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Published September 01, 2012, 11:40 PM

InDepth: Local woman discusses the pain of being bullied, and how it made her a better person

MOORHEAD - Emily Kjonaas was bullied most of her life. Many of her Moorhead Junior High School classmates threw garbage, rocks, ice and snow at her. They called her Godzilla and spit on her locker. One classmate kicked her knee so hard it hyperextended, and Emily fell to the floor in pain while classmates laughed.

By: Anna G. Larson, INFORUM

About the "InDepth:Bullying" series

Bullying can happen to anyone, anywhere.

With more attention on the issue nationally, people are stepping up to prevent bullying in schools, workplaces and beyond.

Today, Monday and Tuesday, SheSays looks at the effects of bullying, what causes bullying and how to deal with the behavior.

MOORHEAD - Emily Kjonaas was bullied most of her life.

Many of her Moorhead Junior High School classmates threw garbage, rocks, ice and snow at her. They called her Godzilla and spit on her locker. One classmate kicked her knee so hard it hyperextended, and Emily fell to the floor in pain while classmates laughed.

She went to bed early almost every night, crying herself to sleep and hoping that she wouldn’t wake up.

“The demons inside of me nearly caused me to end my life,” she said.

Emily’s late childhood years were dotted with stays in psychiatric units due to depression and suicidal thoughts or attempts.

“A 10-year-old shouldn’t have to think about ending their life when they have so much life left to live,” she said. “But I did.”

Bullying is hugely destructive to a child, said Wendy Troop-Gordon, assistant professor of psychology at North Dakota State University.

“Kids who are bullied are suffering terribly,” she said.

Bullied children are at risk for drug use, alcohol abuse, suicide ideation, self-harm behaviors, truancy, academic decline and dropping out of school, among other risky behaviors Troop-Gordon said.

Emily turned to food for comfort and often faked sickness in order to avoid school. Her fake sickness sometimes turned into a reality because she was so upset.

“I spent those days depressed in my bed and hating the world,” she said.

As the bullying intensified, Emily told principals, counselors and teachers at the school. She also relayed the names of the students who bullied her.

“They (school officials) said they would do something about it, but they never told me what they did,” Emily said. “I don’t think they ever did anything because the bullying continued. I didn’t get apologies. They said it was confidential.”

Pam Gibb, the communications coordinator for Moorhead schools, said in an email to The Forum that information pertaining to a particular students in incidents like Emily’s are confidential.

Because of data privacy mandates, schools typically tried to keep matters as confidential as possible, mainly in an effort to protect the victim from further retaliation, said Scott Matheson, the student assistance counselor/coordinator for Moorhead High School.

Now, with the statewide bullying law in place in Minnesota and the district’s revised bullying policy, Matheson said there is a clearly defined step-by-step series of increasing consequences given to habitual bullies. He also said the Safe and Healthy Learners department of the Minnesota Dept. of Education has a checklist for parents to follow to make sure district administration is doing everything possible to prevent the bullying from reoccurring.

“We have put a lot of time and energy into bullying prevention,” he said.

When school officials wanted to talk to Emily about bullying, they called her over the intercom.

“Everyone would hear it and say ‘Oh you’re in trouble,’ ” she said.

Matheson said that the way the district utilizes the intercom has greatly changed since Emily was in school. Students are now privately given passes to come down to the administrative offices at a designated time. The pass system is used generically, for many reasons like parents picking up students.

“It does not carry the stigma of hearing your name pronounced over the loudspeaker,” Matheson said.

When it seemed that school officials weren’t acting on Emily’s situation, she told her mother about the bullying. Emily’s mother called the school when incidents occurred, but the bullying continued. Eventually, Emily stopped telling her mom and school officials about the bullying because she felt nothing was changing.

When victims of bullying feel like nothing is changing, it’s common for them to stop communicating their situation, said John Altendorf of Altendorf Counseling in Fargo.

“It lends itself to a lack of support,” he said. “Support at home and in the schools is a huge part of overcoming bullying.”

While Emily had the support of her mother, the lack of support at school left Emily confused, angry, hurt and upset, she said.

“I couldn’t understand what I did to make my classmates hate me enough to be so hurtful,” she said. “I was angry that the bullying continued and that my school didn’t seem to do anything.”

Today, the Moorhead School District has shifted its focus to providing more support for the victims of bullying rather than just focusing on punishing the person doing the bullying, Matheson said.

“We need to walk with students who have been bullied,” he said.

Besides support, it’s also important for victims to realize they are not the source of what is causing people to exhibit bullying behavior, Altendorf said.

“People bully because they have a lack of self-esteem,” he said.

In turn, Altendorf said, bullies often try to diminish the self-esteem of their targets.

For Emily, the bullying did exactly that. She said she hated herself and her life.

“I wanted my life to end because I felt that no one would care that I was gone,” she said.

There was one person at the school, Emily said, who showed he cared about her. Her seventh-grade English teacher would stand in the hallway between classes and talk to her, making sure the other students were behaving. After school, Emily would go to his room to do homework in safe environment.

“He witnessed me being bullied, and he seemed to be doing something about it,” she said. “He was the reason I didn’t kill myself – someone cared.”

By the end of her freshman year of high school, Emily decided she had a decision to make. At a class retreat, she contemplated her decision as a microphone was passed around the room so that students could speak.

A female classmate stood up and said she was sad that everyone was mean to Emily. Tears streaming down her face, she said their behavior hurt her, too. Next, Emily took the microphone.

“I remember this as though it happened last week – I got up there,” Emily said. “That’s when I had to choose if I was going to let it anger me or not.”

Emily told her classmates she had forgiven them for what they did, and she thanked them for making her a better person as a result of the bullying.

“But, I told them it still hurt, and they’d never know how bad it hurt,” she said.

After that, many of her classmates stood up and apologized to her, Emily said. It was then that the bullying finally stopped for the most part.

In high school, Emily made a few friends but still largely kept to herself and walked the halls with her head down.

“Because of bullying, I became shy,” she said.

Group atmospheres like malls trigger negative feelings for Emily today because she feels like people stare at her, but she said she’s gotten past bullying.

She currently works at CCRI, a Moorhead-based caregiving nonprofit, and just started the nursing program at Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Moorhead.

“In a twisted way, I’m kind of thankful I was bullied,” she said. “It’s made me compassionate, caring and loving. It was hard, but I did have to choose to take life as it comes.”