NEW YORK — When Mitt Romney was a good-looking teen in the buttoned-up ’60s, corporal punishment was the norm and bullying had a different, more acceptable name: hijinks.
Yet in today’s zero-tolerance world when it comes to, well, just about everything, things haven’t changed all that much for young victims of bullies. Definitions have tightened, become law, but bullying is far from over.
“Bullying’s never going to go away,” said one crusader, ex-Marine James McGibney, a dad who founded a new social network, BullyVille.com, where victims can find help. “What makes it a million times worse is the advent of the Internet.”
There was no Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or sexting when several fellow students at a posh Detroit-area prep school say 18-year-old Romney led a boy posse to hold down one among them perceived as different and snip off his bleached blond hair.
The victim, John Lauber, is dead now, but The Washington Post reported when it broke the story that he was “perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality” and screamed for help. Though he eventually left the school — kicked out for smoking a cigarette while Romney was not punished — indications are Lauber simply endured, as many of today’s victims are forced to do despite the flood of anti-bullying campaigns in schools and out, advocates said.
Romney said he can’t recall the incident but did participate in “hijinks” in his younger days. Later, he told Fox News that if he was involved, he’s sorry.
Lee Hirsch, director of the recent documentary “Bully” that spotlights several intense cases, said the Republican presidential candidate’s response to the controversy falls short.
“I would really invite Mitt Romney to see the movie. This weekend,” he said. “This is an extraordinary opportunity for him to really lead and to help redefine the way, unfortunately, too many Americans still see bullying.”
Romney has said that his Mormon faith was deepened and his life’s outlook altered for the better soon after the reported Lauber incident, when a van he was driving in France was in a crash that killed a passenger and nearly killed him as well.
And certainly ideas about bullying have changed in the intervening years, especially following the suicides of several bullied gay teens.
“Back in the day you would get beaten up or punched in the yard and you’d tell a teacher and they’d just tell you to suck it up, you know, or that’s just what boys do or that’s just how girls are and ‘You two knock it off,’ and that was the extent of it,” said psychologist Jerry Weichman, who works with adolescents at the Hoag Neurosciences Institute in Newport Beach, Calif.
Some of that still exists today, he said, though there are usually more tangible consequences for bullies, along with a greater awareness of “what’s appropriate and what’s not,” but many young victims remain terrified to speak out, contributing to a higher prevalence of depression, anxiety, cutting and suicides.
“There’s still that level of embarrassment there, where you don’t want to go public with it,” he said, because the backlash on the Internet is so great and savvy young perpetrators are better at flying under the radar of punishment.
According to the National Education Association, 160,000 kids stay home from school every day because of bullying and 42 percent have been bullied online. One in five teens has been bullied at school in the last year.
While the victims in Hirsch’s film suffered outright, some with the knowledge of grown-ups who failed to act, those bullies in zero-tolerance atmospheres do know how to avoid adults.
“Now they’ll do shoulder-checking, tripping. Just subtle stuff but consistently where it’s really hard to see and really hard for somebody else to see,” said Weichman, 36, a victim himself as he endured teasing and physical abuse at the hands of high school peers over his prosthetic leg.
Like Weichman, Hirsch sees a tipping point as the national conversation about bullying has amped up.
The country is poised for change, the advocates said, though zero tolerance may not be the answer.
“Schools feels helpless and lost and they really don’t know what to do about this,” said Rob Goldman, 44, a New York City area attorney who serves as a court-appointed psychologist for the Suffolk County court system.
Part of his job is find other ways through, including victim and perpetrator meeting, talking and working out their differences rather than the more common punitive approach.
“As a kid I had swastikas drawn on my locker when I was in public school,” he said. “My principal said, ‘Suck it up, Goldman. I was called a wop in school and I survived.’ I had a recent case where, guess what, a kid had swastikas drawn on his locker.
“We need to focus on prevention,” he said, “the power and the ability to forgive and move forward.”