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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

For Whom The (School) Bell Tolls

Joanna Ramos was laid to rest 8 days before what would have been her 11th birthday. A week earlier, she was rushed to ER after vomiting and complaining of a headache after a fight with a classmate. Her death has been ruled a homicide, the result of blunt force trauma to the head.

The fight, which was pre-planned to take place in a nearby alley between the end of class and the beginning of an after-school program, was witnessed by 7 students, including a friend of Joanna who said she and other friends tried to stop the fight but were held back by boys who wanted it to continue. The friend, Maggie Martinez, said "They took off their backpacks, and they put their hair in a bun, and then that's when they said `go' and that's when they started hitting each other." According to police, the fight lasted less than a minute, no weapons were used and neither Joanna or the other girl were knocked to the ground. Another of Joanna's friends noticed blood on her knuckles from wiping her nose as she reported to the after-school program said Cristina Perez, the friend's mother, who also says her daughter heard about plans for the fight during recess earlier in the day and knew to stay away from the alley after school. "We've just got to pay more attention to our kids too, not just dropping them off at the school. I'm always on my daughter, always," Perez, 30, said as she gathered with other concerned parents outside the school Monday. "I tell her, `You see a fight (and) you stay away from it.'" Police have interviewed the family and friends of both girls, and the witnesses of the fight, and there was no indication that Joanna was bullied in the matter prior to the fight.

According to Travis Brown, a national expert on bullying and school violence, fights involving young children, including girls, are increasing nationally. "Children used to have a disagreement at school and would have a night or a weekend to cool down, but social media and text messaging mean students can continue their dispute 24 hours a day. There was a time when a kid had a way to escape the things at school, but now there's no escape, that stuff just escalates to a point where it gets out of hand. This is an everyday occurrence."

Social media may be an enabler for disputes to escalate and continue beyond school grounds, but the potential for sites like MySpace and Facebook to be used for bullying or any type of harmful activity is well known and well documented and any parent whose child uses these sites needs to be fully aware of their usage. Parental involvement and monitoring in this age is more required than ever before and many parents believe they can relinquish responsibility once their kids are on school grounds. That responsibility should also be passed on to the kids going to school, because they are enablers as well when they know of these kinds of activities and take no action against it.

Aside from the most disturbing fact that a 10-year old girl has died from fighting with a classmate over a boy, there are many aspects of this type of situation that demand attention and change. More could have been done to prevent this tragic ending for Joanna, and more needs to be done in the future to prevent more senseless violence. The witnesses all knew about the fight and knew where and when it was happening, and nothing was done to stop it. The excuse of ignorance for not knowing either girl could have died is no longer valid.

Although there was no bullying reported that led up to the fight, online bullying is at an all-time high. A recent example of this was the suicide of 14-year old Jamey Rodemeyer of Buffalo, New York, who hung himself on his childhood swing set after being harassed and taunted for his sexual orientation after announcing that he was gay. Messages were left on his personal blogs urging him to commit suicide and calling him fat, gay and ugly. His story was told during an episode of "Oprah's Next Chapter" which was a spotlight on Lady Gaga and her efforts to fight bullying. Jamey was a fan of Lady Gaga, and posted a tweet to her thanking her for what she's done for Gay rights. She dedicated a performance to Jamey, telling the crowd "I just wanted to take a moment because we lost a little monster this week. Jamey, I know you’re looking down on us and you’re not a victim, you’re a lesson to all of us.” Lady Gaga, along with her mother, has started the Born This Way Foundation. As found on the webpage, "The Foundation is dedicated to creating a safe community that helps connect young people with the skills and opportunities they need to build a braver, kinder world." Regarding Jamey's death, Lady Gaga tweeted "Bullying must become illegal. It is a hate crime."

To continue with that same idea, bullying, like any crime, will only exist until it is no longer tolerated. I've been working on sending proposals to a number of outlets to reform the sentencing process for a number of crimes to send a theme of intolerance. Behavior can and will change when the option to continue negatively is no longer available. I hope the families and friends of
Joanna Ramos and Jamey Rodemeyer can find peace in time, and find joy in the memories they have, and the same to all families who have lost a child to bullying or school violence.

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