The Bullied and the Internet
A car the color of a school bus pulls up with a boy who tells his brother beside him that he’s going to beat up Billy Wolfe. While one records the assault with a cellphone camera, the other walks up to the oblivious Billy and punches him hard enough to leave a fist-size welt on his forehead.

Yesterday the New York Times ran an article on their front page about Billy Wolfe, a 16 year old boy in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Billy has been knocked unconscious and had his cheek split open by classmates of his school. When the article was published, Billy could not even get to school before being beaten by one student, while another filmed it on his cellphone. To make matters worse, "Judging by school records, at least one official seems to think Billy contributes to the trouble that swirls around him."

Within the hour, Metafilter posted this thread, one of the few I have ever commented on. But reading the story of Billy brought back memories, so many horrible memories that I had managed to forget, and I found that I had to write, even briefly, about being more concerned about staving off other students than recovering from a major surgery while I was in a wheelchair for 2 months with a medal rod sticking out of my foot.

I was going to write about my experiences bullying, experiences that almost resulted in my suicide, the shock that I had forgotten so much of it, the force with which these memories returned, the sadness that 20 years later school officials are still condoning and allowing such behavior to continue instead of calling the police. If this kid had so much as whispered the word "bomb", he would have been suspended due zero-tolerance policies, but someone beats him unconscious and the school blames him. Furthermore, most of commenters were sure that Billy's situation would deterioriate thanks to the attention and the NYT article.

But someone on the thread pointed out that Billy has a Facebook profile. I immediately went there and added him as a friend.

Within 24 hours of posting, the thread had generated over 200 comments many of which detailed stories of bullying. When I added Billy as a friend, he had only 9 other friends. Currently, he has 60, 29 of whom go to his school. There's even a Facebook group "just for everyone who likes Billy and doesn't think it's fair just because he's different he gets picked on" which was created by a female friend.

While it's too early to tell, it seems that the article and the thread have actually helped Billy. Perhaps the article inspired other bullied kids in the school, kids who had withdrawn in order to protect themselves, to reach out to others in a similar situation. Maybe all the stories of bullying will not only alleviate the horrible shame and isolation of these kids, but change the atmosphere of the school from a place where the physical abuse of another student is a form of entertainment to a place where students might actually learn in a safe environment without fear of a concussion.

Possibly that is too much to hope, but yesterday I didn't have the hope for even that.

Yesterday I was filled with a feeling of futility about the fate of the bullied, about craptacular school officials who dismiss this behavior as "just something kids do" rather than assault and abuse. Today, I think that maybe the Internet and social networking sites may provide new options and support networks for kids who would otherwise lose hope. And this prospect alone is an anodyne for the bitter memories that this story resurrected.

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