Middle school can be a place for learning, discovery and friendships. But for some kids, it can also be a place of cruelty, loneliness and fear.
Aislyn Doeur: “You’re supposed to feel comfortable. And like you’re scared to walk in the hallways. …I was scared that I wasn’t going to have any friends.”
Jacob Kaufman: “It just got to that feeling of desperation, and pretty much hopelessness.”
Genesis Johnson: “I was so scared I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know who to go to.”
Johnny Cagno: I wasn’t accepted at school. I couldn’t be who I am. …I was very, very scared to go to school every day.
Johnny Cagno is an eighth grader at Birchwood Middle School in North Providence, Rhode Island. The school opened its doors last winter and gave “48 Hours” unprecedented access.
“48 Hours” spent six months at Johnny’s school because middle school is often ground zero for bullying.
“You’re judged constantly,” Johnny told CBS News correspondent Tracy Smith. “Whether it’s your orientation, your clothing, your — well, how you look, you know, everything.”
Since he can remember, Johnny has always been made to feel different.
“Growing up, you play sports. If you don’t play sports, then you’re weird or, you know, you just don’t fit in,” he explained. “And all through my life, that’s how it’s been. I don’t fit in.”
For most of his life, Lisa Cagno says her son was interested in things most boys weren’t.
“Kids would call him a girl because he was hanging with the girls, or say that he was weird,” she told Smith. “He wanted to be home makin’ a costume or a prop for a play. …The boys were all playin’ ball and runnin’ around and he would say, ‘Ma, why — you know, why don’t I like doin’ this? Why don’t I like playin’ ball?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, honey. It’s just not your thing and, you know, do what you wanna do, what makes you happy.”
But what made Johnny happy also brought out the bullies.
“Oh,’ you’re gay. You’re a fag,’ you know, just constant remarks and rumors,” he said.
“Why do kids like to use that word?” Smith asked.
“‘Cause it hurts. They know it hurts,” he replied.
Already pushed out of two other schools because of bullying, Johnny was nearing his breaking point by the time he began seventh grade at Birchwood in the fall of 2009.
Asked what was going through his head, Johnny said, “A lot of self-hatred. … Like I hated myself. I thought it was me. I thought that it was just the way I am and nobody likes me ’cause of it.”
“That somehow you brought this on yourself?” Smith asked.
Lisa Cagno says Johnny was hurting himself. “He was cutting himself…
and he would just [say], ‘I hate myself, I don’t wanna live anymore. I hate my life. Nobody likes me, no one cares about me.’ And I just — I would just have to constantly just reassure him. I couldn’t get those feelings out of his head.”
“And you can’t fix it,” said Smith.
“And not only you can’t fix it, but you’re driving him to school every day, dropping him off… What was that like?” Smith asked Lisa.
“Horrible. Just so horrible,” she replied. “I felt like everyday I was sending him off to war.”
Lisa knew Birchwood could be her son’s last chance. If Johnny was going to survive, she needed the school’s help.
For school social worker Liz Vachon, Johnny’s case was a wake-up call.
“His case was the case that changed everything,” Vachon said. “That was the point when I recognized that this is really serious. … It’s the first time, really, I had parents coming in asking for help on their child’s behalf.”
“I said we have to do something system wide,” Vachon told Smith. And once she started speaking out about bullying, she suddenly saw the true scope of the problem. “It went from 30 percent of bullying to about 70 percent of bullying cases coming forward.”
“All my friends didn’t like me,” said Aislyn, “like, I was nothing anymore.”
Aislyn, Alexa, Jacob, Tyree and Genesis were among those who came forward. They had countless stories about bullying.
“You’ve been called names, right?” Smith asked Genesis Johnson.
“Oh boy” she replied. “Every name in the book, basically. …Like stupid, fat, ugly.”
Aislyn: “They took all my best friends. …They would just come on the computer and throw words at me.”
Alexa Papgiotis: “She just started, like, calling me names. …Like, ‘You’re so fat. You’re so ugly.'”
Jacob: “He ran up to me, and pushed my books on the ground. And then started kicking my friend in the leg.
Tyree Berdecia: “I felt that if I bullied people, that they wouldn’t bully me.”
Aislyn: “They just like completely like kicked me down to the point where I was like crying in my room because I had no friends.”
Alexa: “She did threaten me once that her cousin or someone was going to kill me.”
Jacob: “It got to the point where I was afraid to come to school.”
: “And you just start to believe it. And you just are so convinced, ‘Why am I living?’ And, like, especially when people say, ‘Go drop dead.'”
The stories these kids tell are all too common. Research shows one out of four children is bullied.
“There are still people out there who say this is just middle school drama. This isn’t so serious. How serious is this?” Smith asked Vachon.
“Well, it’s serious enough if parents are coming in and students want to hurt themselves and not come to school,” she said. “I would say that’s very serious.”
“You can’t have a student achieve when they’re going through something like this,” according to assistant principal Tonianne Moniz. “They don’t realize how much kids internalize this bullying. And the negative impact it has. …How a mean word, whether it’s spoken or in cyberspace, can feel, you know, as powerful as a gunshot.”
“They got inside my head,” Johnny told Smith. “I would say, ‘If I kill myself, I don’t have to deal with this, you know. I won’t have deal with the bullies every day.'”