Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

(I wrote this PEOPLE Magazine piece in 1998. Have those 13 years made a difference?)

By Richard Jerome

Taunts, Bashings, Fear and Confusion: For American Teenagers, Coming Out Can Be a Harrowing—Yet Ultimately Liberating—Rite of Passage

Compact, with faintly Cagneyesque features, Jamie Nabozny has the look of a Dead End Kid and the soul of a social worker—which is what he wants to be someday. Certainly he has some familiarity with the field. At age 11, depressed and withdrawn, he ran away from home in little Ashland, Wis. He was quickly retrieved but tried to kill himself that same year, swallowing a handful of his mother’s Midol and prescription painkillers. By ninth grade, Nabozny had made two more suicide attempts and had spent three stretches in psychiatric wards.

Compounding his anguish was the abuse he endured at the hands of his schoolmates—taunts, shoves, beatings and, in his freshman year in high school, a galling humiliation. One morning when he went to the bathroom, he was accosted by two boys. “One pushed his knees into the back of mine,” says Nabozny, now 22. “I fell into the urinal, and another kid started peeing on me. I just remember sitting there, waiting for it to get over with.”

Nabozny’s shame, confusion and relentless persecution all grew out of one simple fact: He is gay.

Even in the best of circumstances, adolescence is a purgatory of hormonal and emotional turbulence. But for teenagers who are homosexual—and various estimates place their number at from 5 to 10 percent of U.S. high school students—it is a time of fear, shame and potentially devastating emotional hazards. According to the most comprehensive poll of randomly chosen youths—a 1995 survey of more than 4,000 students conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Education—the high school years are rife with abuse of homosexuals, some of it self-inflicted. Gay males and lesbians were five times more likely than straight kids to skip school out of fear for their safety and almost five times more likely to use cocaine. Even more alarming: According to the survey, a stunning 36.5 percent of gay and lesbian high schoolers try to kill themselves each year—this in an era when the openly gay Rupert Everett is a rising movie star and Elton John practically defines middle-of-the-road pop culture.

“People ask, ‘Well, isn’t it better today than it was a generation ago? Ellen is out on TV and so on,’ ” says Rea Carey, executive director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit clearinghouse for gay issues. “Some things are better, but there’s a tremendous backlash. As young people take courageous steps in coming out, they get slammed against a wall for doing it.”

Indeed, many Americans continue to view homosexuality as a character defect to be controlled or reformed. In June, for instance, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott likened gays and lesbians to “sinners, addicts and kleptomaniacs.” But the weight of research indicates that people don’t select their sexuality. “The evidence we now have strongly suggests that this is determined,” says University of Massachusetts (Amherst) professor of neuroscience Geert J. De Vries. “It’s not purely genetic, but there doesn’t seem to be any choice in the matter. One thing that is clear is that the brains of homosexuals and heterosexuals appear to be different. Studies suggest that homosexuals in many cases developed neurologically in a way that made them more likely to become homosexual.”

The issue of sexual orientation generally lies buried until kids enter puberty, when they find it increasingly difficult to ignore impulses that may seem strange and unwelcome. “I kind of started getting a feeling when I was in sixth grade—like walking down the hall I was supposed to be looking at Sue, and instead I was looking at John or Bob,” says Nathan Postell IV, now 21, of Raleigh, N.C. “By the time I was 14, I knew I was different. There was no question about it. I had crushes on my teachers—I just thought, you know, how attractive or masculine Mr. So-and-So was. I was like, okay, I’m gay, so now what do I do? One day I was watching Divorce Court, and this guy was leaving his wife for another man. He was swishing around and doing this whole thing, so I was kind of practicing how to swish. I just thought that was how you were supposed to do it.”

Sixth grade was also a pivotal year for Kelli Peterson of Salt Lake City. “I had a crush on my [female] friend instead of the boy all the other girls liked,” she says. “In the beginning I didn’t even have a word for what I was feeling. But then when I was about 13, I started hearing kids call other kids ‘fag,’ and I learned what it meant.” More than anything, she was terrified. “I thought all homosexuals were men and that they all had AIDS and were child molesters and lived in San Francisco,” says Peterson, now 20. “I also thought all of them were going to hell. I started going to church and praying not to be gay.” Working at it, she plastered her walls with pictures of Luke Perry and other heartthrobs. “Boys, boys, boys,” she told herself, “I’ve got to think about nothing except boys.” She even started dating them, but when kissing time arrived, she says, “I’d just turn my brain off. I couldn’t bring myself to get close to them.”

In hindsight, at least, Jamie Nabozny recalls feeling the first stirrings of homosexuality long before puberty. “I was like 6 or 7,” he says. “I was in school, and we played house. Everybody played house. It was the normal thing. But I knew I wanted to be married to a man. I said, ‘Why can’t I be a guy and marry a guy?’ I think the teacher looked down on it—like, ‘Well, that’s not how things are supposed to be.’ ”

It was the beginning of his downward spiral. “Once I realized I was different—and that other people realized—I became very introverted,” he says. Instead of socializing after school, Nabozny remained cloistered in his room: “I was afraid that if I participated, people would know more about me. That scared me.”

Most daunting of all was the prospect of discussing his sexuality with his family. Nabozny’s first impulse was to avoid the issue: One day when he was 11, he ran away to a friend’s home, a couple of miles from his family’s. He was brought home by a sympathetic juvenile officer who, after hearing Jamie’s story, lifted his burden and told Carol and Robert Nabozny their son was gay. “My parents started crying—they said they loved me and it didn’t matter,” Nabozny recalls. “But my dad said, ‘I think he’ll change. I think it’s a phase.’ ” Robert Nabozny concedes he was caught off guard. “It struck me hard,” he admits. “My first thought was ‘Not my son—ain’t no way.’ ” But Carol wasn’t surprised: “Being his mother, I knew something was different about him.”

For many young gays, gaining acceptance from their immediate families has gotten easier than it might have been a few years ago, though the moment of reckoning remains fraught with enormous anxiety. “How could I tell my parents I was gay?” says Kelli Peterson. “I didn’t even dare to admit it to myself.” But Randy Peterson and his wife, Dee, both 45, were actually relieved when, at 17, Kelli sat in a cafe and tearfully poured out her heart. Like Nabozny, Kelli had weathered taunts, schoolyard fights and despondency, and in March 1994 she had overdosed on painkillers, leading to a brief stay in a psychiatric clinic. “Suddenly I knew why she’d been so depressed, and my heart just ached for her,” says Dee, a mailroom supervisor at the University of Utah Hospital. “I was more upset when Kelli told me she was a socialist,” adds Randy, a copy editor at The Salt Lake Tribune who now believes that gay adolescents should come out sooner rather than later. “Pull the Band-Aid off all at once,” he says, “instead of a little at a time.”

Nathan Postell experienced the relief of full disclosure at 16—with a little help from the cable guy. “He had to rewire my room and my mom had to move my bed,” explains Postell, whose family was living in Brandywine, Md., at the time. “She found certain reading material.” A short time later, Sandra Gibson questioned her son while driving her car. “I said, ‘I’m gay—I like other men,’ ” he remembers. “I was sick to my stomach. I was nervous. I was shaking and I kept saying, like, ‘Oh, my God’ over and over.” But his mother proved broad-minded. “Her main question was, ‘So I’m never going to have grandkids?’ By the time we got home, she said, ‘Nathan, it’s going to be okay. I still love you.’ ” Says Gibson simply: “He was still Nathan.”

Yet the world outside the home is often less tolerant. Sometimes insult turns into assault.

At 16, Willi Wagner didn’t blend easily into the crowd on the streets of Fayetteville, Ark. Six feet tall, with shoulder-length hair and two-inch nails (often polished in glittery colors), he was fond of dressing in eccentric garb—including long robes. “I just loved the whole Egyptian thing and that angular look,” says Wagner (who at 17 now favors a clean-cut style). He has been open about his gayness since ninth grade and has no regrets. “The better you know who you are, the better you’re going to be with other people,” he says.

Still, he paid for his candor. Mostly the harassment was verbal, and Wagner gave as good as he got. “They’d call me a faggot and I’d call them a hick,” Wagner says. “One time a guy wrote ‘Willi is a fagot’ on the blackboard. I just loved that he couldn’t even spell it—I never let him forget that.” But things turned ugly, as police photos attest, on Dec. 2, 1996. At about 11:30 a.m., Willi and some friends were walking to Fayetteville’s Hog Wash Laundry (a coin laundry that serves hot dogs) when eight teenage boys piled out of a car and a blue pickup. After one hollered “Come here, you f—king faggot,” five of them formed a circle around Wagner while the others attacked him. “One of the kids was kicking him in the back with cowboy boots,” says Fayetteville Police Det. John Gentry. “That’s pretty bad.” Wagner was left with a black eye, bruised kidneys and his nose broken in two places. “I could feel my nose crack,” he says. “It was not a good feeling.”

Two juveniles were sentenced to probation for the assault, which was covered widely by local media. (“I’m the local famous fag,” says Willi sarcastically.) Wagner and his parents, Bill, 44, a Wal-Mart optician’s assistant, and Carolyn, a homemaker, who turns 45 on Aug. 15, have received abusive phone calls and had anti-gay screeds stuffed in their mailbox. Enraged, Carolyn pressed area merchants to post “Hate-Free Zone” signs. “I have to work every day,” she says, “at not hating the haters.”

The travails of kids like Willi Wagner and statistics on gay adolescent suicide moved some Dallas educators to open Walt Whitman Community School, “the only private school in the nation for gay teens,” says director Becky Thompson, 47. After a year her enrollment numbered 15 students, and this fall she expects it will rise to 20 or 25. “Right now,” Thompson says, “we’re on a hope and a dream.”

Despite all the obstacles, it is still possible to grow up gay, healthy and safe within the educational mainstream. At 20, Jeremy Ferguson, a native of Everett, Wash., north of Seattle, appears fully at ease with his homosexuality. “My school had a respect policy,” he says. “There was zero tolerance for harassment.” Ferguson thrived in that climate, editing the school paper and getting himself elected a student parliamentarian. He was secure enough to bring a male date to the senior prom—they wore matching tuxedos—and for a year or so Jeremy sold ads for the Seattle Gay News. (He now works for a San Francisco pharmaceutical company.) He also spoke on behalf of Hands Off Washington, a group that worked unsuccessfully to pass a gay rights bill in Washington state. “I knew Jeremy was going to do something big with his life,” Julie Ferguson, 42, says of her son. “I just didn’t picture he’d be a gay activist.”

In fact, an increasing number of young gays have become activists, on the theory that society may not fully accept them unless it is pushed. Kelli Peterson—who once begged God for deliverance from her homosexuality—might seem an unlikely firebrand. But after coming out to her parents and peers (“I’m a lesbian!” she blurted to her startled drama class one day, exasperated by years of innuendo), Kelli grew more at ease with herself. Soon, Peterson and about 20 other students formed a gay-straight alliance, which they hoped to have formally recognized by their school. “When Kelli tried to start the club, I started calling her ‘Kelli Rosa,’ as in Rosa Parks,” says Barbara Murdock, then her creative-writing teacher. “She refused to sit at the back of the bus.”

The Salt Lake City School Board was not enthusiastic: Rather than recognize Peterson’s group, it voted 4 to 3 to ban all extracurricular clubs—the only way it could ban the club without running afoul of federal civil-rights statutes. “I took the board’s decision as a declaration of war,” Peterson says. “It made me an activist.”

Now studying psychology at Salt Lake City Community College—and dating schoolmate Mary Callis, 17—Peterson speaks frequently at gay-rights rallies. She succeeded Greg Louganis as spokesperson for the Gay/Lesbian Straight Teachers Network) and in 1997 won a $5,000 Playboy Foundation Hugh Hefner First Amendment Person of Conscience Award. (“No,” she says, “you won’t be seeing me as centerfold.”)

But no American adolescent has had more of an impact on the plight of his gay peers than Jamie Nabozny. After a beating in his junior year forced him to undergo exploratory abdominal surgery, he left Ashland High for good. Time and again, he and his parents had complained to school officials about the relentless harassment, but nothing was done to protect him. Finally Nabozny sued the Ashland school district. The case was thrown out, but in July 1996 he won a landmark victory in a federal appellate court in Chicago, which held that schools and school officials could be sued for failing to address anti-gay abuse. “That blows my mind—it was the first time the government ever acknowledged gay teens,” says Nabozny. He pursued his action in federal court, which found the administrators guilty of discrimination but did not hold the school district liable. Nabozny settled for $900,000 and now tours the country speaking on gay issues. “This one kid in Texas came up to me and said, ‘When I was in high school, I had the biggest picture of you on my locker. Every day the thing that got me through all of my classes was knowing you were going to be there.’ ” Jamie Nabozny knew how important that was, because nobody but his family had been there for him.


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On Thursday, March 10, President Obama, the Department of Education, and the Department of Health and Human Services will welcome students, parents, teachers and others to The White House for a Conference on Bullying Prevention.  The conference will bring together communities from across the nation who have been affected by bullying as well as those who are taking action to address it.

Participants will have the opportunity to talk with the President and representatives from the highest levels of his Administration about how all communities can work together to prevent bullying.

I wrote this article for PEOPLE Magazine in 2001. Sadly, it’s just as relevant today.

Disarming the Rage

By Richard Jerome

Across the Country, Thousands of Students Stay Home from School Each Day, Terrified of Humiliation or Worse at the Hands of Bullies. In the Wake of School Shootings, Parents, Teachers and Lawmakers Are Demanding Quick Action

In the rigid social system of Bethel Regional High School in Bethel, a remote town in the tundra of southwest Alaska, Evan Ramsey was an outcast, a status earned by his slight frame, shy manner, poor grades and broken family. “Everybody had given me a nickname: Screech, the nerdy character on Saved by the Bell,” he recalls. “I got stuff thrown at me, I got spit on, I got beat up. Sometimes I fought back, but I wasn’t that good at fighting.” Taunted throughout his years in school, he reported the incidents to his teachers, and at first his tormentors were punished. “After a while [the principal] told me to just start ignoring everybody. But then you can’t take it anymore.”

On the morning of Feb. 19, 1997, Ramsey, then 16, went to school with a 12-gauge shotgun, walked to a crowded common area and opened fire. As schoolmates fled screaming, he roamed the halls shooting randomly—mostly into the air. Ramsey would finally surrender to police, but not before killing basketball star Josh Palacios, 16, with a blast to the stomach, and principal Ron Edwards, 50, who was shot in the back. Tried as an adult for murder, Ramsey was sentenced to 210 years in prison after a jury rejected a defense contention that he had been attempting “suicide by cop,” hoping to be gunned down but not intending to kill anyone. Still, Ramsey now admits in his cell at Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward, Alaska, “I felt a sense of power with a gun. It was the only way to get rid of the anger.”

Unfortunately Ramsey is not alone. Children all over the country are feeling fear, hopelessness and rage, emotions that turn some of them into bullies and others into their victims. Some say that is how it has always been and always will be—that bullying, like other adolescent ills, is something to be endured and to grow out of. But that view is changing. At a time when many parents are afraid to send their children to school, the wake-up call sounded by the 13 killings and 2 suicides at Columbine High School in Colorado two years ago still reverberates. It is now clear that Columbine shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris felt bullied and alienated, and in their minds it was payback time.

In recent months there have been two other horrifying shooting incidents resulting, at least in part, from bullying. On March 5, 15-year-old Charles “Andy” Williams brought a .22-cal. pistol to Santana High School in Santee, Calif., and shot 15 students and adults, killing 2. He was recently certified to stand trial for murder as an adult. His apparent motive? Lethal revenge for the torment he had known at the hands of local kids. “We abused him pretty much, I mean verbally,” concedes one of them. “I called him a skinny faggot one time.”

Two days after the Williams shooting, Elizabeth Bush, 14, an eighth grader from Williamsport, Pa., who said she was often called “idiot, stupid, fat, ugly,” brought her father’s .22-cal. pistol to school and shot 13-year-old Kimberly Marchese, wounding her in the shoulder. Kimberly, one of her few friends, had earned Elizabeth’s ire by allegedly turning on her and joining in with the taunters. Bush admitted her guilt and offered apologies. A ward of the court until after she turns 21, she is now in a juvenile psychiatric facility. Kimberly, meanwhile, still has bullet fragments in her shoulder and is undergoing physical therapy.

As school enrollment rises and youths cope with the mounting pressures of today’s competitive and status-conscious culture, the numbers of bullied children have grown as rapidly as the consequences. According to the National Education Association, 160,000 children skip school each day because of intimidation by their peers. The U.S. Department of Education reports that 77 percent of middle and high school students in small mid-western towns have been bullied. And a National Institutes of Health study newly released in the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals that almost a third of 6th to 10th graders—5.7 million children nationwide—have experienced some kind of bullying. “We are talking about a significant problem,” says Deborah Prothrow-Stith, professor of public health practice at Harvard, who cites emotional alienation at home as another factor in creating bullies. “A lot of kids have grief, loss, pain, and it’s unresolved.”

Some experts see bullying as an inevitable consequence of a culture that rewards perceived strength and dominance. “The concept of power we admire is power over someone else,” says Jackson Katz, 41, whose Long Beach, Calif., consulting firm counsels schools and the military on violence prevention. “In corporate culture, in sports culture, in the media, we honor those who win at all costs. The bully is a kind of hero in our society.” Perhaps not surprisingly, most bullies are male. “Our culture defines masculinity as connected to power, control and dominance,” notes Katz, whose work was inspired in part by the shame he felt in high school when he once stood idly by while a bully beat up a smaller student.

As for the targets of bullying, alienation runs like a stitch through most of their lives. A study last fall by the U.S. Secret Service found that in two-thirds of the 37 school shootings since 1974, the attackers felt “persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured.” In more than three-quarters of the cases, the attacker told a peer of his violent intentions. William Pollack, a clinical psychologist and author of Real Boys’ Voices, who contributed to the Secret Service study, said that several boys from Columbine described bullying as part of the school fabric. Two admitted to mock-Klebold and Harris. “Why don’t people get it that it drives you over the edge?” they told Pollack. “It isn’t just Columbine. It is everywhere.”

That sad fact is beginning to sink in, as the spate of disturbing incidents in recent years has set off desperate searches for answers. In response, parents have begun crusades to warn and educate other families, courts have seen drawn-out legal battles that try to determine who is ultimately responsible, and lawmakers in several states—including Texas, New York and Massachusetts—have struggled to shape anti-bullying legislation that would offer remedies ranging from early intervention and counseling to the automatic expulsion of offenders.

One of the most shocking cases of victimization by bullies took place near Atlanta on March 28,1994. That day, 15-year-old Brian Head, a heavyset sophomore at suburban Etowah High School, walked into his economics class, pulled out his father’s 9-mm handgun and pressed it to his temple. “I can’t take this anymore,” he said. Then he squeezed the trigger. Brian had been teased for years about his weight. “A lot of times the more popular or athletic kids would make him a target,” his mother, Rita, 43, says of her only child, a sensitive boy with a gift for poetry [see page 59]. “They would slap Brian in the back of the head or push him into a locker. It just broke him.” Not a single student was disciplined in connection with his death. After his suicide, Rita, a magazine copy editor, and her husband, Bill, 47, counseled other parents and produced a video for elementary school students titled But Names Will Never Hurt Me about an overweight girl who suffers relentless teasing.

Georgia residents were stunned by a second child’s death on Nov. 2,1998. After stepping off a school bus, 13-year-old Josh Belluardo was fatally punched by his neighbor Jonathan Miller, 15, who had been suspended in the past for bullying and other infractions. In that tragedy’s wake Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes in 1999 signed an anti-bullying law that allows schools to expel any student three times disciplined for picking on others.

On the other side of the continent, Washington Gov. Gary Locke is pressing for anti-bullying training in schools, following two high-profile cases there. Jenny Wieland of Seattle still cannot talk of her only child, Amy Ragan, shot dead at age 17 more than eight years ago, without tearing up. A soccer player and equestrian in her senior year at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, Amy was heading to the mall on the night of Nov. 20,1992, when she stopped at a friend’s apartment. There, three schoolmates had gathered by the time Trevor Oscar Turner showed up. Then 19, Turner was showing off a .38-cal. revolver, holding it to kids’ heads, and when he got to Amy, the weapon went off. Turner pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and served 27 months of a 41-month sentence.

“I can’t help but wonder what Amy’s life would be like if she was still alive,” says Wieland today. “I wonder about her career and if she’d be in love or have a baby.” Wieland turned her grief into action. In 1994 she helped start Mothers Against Violence in America (MAVIA), an activist group patterned after Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She left her insurance job to become the program’s director and speaks annually at 50 schools. In 1998 she became the first director of SAVE (Students Against Violence Everywhere), which continues to grow, now boasting 126 student chapters nationwide that offer schools anti-harassment and conflict-resolution programs. “People ask how I can stand to tell her story over and over,” she says. “If I can save just one child, it’s well worth the pain.”

Not long after Amy Ragan’s death, another bullying scenario unfolded 50 miles away in Stanwood, Wash. Confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy, Calcutta-born Taya Haugstad was a fifth grader in 1993, when a boy began calling her “bitch” and “retard.” The daily verbal abuse led to terrible nightmares. By middle school, according to a lawsuit Taya later filed, her tormentor—a popular athlete—got physical, pushing her wheelchair into the wall and holding it while his friends kicked the wheels. Eventually Taya was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder. “Imagine that you can’t run away or scream,” says her psychologist Judith McCarthy. “Not only was she traumatized, she’s handicapped. She felt terribly unsafe in the world.” Her adoptive parents, Karrie and Ken Haugstad, 48 and 55, complained to school authorities and went to court to get a restraining order against the bully, but it was never issued. Taya sued the school district and the boy in 1999. The judge awarded her $300,000 last year, ruling that the school was negligent in its supervision, thus inflicting emotional distress. (The ruling is under appeal.) Taya, now 19 and a high school junior, hopes to study writing in college. She says she holds no grudge against her nemesis, who received undisclosed punishment from the school. “I don’t think about him,” she says.

But Josh Sneed may never forgive the boys he refers to as the Skaters. It was in 1996, late in his freshman year at Powell High School in Powell, Tenn., when, he says, a group of skateboarders began to terrorize him. With chains clinking and baseball bats pounding the pavement, he claims, they chased him and threatened to beat him to death. Why Josh? He was small and “a country boy,” says his homemaker mother, Karen Grady, 41. “They made fun of him for that. They told him he was poor and made fun of him for that.”

Then on Oct. 17,1996, “I just snapped,” her son says. As Jason Pratt, known as one of the Skaters, passed him in the cafeteria, Sneed whacked him on the head with a tray. “I figured if I got lucky and took him out, all the other nonsense would stop.” But after a few punches, Josh slipped on a scrap of food, hit his head on the floor and lost consciousness as Pratt kneed him in the head several times. Finally a football player leapt over two tables and dragged Sneed away, likely saving his life. Four titanium plates were needed to secure his shattered skull, and he was so gravely injured that he had to relearn how to walk and talk. Home-schooled, Sneed eventually earned his GED, but he hasn’t regained his short-term memory. Assault charges against both him and Pratt were dismissed, but Pratt (who declined to comment) was suspended from school for 133 days.

Grady sued the county, claiming that because the school knew Josh was being terrorized but never disciplined the tormentors, they effectively sanctioned the conditions that led to the fight. Her attorney James A.H. Bell hopes the suit will have national implications. “We tried to make a statement, holding the school system accountable for its failure to protect,” he says. In February Sneed and Grady were awarded $49,807 by a judge who found the county partly at fault. A tractor buff who once aspired to own a John Deere shop, Josh now lives on his grandfather’s farm, passing his days with cartoons, video games and light chores. “Everybody’s hollering that they need to get rid of guns, but it’s not that,” he says. “You need to find out what’s going on in school.”

Around the country, officials are attempting to do precisely that, as many states now require a safe-school plan that specifically addresses bullying. Most experts agree that metal detectors and zero-tolerance expulsions ignore the root of the problem. Counseling and fostering teamwork seem most effective, as evidenced by successful programs in the Cherry Creek, Colo., school district and DeKalb County, Ga. “We create an atmosphere of caring—it’s harder to be a bully when you care about someone,” says John Monferdini, head counselor at the DeKalb Alternative School, which serves 400 county students, most of whom have been expelled for bullying and violent behavior. Apart from academics, the school offers conflict-resolution courses and team-oriented outdoor activities that demand cooperation. “Yeah, I’m a bully,” says Chris Jones, 15. “If I’m with friends and we see someone coming along we can jump on, we do it. It’s like, you know, an adrenaline rush.” But a stint in DeKalb is having a transformative effect. “When I came here, it was because we beat up a kid so badly—sticking his head in the bleachers—and the only thing I wished was that we’d had a chance to hurt him worse before we got caught. That’s not the way I am now.”

One wonders if intervention might have restrained the bullies who tormented Evan Ramsey. Ineligible for parole until 2066, when he’ll be 86, Ramsey, now 20, spends most days working out, playing cards, reading Stephen King novels and studying for his high school diploma. He also has plenty of time to reflect on the horrible error in judgment he made. “The worst thing is to resort to violence,” he says. “I’d like to get letters from kids who are getting problems like I went through. I could write back and help them.” His advice: “If they’re being messed with, they have to tell someone. If nothing’s done, then they have to go [to] higher and higher [authority] until it stops. If they don’t get help, that’s when they’ll lose it and maybe do something bad-really bad. And the pain of doing that never really stops.”

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