RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA – Daniel Mendez was a Boy Scout, had plenty of friends, earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, played football and was consistently an honor student.
But that didn’t stop bullies from going after him, calling him names such as half-breed, gay and mercilessly ridiculing him at Bernice Ayer Middle School in San Clemente.
When he reported the bullying to school officials, his life became “a living hell,’ friends would later tell his parents, Anna and Danny Mendez. He hid the ongoing abuse by saying he would “handle it.” But he couldn’t. On May 1, 2009, Daniel, a 16-year-old sophomore at San Clemente High, shot himself in the street in front of a friend’s home.
Daniel’s parents spoke Friday to hundreds at the Bell Tower Regional Community Center for the first annual South County Children and Youth Summit. Experts discussed bullying in school and on the Internet and substance abuse and drug awareness. The event was organized by Orange County Supervisor Pat Bates and the Orange County Children and Families Commission.
The California Healthy Kids Survey examined cyber-bullying at school districts across Orange County, finding that Laguna Beach Unified Schools students reported the highest rate, 25 percent, and Los Alamitos Unified School District students the lowest, 14 percent.
Bullying data show that 60 percent of middle-school students say they have been bullied, while 16 percent of school staff believes students are being bullied. Nationally, Nearly 200,000 students stay home from school every day because of bullying. About 20 percent of students have considered suicide within the past 12 months according to data gathered on bullying at behavioral-management.com
While bullying often starts in the schools, it often accelerates on the Internet and on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, said Wade Walsvick, an investigator for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Child Exploitation Task Force. He told parents they must be vigilant about monitoring what their children do online. He said that lack of monitoring leaves them unaware of threats such as bullying and online predators.
“By monitoring their children, it gives them a ‘fly on the wall perspective,’” he said. “All kids’ lives are online now. If something is going on, you’ll know. In all the cases we get, we find that kids have a secret life that parents don’t know about.”
Walsvick suggests that parents install monitoring systems that record each keystroke, Facebook post and Tweet. Systems can be purchased online or at stores such as Fry’s and Best Buy, he said. These programs are programmed to send parents detailed reports each day on their children’s activities.
Shortly before Daniel Mendez died, he had started using Facebook. His parents monitored chats and his grandmother had heard some threatening voicemails. They knew that some of the bullying was continuing, but Daniel down-played it saying he was in control.
On the day he died, he had told his mother he had wanted his grandmother to pick him up from school at lunchtime, Anna Mendez said. He said he wanted to miss Spanish class but be taken back to his math class. His parents suggested he just stay there all day and go to all the classes,
Later through Daniel’s friends, the Mendezes learned that an altercation occurred during the time he had wanted to be away from campus, hours before he took his life.
What the Mendezes most want other parents to understand is that while statistics often show children who are physically smaller, have learning disabilities or are homosexual might be more targeted for bullying, children such as Daniel are just at much at risk. In Daniel’s case, he hid some bullying from his parent because he blamed himself.
“He felt like there was something he was doing that was causing kids to single him out,” Anna Mendez said. “That’s why bullying is the perfect crime, because victims begin covering it up. They lose self-esteem, suffer anxiety and self-loathing. The person starts to not like himself and it becomes a downward spiral.”
She points to school programs that address bullying, such as The Cool 2 Be Kind Club that some of Daniel’s friends started in his memory at San Clemente High. That program recently was given the Ambassadors of Peace Award by the Orange County Anti-Violence Coalition for its work in stopping bullying. Data show that schools with anti-bullying programs have reduced bullying by 50 percent.
Still, she said more needs to be done. She is hopeful that school staff and the psychiatric community take bullying more seriously.
Bullying leads to post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological problems, Mendez said.
“I don’t care how solid a child is, it will affect them. If it’s not specifically diagnosed and treated, the effects on the victim can be devastating, and like Daniel can lead to death.”
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