When headlines surfaced in early November that Isabella "Izzy" Tichenor, a 10-year-old Black and autistic child, died by suicide after experiencing relentless unaddressed bullying, the nation mourned. Learning that her mother, Brittany Tichenor-Cox, contacted the Utah school and district where Izzy was bullied on several occasions and never received an effective response left Black and disabled communities with a particular type of pain. Hundreds, including the Utah Jazz, Ibram X. Kendi, and Holly Robinson Peete, used #standforizzy across social media to bring attention to the devastating consequences of bullying and thousands of others sent donations to the family GoFundMe.
Isabella's story joins others, like those of 9-year-old Mckenzie Adams and 8-year-old Gabriel Taye, that painfully demonstrate a national failure to support Black kids who are experiencing bullying. Hearing stories of the tragic deaths by suicide of Black children makes it clear that we must explore the link between racial identity and bullying in a more nuanced way and deeply consider the relationship between bullying and suicide as well.
Research suggests Black children might be bullied at rates twice as high as their white peers. A recent survey of 500 parents found that 40 percent of Black parents reported their children experiencing bullying, and the majority were so concerned about bullying, racism, and quality of education that they were hesitant to return to in-person school after the end of pandemic-related closures. Black children are also expressing an influx of reports of race-based bullying across the country. And even when race isn't an overt factor, it may be affecting how seriously schools take concerns.
The CDC warns that suicide-related behavior is complicated and rarely the result of a single source of trauma or stress. A recent report by their Division of Violence Prevention, is clear, however that "youth who report any involvement with bullying behavior are more likely to report high levels of suicide-related behavior" than their peers who do not experience bullying.
The Effects of Bullying on Black Children
Bullying can make children feel small, decrease self-esteem, and influence the way they see themselves. The impact can show up in their emotions, their identity, and their behaviors. Though bullying is unacceptable in any context, Black parents are expressing a particular set of concerns and are lacking a particular type of support when their children are victims of bullying. The lack of support is often intensified in situations involving race-based harassment
Vonnice Boone of Bentonville, Arkansas, experienced this kind of lack of action from the Bentonville school district after learning her 12-year-old, Darius, was harassed and physically assaulted on the school bus. Soon after the incident, she received a video of it. "The child choked my son and pinned him down. How do I know all of this? A child videoed it then sent it to Darius," she wrote in an Instagram post.
Since Darius was bullied, only his doctor checked in on his mental and emotional health. Even though it seems that the teachers and counselors at Darius's school didn't take the situation seriously, experts say such situations should certainly cause concern.
Cindy T. Graham, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and the CEO/founder of Brighter Hope Wellness Center, says bullying is considered one of the adverse childhood events (ACE) which are associated with the development of trauma and can lead to an increase in anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Being on the receiving end of bullying also increases the likelihood of bullying others.
Bias in Assessing Signs of Distress
Symptoms of anxiety, depression, and similar signs of mental distress may be misperceived in Black children. As a result, typical trauma responses brought about by bullying can be viewed as aggression, opposition, or defiance rather than distress, according to Graham. She says parents should watch for a sudden worsening in the child's grades or completion of schoolwork as a sign that something is going on.
Controlling symptoms of stress because of external expectations can feel like internal policing for Black children, who are already policed in society. "Black children can be left feeling as though they do not belong no matter where they are," says Graham. "In effect, the policing of Blackness both outside of and within the Black community removes 'safe spaces.'"
Jamilia J. Blake, Ph.D., professor of Educational Psychology at Texas A&M University, says schools fail to address Black students' needs because they fail to respond to Black parents appropriately. She says Black parents' involvement is not valued in many schools. As a result, they are alienated. "This is about the ways in which schools are equipped to address racism and bullying, low-level forms of violence in the school, and their comfort with doing so," says Blake. "And also their willingness to truly partner with families to identify interventions."
Family-School-Community Partnerships as a Solution
Research confirms that successful anti-bullying campaigns require collaboration between schools and parents. In the wake of 10-year-old Izzy Tichenor's passing, her community has emphasized the use of the SafeUT app, a mental health resource for students and parents. But for programs to truly be effective, Blake says we must ask educators to have a deep understanding of and training in equity, diversity, and anti-racism.
Social emotional learning (SEL) programs, which teach children social skills and self-management techniques to use in their interactions with others, helps reduce bullying and provides coping skills to victims of bullying. When teachers use culturally responsive curriculums, students are able to actively acknowledge bias and discuss real-world issues. Students can then explore issues through their own cultural lenses and, ultimately, feel more comfortable at school.
When Black parents are heard and taken seriously, they can see and name emerging behaviors and effectively work toward developing solutions. Family-school partnerships are a missing link.
Vonnice Boone is taking every step she can to ensure his school district takes what happened to her son Darius seriously. After contacting his school district, she escalated the issue. "I went to the police department to file a report on the incident, and they told me that the police downplayed the circumstance,"she says. Boone also sent a letter and a video of the abuse to the superintendent, the entire school board, and even the mayor of Bentonville. Not long after, the superintendent called requesting that she take it easy on the bus driver. The investigator assigned by the mayor found evidence of battery, a third degree misdemeanor. But no effort has been made to repair what happened to Darius.
Izzy Tichenor's passing highlights the issues surrounding bullying and the widespread failure to support Black children and their families in a painful way. And, it is clear, through Darius's experiences, that school leaders and officials are still failing to listen to Black parents. "I'm disappointed that the driver claimed he knew nothing and that the school hasn't done much but suspend the kid," says Boone. "I honestly want to give up, but I need to start a campaign to support other students."
Like millions of Black parents, she'll never stop fighting to be heard.
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