I Could Have Been Mallory Grossman

This column is written by Patch local editor Katie Kausch, who covers towns in and around Morris County. Kausch has been reporting on the Mallory Grossman case, from news of Mallory’s death, to the allegations of bullying laid out in a lawsuit filed by her family, to officials’ decision not to file charges in her death. In her piece below, she shares her story of experiencing cyberbullying, how it affected her as a teen, and her support for a law moving through the legislature that could make her case, and Mallory’s, a less frequent occurrence.

As a journalist, you learn to compartmentalize between the stories you report on and your own emotions. But sometimes, a story comes along that is so personal, so deeply touching that it breaks through whatever walls you’ve built, and you can’t help but just cry at the end of the day.

Mallory Grossman’s death by suicide has been that story for me. Because I could have been Mallory Grossman.

Mallory was a 12-year-old seventh grader living in Rockaway Township who was the victim of what her family has described as horrific bullying both in-school and online.

On June 14, 2017, Mallory killed herself.

Much like Mallory, I was bullied online when I was in middle school by girls I thought were my friends. They employed the same tactics as Mallory’s alleged bullies; in one instance, the girls told Mallory they’d all wear pink t-shirts and overalls, only to laugh at Mallory when she was the only one to follow-through. I once coordinated with a friend to buy the same concert t-shirt, only to be yelled at when we wore them on the same day.

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I was bullied before Snapchat and Instagram, which the Grossman family alleges Mallory’s bullies used, but I was in middle school at the peak of MySpace, one of the first social media networks to really take off. I had the misfortune of being the first-ever cyberbullying case my middle-school guidance counselor had ever seen.

Given how new social media was, the adults around me didn’t really understand how it was woven into the fabric of my social life; I was told to “just log off,” because if I wasn’t online, I couldn’t be bullied online. I saw dozens of comments from well-meaning readers asking why Mallory didn’t just get off of her phone when she was being bullied.

That reaction misses the point, Patchin Cyberbullying Research Center co-director Dr. Justin Patchin tells Patch.

“You don’t need to be on Instagram to be bullied on Instagram. If I log off, people can still be spreading rumors about me that I’m going to have to deal with the next day at school anyway,” Patchin said, adding the “log off” argument shifts the blame onto the bullied kid to keep themselves safe, instead of putting the onus on the bully to stop.

“What kind of message are we sending to our kids when we tell them if you’re being mistreated on Instagram, don’t go to Instagram. What are we going to say when they come home from school saying they have been bullied at school, don’t go to school?” Patchin said.

So much of a teenager’s social life occurs online, in addition to a large chunk of their academic and extracurricular life. But even for cyberbullied children, the internet can be a place of refuge, where they can find welcoming communities and friends they wouldn’t have met otherwise.

Just logging off also doesn’t work because cyberbullying hasn’t replaced in-person bullying; it’s just another tool in a bully’s toolbox. Mallory was bullied on Snapchat, but she was also bullied in the “traditional” settings, like the lunchroom and in choir class.

After sending her text messages and Snapchats telling her to kill herself, or that she has no friends, as a lawsuit filed against Rockaway Township schools alleges, the girls bullying her would then taunt Mallory to her face, calling her “ugly,” “fat,” “jiggly,” “rich white girl,” and “a bitch,” while kicking her chair constantly. They wouldn’t let her sit with them at lunch.

The pairing of in-person bullying with cyberbullying is fairly typical, Patchin said, and in-person bullying remains far more prevalent.

After a brief rise in the rates of cyberbullying between 2007 and 2012, a time-period that coincides with the rise of social media and the proliferation of cell phones, rates of cyberbullying petered out. It would be “quite rare” for someone to be cyberbullied without also being bullied in person, Patchin said.

“It’s been that way ever since we started studying both [in-person and cyberbullying] in about 2002. Every study we have done and every study that I’m aware of that other people have done, if we ask students, ‘have they been bullied at school and have [they] been bullied online,’ more say that they have been bullied at school than online,” Patchin said.

Cyberbullying tends to mirror the tactics real-life bullies have been using for decades. Some types of cyberbullying, like mean and hurtful comments, name-calling, and threats, are the same things bullies have always done, just in a different medium. Others, like bullies pretending to be the victim online, or creating harassing web pages, are unique to cyberbullying. The most common type of cyberbullying students say they experienced are mean comments and rumors, Cyberbullying Research Center study found.

One form of bullying is no worse than the other. It’s personal: what can cut one person to the core could be easily brushed off by another.

“A blanket statement that cyberbullying is worse than physical bullying or physical bullying is worse than cyberbullying is not really accurate,” Patchin said.

“It really depends on the person and the nature of the experience, and what we find in our research is the consequences, the outcomes, emotionally, psychologically, are very similar” for both types of bullying, he added.

Because cyberbullying typically happens off school property and on cell phones owned by the students and their parents, it can be hard for schools to “take ownership” of the issue. In Mallory’s case, the Grossman family alleges that bullies used their phones at school to take demeaning photos of Mallory and spread them during school hours.

New Jersey already has some of the strictest anti-bullying laws in the nation, but they’re still not enough. Dianne Grossman repeatedly reported Mallory’s bullying to school officials, but said in a lawsuit that she met with resistance from the school, who urged her not to file an official bullying complaint. Instead of taking action to punish the bullies, the onus was placed on Mallory to fix the situation, including allegedly forcing Mallory to hug the bullies.

When I was being bullied, it’s possible the other girl’s parents had no idea how their daughters were treating me online. But in Mallory’s case, they were. A lawsuit alleges that Dianne Grossman had approached one such parent the night before Mallory died. She was met with “resistance,” the lawsuit says.

Under Mallory’s Law, which passed in the Senate and is waiting on Assembly approval, those parents would not have legally been able to resist Dianne’s pleas for help. The bill would make parental involvement a requirement if bullying reaches a certain level of severity, as it did in Mallory’s case.

Under the new bill, parents could face civil liabilities if they show “blatant disregard of supervising their child, [or] if their child has been judged to be delinquent of harassment or cyber harassment,” a press release says, and parents would be subject to anti-bullying education classes.

The reporting and notification process for bullying incidents would also be expanded: any accounts of bullying would be sent to the executive county superintendent and the parents of any students involved.

Any student found guilty of bullying would have the incident placed on their permanent record. After three proven bullying incidents, a student and their parents would be required to attend an anti-bullying training session, and law enforcement would be notified to see if any crimes were committed.

I can’t say if this law would have saved Mallory’s life had it been in effect in 2017. Any time a child, especially a child who is only 12, dies by suicide, we must ask ourselves hard questions about what drove them to feel that was their only option. This law might not have saved her life. But it could have done something, anything, to help ease the suffering of this child.

Every National Suicide Prevention Week, which runs this year from Sept. 8 to 14, I think back to who I was when I was 12, and the bullying I endured. For a long time, I really struggled as a result of the bullying I went through. I grappled with depression and anxiety for a long time. I could have easily been the name in the headlines.

I don’t blame Mallory for not being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, to see that the bullying would end and that as an adult, this would really get better. And now a law bearing her name could help create that light for other children.

Gov. Phil Murphy has made it a habit not to comment on legislation before it lands on his desk. I urge the New Jersey State Assembly to approve the bill the Senate has already unanimously approved, and I hope that Murphy will sign it if it passes.

Sure enough, for me, things got better. I now have a voice, and a loud one in my role as a journalist, and I hope that through laws and cultural changes, we can make the world a better place for everyone who has been severely bullied.

It’s hard work, but it’s work that Dianne Grossman has made her mission in the years following Mallory’s death. She has started Mallory’s Army, a nonprofit dedicated to bullying education and prevention efforts in schools, as well as advocacy efforts to have state laws changed.

Part of her efforts include the saying, “It’s a bracelet KIND of life,” modeled after Mallory’s own efforts to brighten the world, by selling bracelets as a fundraiser for a camp for children with cancer.

Mallory might have felt small in life, but in death, her propensity towards kindness has already had a wide reach: just last week, I saw a teenager wearing the bracelet in a theme park nearly three hours away from Mallory’s hometown.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

The Bully Menace

Ahead of Bullying Prevention Month 2019, Patch is looking at society’s roles and responsibilities in bullying and a child’s unthinkable decision to end their own life in hopes we might offer solutions that save lives.

Do you have a story to tell? Are you concerned about how your local schools handle bullies and their victims? Email us at bullies@patch.com and share your views in the comments.

Earlier In This Series:

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