Walking down the halls at Freedom High School was a nightmare. Snickering and stares were like daggers into 17-year-old Tylar Sommers’ back.
This wasn’t the senior year she expected.
Constantly bullied by a core group of girls and what she describes as a lack of help from the school administration, Tylar Sommers’ senior year was spent fighting to just get through each day.
So on June 10, the once shy teenager decided to fight back – she refused to walk at her high school’s graduation, instead opting to pick up her diploma later that week.
“They were labeling me and they were trying to give me a bad rep. And I did have a bad rep. I lost all my friends, all because of what they were saying,” the teen said.
She felt judged by the rumors about her.
“I had no friends. I wanted a senior year that I could enjoy ... I [didn’t] have that, because they ruined it for me.”
Bullying comes to the forefront
Bullying has been in schools for decades. It wasn’t until the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado that parents and educators began taking a closer look at the problem. In the years that passed, more reports of teen suicides related to bullying began making headlines.
With the introduction of social media – Myspace, Facebook and YouTube – the problem grew.
The recent case of the Rutgers University freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate taped him with other men and posted it on Facebook and YouTube is an example of how someone can use social media to bully.
In Tylar Sommers’ case, Facebook was an integral part of being bullied.
Tylar Sommers was once friends with the group that allegedly bullied her in school. A tiff that began nearly two years ago over a cheating boyfriend left Tylar Sommers to confront a girl in her group.
The confrontation backfired.
On Facebook, the girls cursed her, call her names and tried to ruin her reputation. In school, the teen was abandoned. She had no friends and was left to face her senior year alone.
Tylar Sommers told her school counselor, the dean and the principal about the bullying – taking all the steps to get the problem addressed. There was even a meeting for her and her alleged bully with school administrators, with no resolve.
“They preach that they have a zero tolerance policy,” her father, Kent Sommers said. He said the school tried to turn his daughter into the scapegoat and make her change her life to get through school.
According to a University of Illinois Champaign report, Tylar Sommers’ feelings of neglect are not uncommon.
The report, “Bullying in Schools,” found that 25 percent of students felt adult intervention is infrequent and unhelpful. Students, according to the report, also feared that telling an adult would bring more harassment as a result of reporting the bullying.
Drs. Andrea Cohn and Andrea Canter of the National Association of School Psychologists reported in 2002 that 25 percent of teachers see nothing wrong with bullying and because of that, only intervene 4 percent of the time in bullying incidents. Cohn and Canter also say bullying is the most common form of violence in our society. Between 15 and 30 percent of students are bullies or victims, according to their studies.
Boys vs. girls
Dr. James McMurrer, medical director of Inova Kellar Center, a behavioral health center in Fairfax, says girls can be more intense with their bullying than boys.
“They can be very catty or clique-ish,” McMurrer said. “The spreading of rumors can be a major issue. There are a number of [ways of ] bullying: verbal, physical, emotional bullying. The girls tend to be more involved in the emotional bullying, where they’re spreading more rumors or ostracizing, some kids excluding some kids.”
McMurrer said bullies target the weakest or those who have low self-esteem, are insecure and have been rejected.
“In some schools there’s the mean girl group. They’re kind of arrogant female teens who feel they’re the coolest and sometimes they can be mean to other kids,” McMurrer said.
Tylar Sommers shared two classes with her bully. She also has a hearing disability that required her to have an assistant in the room with her during certain classes – making it impossible for her to switch classes and get away from the situation.
“Classes were so tense. I had to sit in the front of the classroom because of my hearing. She, [the bully,] just liked to sit just right next to me. I had to keep moving,” she said.
One day after school in October 2011, Tylar Sommers and her bully got into an altercation when the bully tried to pull out of a parking lot and almost hit Tylar Sommers’ car. Word quickly spread about the incident on Facebook, saying it was Tylar Sommers’ fault. In January, the bully allegedly followed Tylar Sommers home, threatening her and accusing her of putting dog feces on her car – which Tylar Sommers denied. Her step-mother, Dena Sommers, called the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office to intervene.
According to authorities, deputies responded to the incident, and a non-formal complaint was made. Tylar Sommers said she didn’t want to report her bully because she “wanted to be the bigger person.”
Drawing the invisible line
Posts on Facebook would read Tylar Sommers is two-faced, fake, rude and a liar.
“I didn’t think social media was so rude. I thought that all that stuff on TV shows were just ... wasn’t happening in South Riding,” Tylar Sommers said.
Bullying can be electronic, verbal or physical acts that happen in school, according to LCPS guidelines. But when bullying occurs outside of school, officials are struggling to draw the line of when to step in.
“It’s a gray area and comes in all shapes and sizes,” David Spage, LCPS director of high school education said. “Schools are seeing the spillover effect with tweeting and online [sources].”
According to Ted Feinberg of the National Association of School Psychologists Schools, principals are struggling to determine their authority over cyberbullying, but it, in turn, affects students in the school environment.
“School leaders cannot ignore cyberbullying but rather must understand its legal and psychological ramifications,” Feinberg wrote in an article for the association.
Bullying outside of school, like cyberbullying, will be addressed if it directly affects the operation of the school, according to LCPS guidelines.
After a meeting between Tylar Sommers and the bully, anything written on Facebook was removed without the administration seeing it, leaving Tylar Sommers without much proof against her attacker.
“It’s intimidation, it’s a form of bullying,” Tylar Sommers explained. “There were just some days I would see her on the way to history and be like, I can’t do this today. She got inside my head. I would come home crying.”
Tylar Sommers’ case was documented starting in October 2011. Her case was investigated by Freedom’s administration, but they found no evidence of her being bullied. Victor Powell, Freedom’s dean, in an email to retired Freedom High School Principal Christine Forester, said Tylar Sommers’ math teacher denied any signs of bullying in class. Documentation of the bullying trickled off by February.
Spage said principals act as mediators in situations of bullying. Less than 1 percent of students are subject to disciplinary actions such as expulsion, he said.
Spage said the main problem school system’s run into is when social media is involved.
“At our high schools our principals take any report of bullying, physical or verbal, seriously and handle it,” Spage said, pointing out that most of the bullying reported is through social media and the Internet.
Forester refused to comment about Tylar Sommers’ case. Other Loudoun County Public School Administration staff also refused to comment after repeated attempts.
Wayde Byard, public information officer for LCPS, said the schools cannot control what’s posted on Twitter or Facebook accounts – that comes from parental involvement. Many students think their Facebook or Twitter accounts are private – but they’re online for everyone to see, Byard explained. He said LCPS works with the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office if there are actual threats involved in a bullying situation.
The school system
The school system was aware of Tylar Sommers’ situation and brought the two girls together for mediation, Byard said.
But in the end, there was no resolution. The girls walked away still on unfriendly terms, the teen said.
They decided to avoid each other in school, which, according to Tylar Sommers, didn’t work.
The school had also done everything they could to get Tylar Sommers to walk for graduation, Byard said, offering to purchase her a cap and gown because she had refused to earlier in the year. They even offered to move her seat for graduation so she wasn’t near her bully, Byard said.
But in the end, Tylar Sommers felt the help she repeatedly asked for never came.
“I dealt with it way too long. It shouldn’t have gone on that long,” she said.
“‘You can’t say you’re a hero in the hallway because you’re letting me get bullied and you’re watching and I’ve approached you and done all the steps. Ms. Forester, I think you’re a bully,’” Tylar Sommers said she told her principal. “And I walked out of her office.”
What to do if you feel bullied or see someone being bullied …
•For the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services website on bullying visit stopbullying.gov
•For Loudoun School’s guidelines on bullying visit lcps.org
•If you know someone thinking of suicide or are yourself, call the LIFELINE at 1-800-273-8255.
•Freedom High School participates in Hero in the Hallway, which is a national anti-bullying campaign.
|The Loudoun Times-Mirror
is an interactive, digital replica
of the printed newspaper.Open the e-edition now.
Historic Downtown Leesburg