Amid the questions young students at Mitchell Road Christian Academy asked Hi-Lite Bruton about how tall he was, how many points he could score in a game and how he learned to do all those tricks with a basketball, it was one question from a child a third his size that made Burton turn as he was leaving the gym where he’d just given a talk about how to deal with bullying.
“Have you ever been bullied?” the child asked.
The 6-foot-7 veteran Harlem Globetrotter stopped slapping high-fives for just a moment to answer.
“Yes, I have been bullied.”
The moment illustrated just how much of an impact bullying can have on a student. Bruton, a Greer native, is the high-flying wizard and showman on the Globetrotters who won the 1994 NCAA Slam Dunk Contest. He was drafted by the Chicago Bulls and has traveled the world for the past 13 years with the Globetrotters.
Now Bruton takes his anti-bullying message to schools across the country, trying to reach children while they’re young so they don’t fall into the bullying trap.
Bullying can have long-lasting implications for children, including anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, said Susan Limber, a psychology professor at Clemson University and an expert on bullying and children’s rights.
“It’s not something that kids just grow out of,” Limber said. “It can have lasting harm. And of course, we worry about the kids who bully. Kids who chronically bully others are more likely to get into other, more serious trouble later on.”
The longer bullying persists, the worse it gets for students, she said.
A study published this fall by the Hazelden Foundation measures how widespread bullying is in U.S. schools. It shows nearly one in five students either has been bullied or bullies others.
And 39 percent of students who are bullied regularly say it has lasted for a year or more, according to the 2013 Status Report of Bullying in U.S. Schools, which Limber co-authored. The project anonymously surveyed 200,000 students from third through 12th grades.
Five percent of girls and eight percent of boys who are regularly bullied said they are hit, kicked or pushed.
More than 90 percent of girls say they feel empathy toward the person being bullied, and nearly as many young boys feel the same way, though the number falls off slightly among boys by high school.
But fewer students actually step in and help, some out of fear that they will be the next target, the report found.
Students said teachers don’t always put a stop to it, and fewer teachers step in as the students get older.
While half of students say teachers try to put a stop to bullying in elementary school, that number falls to 36 percent by high school.
Yet in South Carolina, 20.2 percent of high school students reported that they were bullied in school in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Bruton, with the Globetrotters, said it’s important to reach children in first through third grade before they develop bad habits.
That’s why the Globetrotters, along with the National Campaign to Stop Violence, developed a traveling program where players go into schools, perform a few basketball tricks and then get serious about bullying prevention.
Students at Mitchell Road sat on the gym floor and shouted back the anti-bullying ABC’s: Action, Bravery and Compassion.
Limber said programs like the ABC’s campaign can be helpful to change the culture of a school if paired with other comprehensive programs that teach students how to act and give bullied students a way to report bullies without having to confront them.
And despite media coverage that makes cyberbullying seem like the biggest threat to students nowadays, Limber said it’s actually the least practiced form of bullying students’ report.
Students are most often verbally bullied — called mean names — have rumors spread about them or are excluded from activities or groups, the study found.
On a list of 10 ways students are bullied, cyberbullying ranked last, with six percent of girls and four percent of boys saying they’re regularly victims of cyberbullying.
That doesn’t diminish its existence, though, Limber said.
“Kids who are involved in cyberbullying are, more often than not, involved in bullying in other ways,” she said.
While cyberbullying is the least reported form of bullying, girls reported that in high school cyberbullying is often laced with sexual references.
“Name-calling, rumor-spreading, social exclusion, those often bleed into the online sphere,” Limber said. “Kids don’t have a distinction between the online and the real world as many adults may or may think of, so these behaviors travel online and travel into the real school frequently.”
Just the threat of bullying can turn a school’s climate toxic, Limber said.
Fifteen percent of elementary school students who aren’t bullied said they fear they will be bullied at some point.
Every school’s approach may differ, but schools should start by surveying students to find out the extent that bullying exists, she said.
Then they should determine how comfortable students and parents are with bringing up bullying to school leadership and find ways to make it easier, like with the anonymous reporting program Greenville County Schools has started, she said.
“It’s incumbent for school personnel to investigate and get to the bottom of what’s really going on,” she said.