Robert Frenette is 19 now, but he clearly remembers quivering the morning he started kindergarten in Bathurst, N.B. Frenette was born with cerebral palsy and started walking only when he was three. He worried that the other kids would see him as different and pick on him. By the end of that first day of school, when an older boy shoved him to the ground, his worst fears had been realized.
The bullying, taunting and teasing continued for years, right into high school. In Grade 9, a student called him Crazy Legs, a nickname that stuck for years. Once, two students tried to burn the back of Frenette’s neck with a lighter. “The bruises go away,” he says, “but the emotional abuse stays with you.”
Frenette, now a journalism student at New Brunswick Community College, is doing something to help others avoid such pain. He and 17-year-old Katie Neu, who lives in Ontario, founded a website called Bullying Canada (www.BullyingCanada.ca). The site offers youth links to resources about bullying (such as organizations that support victims), a chat room to share their experiences and sections for news and stories.
Hundreds of emails a day arrive for Frenette and Neu from victims of bullying who are in despair and feel they have nowhere else to turn. Some are even feeling suicidal.
“I tell them they’re not alone and that it’s not their fault,” says Neu, who says her self-esteem was shattered by bullying. “I thought there was something wrong with me. I didn’t know how to stop it and it didn’t seem like anyone cared.”
According to Statistics Canada, bullying is a monthly, weekly or even daily occurrence for tens of thousands of Canadian children. Anywhere from 14 to 39 percent of students (depending on the province) report being bullied at school in the past month. That ranges from physical bullying (hitting, kicking, punching, pushing) to verbal bullying (insults, threats, slurs) to social bullying (gossiping, spreading rumours, exclusion).
Neu, like Frenette, experienced it all. She now takes online classes at home through the local school board. Until she started doing that, in 2007, her school life was a torment. She was bullied relentlessly, everything from being called names to being tossed in a garbage can to physical injury; a girl once even tried to break her arm.
“I was literally the school punching bag,” says Neu. “If you wanted to be popular, you bullied me.”
In the summer of 2006 Frenette was visiting family friends in Neu’s hometown and learned of her from a mutual acquaintance. He called her and the two discussed their common experiences. Their ongoing conversations sparked the idea to create a website to give other bullying victims a resource and a voice, and to raise awareness of the issue.
Despite having been bullied for years, neither Frenette nor Neu harbour ill feelings towards bullies. You never know, they say, if bullies themselves have been bullied, or if they bully as a result of low self-esteem or other problems. But they do want bullies, as well as schools, to realize the toll that bullying can take.
Neu says she was sick at least once a week from stress and fear. Her grades suffered. Most nights she cried herself to sleep. Yet somehow she had the inner strength to rise above it. Bullies wanted to snap her like a twig, she posted on the Bullying Canada website, but “the twig never snapped…I couldn’t let them win.”
Frenette says he is gratified if the website has prevented even one child from being bullied. After graduating, he would like to focus his journalism on his twin passions of education and youth. In the meantime, he continues to act as a voice for victims of bullying through the website and by talking at schools and conferences on youth violence.
Like Frenette, Neu plans to study journalism. She dreams of starting a newspaper one day that will be filled with only good news. For now, the best news she has for any victims of bullying is that there’s help.
“People do care,” says Neu. “Being bullied isn’t normal-and it can be stopped.”