EVERETT, Wash. – “Go kill yourself,” said Gary Vander Giessen, is the insult his 7th grade granddaughter heard daily before committing suicide. The family of Vylit Vander Giessen blame bullying for the death of their loved one.
The young girl’s death is part of a disturbing trend, said one psychologist, that can’t be left for schools to solve.
“There’s something going on in our schools early, that children are led to believe it’s OK to bully, it’s normal,” said Vander Giessen.
Vander Giessen said his granddaughter was told she was worthless and worse at school and on social media before her death.
“A kid may think this way of communicating is normal. No it’s not,” said Gregory Jantz, a child psychologist and author.
Jantz said it’s not normal for any kid to hear destructive and hurtful messages, but it is becoming increasingly more common.
“One out of three kids will say they’ve been a victim of bully behavior,” said Jantz, adding that it’s usually worse online.
“Kids will do and say things online they won’t do in person.”
Vander Giessen said the bullying was so bad before Vylit’s death that her parents took away her cellphone and deleted her Facebook page out of protection. Jantz recommends that parents do the opposite when faced with bullies.
Jantz said parents should allow children to use cellphones and computers and monitor their behavior. Depending on age, he said, set permissions and only allow certain parent-approved apps.
He said no cellphones should be allowed in a child’s or teen’s room overnight. He suggested creating a charging station in a place like the kitchen where cellphones will remain overnight. Between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., he said, social media activity peaks among teens.
It’s important to take away the temptation, he said. It also gives parents the ability to preview any overnight notifications and messages a child may receive before getting their phone back in the morning.
He said with monitoring, parents should be talking to their children often about online activity.
“We do it once a week around the table, we call it digital dinner,” he said. “We talk about anything related to the digital world and social media.”
He said start the conversation by asking open-ended questions. He suggests avoiding using the word “bully,” which may contain negative or embarrassing connotations with teens. Ask what things kids are doing online and what they are saying and ask if they’ve ever received a message that made them upset.
If they have, said Jantz, then as a parent you can address who needs to be involved to resolve the problem, like the school district.
“I have found just letting them know can be helpful,” said Jantz. “Don’t expect the school to be able to stop it. That’s not going to be realistic.”
In Washington state, school districts are required by law to have policies in place to deal with bullying. According to the state schools superintendent's office, in the 2014-2015 school year, 588 students were suspended for bullying in Washington state; 153 students were expelled.
The Lynden School District officials said they are meeting with parents to discuss their bullying policies and procedures in light of Vylit’s death.
Yjr Everett School District said they made revisions to their bullying and harassment policies in June 2015, one month after a 7th-grade student committed suicide.
Gary Vander Giessen said talking to the school district didn’t seem to help Vylit’s situation.
“The school districts don’t have any claws anymore, any teeth, they can’t do anything except for talk,” he said.
Jantz said it needs to be parents leading the charge for change in and out of schools.
Vander Giessen is hoping by talking about Vylit, her short life will serve as an example for why bullying needs to be addressed.
“I hope that it stops, that it ends here,” he said.