Bullying and cyberbullying:
Samantha's story

Starting in 6th grade, Samantha Hahn was a victim of bullying - both online and offline - for years. Though she's way past it now as 2005 National American Miss Teen and a busy college student with plans to compete for the Miss New Jersey title, she's made it her cause to educate students, parents, educators, and law-enforcement people about the issue throughout her state. Her story is increasingly reaching a national audience. Here it is, in her own words....
Samantha Hahn
National American Miss 2005

"Everything in my life seemed normal. I was a normal kid from a normal home. But my "normal" life seemed to change overnight when I entered middle school. In sixth grade a rumor was started about me. The thing that shocked me most about this rumor was that my best friend fabricated it. The rumor quickly spread through my circle of friends, then throughout the school, and as quickly as the rumor spread, the bullying began. The effects of this rumor followed me for almost 5 years and into 3 different schools, and even now there are nights I relive the negative experiences in my dreams.

"Looking back after all these years, I still find it hard to believe that any of my friends would be the instigating factor of my bullying experience, but they were. They turned me into a victim and a target and made picking on me the 'cool' thing to do at school, until eventually even kids I didn't know became part of the bullying. Kids would say nasty and hurtful things to me in the halls and on the bus loud enough for other students and teachers to hear; yet no one came to my defense. I remember auditioning for the school show and a girl threatening to stab me just because I got the part she wanted. Everyone looked around at each other and giggled while I sat there mortified.

"When the verbal abuse didn't satisfy the bullies anymore, the bullying turned physical. I was pushed off the school bus, thrown against the glass doors of the school, and even suffered a concussion. I had food dumped on me in the cafeteria and rocks thrown at me. At one point, a boy threw scrap metal in my face. The physical bullying grew so serious that my parents ultimately had no choice but to transfer me to another school.

"Home was always my safe-zone. No matter how bad my day at school went or how mean kids were on the bus, I knew that all I had to do was open my front door and step inside to the one place I knew I would be protected. But when the bullying moved onto the Internet, too, my safe-zone was destroyed. The bullies had now invaded my home.

"Changing schools did nothing to stop the bullying, because the bullies found new ways to torment me. For me, the worst part of being bullied was when it was on the Internet - cyberbullying - because you have no idea who your attackers may be. They can hide behind a screen name, remaining anonymous while the victim becomes increasingly vulnerable and defenseless. They can say cruel and malicious things, threaten, or even pretend to be other people. I received instant messages and emails saying, 'We're going to kill you'; 'I wouldn't go to the bathroom alone if I were you'; and 'you better watch your back.'

"So on the Internet, you have no idea who the bully is. You're in class looking at every student as if s/he's the enemy. Because of the bully's mind games, I started having nightmares and couldn't eat. I was physically making myself sick. The bullies got inside my head and made me paranoid, always looking over my shoulder wondering who the invisible attacker was. After receiving the bathroom threats, I refused to go to the bathroom while in school. My grades dropped drastically because I couldn't concentrate. I was frightened all the time and afraid to go anywhere by myself. This continued on and off from 6th grade all through high school. Some weeks were quiet, and I thought things might be calming down. I would think, 'Wow, maybe the bullies got tired of me and moved on to someone new.' But as soon as I got comfortable, the abuse would start all over again.

"As hard as I tried, I just couldn't escape the situation. I couldn't run away because there was nowhere to hide. You're probably thinking: Why didn't you just block the screen name or turn off the computer? Well, I did just that, and still the bullying continued. I would block screen names and in a matter of seconds a new one would be created. I would shut my computer off and not go on for weeks at a time but, as soon as I signed back on, the bullying started all over again.

"But I ask you: Why should the victim be the one to change his or her lifestyle? Doesn't that just tell the bullies they've won? It's not enough, nor is it fair for a victim to change his/her routine to accommodate bullies. The fact is, that only punishes the victim more. We need to change people's perception of bullying and start placing the responsibility and consequences on the bullies themselves. With the technologies of today - computers, Web sites, and cell phones - it is becoming easier and easier for bullies to seek out victims. Kids who might have been hesitant to participate in bullying in the past can now hide behind an anonymous screen name. With verbal or physical bullying you can see your tormenter. You can point them out to an adult or see them coming and run or hide. But because of the Internet's anonymity, cyberbullies can have the upper hand at all times.

"I am one of the lucky ones. Fortunately for me, my parents made sure they were around and involved. They reported the situation to the school and authorities, and they made sure I received counseling to help me deal with the stress of being bullied. Unlike many households today, where kids have their own cell phones and computers in their rooms, we had one computer and it was in the family room where the TV was. Even if I wanted to hide the bullying, it would have been almost impossible; my parents were right there in the room with me. They made it a point to be computer literate so they could help me more effectively and gave me the support I needed. With a bedroom door closed, some parents have no idea what is coming across their kids' computers or what texts are coming through their phones. A parent cannot help if s/he doesn't know the situation, and many kids won't ask their parents for the help they may need. The bullies know this and thrive on it.

"Being crowned National American Miss Teen for 2005 has allowed me the amazing opportunity to bring my message to kids who may be going through the same situations I went through in school. With my Tolerance/Anti-Bullying program, I travel throughout New Jersey speaking to students of all ages on my personal experiences and the effects bullying can have on people. And recently I was asked by the State of New Jersey to be the state's advocate for the 'New Jersey Cares About Bullying' program, a position I am honored to hold. I also work with i-SAFE, a national Internet-safet organiztion. Many kids think they are oversensitive and weak, or think that if they keep being bullied a secret it will eventually stop and disappear. I was one of those kids. But I can tell you, ignoring the situation does not make it disappear. The message I pass along is simple: If you are bullied, you are not alone nor do you need to deal with it alone. People are out there who will listen and help. And together we can work for change."

- Samantha Hahn

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