistent and widespread. We must establish a culture that does not tolerate bullying, a culture that encourages children to report bullying without being brushed off as ‘tattletales,’ a culture that takes bullying seriously and encourages adults to actively intervene.

Schools, parents and the community at large all have a role to play in creating that culture.

Children take their cues from adults around them. Appearance is the most common reason for bullying, with four in 10 teens reporting seeing students harassed for the way they look. What messages are we sending to our kids about the importance of appearance?

Children also absorb prejudices from the adults they respect. What do the children around us hear us saying about immigrants, or Muslims, or Republicans? Are we sending them a message that hostility and cutting criticism are OK?

It’s up to every one of us to make sure that we’re creating a culture of respect for our children. If we want to change what’s happening in our schools, the change must begin in us. Bullying can be stopped, but it will take all of us working together to make it happen.

Kay Hocker is executive director of Rochester’s Diversity Council.