The Shipwreck of Institutional Betrayal: Why Individuals Self-Harm & Harm-Others
Written by Sabrina Soffer for ICIARA Technologies
The Background: Bullying, Suicides, & School Shootings
The desire to harm. Why do individuals–like you and me–gain some visceral urge to inflict pain upon themselves or on others? We aren’t born with it. To harm yourself and to harm others lie in completely different arenas, don’t they? Our hearts throb with regret for victims of suicide, yet our fists clench with anger at perpetrators of school shootings. These emotions are indeed what we should feel: it’s part of human nature. However, for a more mature outlook, our emotional instincts require critical thinking and research. From this analysis, we can confidently conclude that the desire to harm emerges from immense pain and a loss of hope.
This article will shine light upon two individuals– one which we will pity, and the other which we will hate. Mya Rios’ story leaves us in tears: she was a high achieving ninth-grade student at Harry S. Truman High School who took her own life at fifteen years old. “She had so many plans. She wanted to go to college,” were her father’s words following her passing. The other individual we will examine is Nik Cruz, a recent graduate who returned to his high school in Parkland, Florida, and pulled the trigger on his former classmates and teachers.
Placing Mya’s tragedy and Nik’s crime in the same boat may appall you. We resent Nik for taking the lives of 17 innocent children while we pour our hearts out to Mya with sorrow. But looking back, both teens faced the shipwreck of institutional betrayal: they were victims of a system that failed them. Both were bullied, and both were ignored.
To fully understand what drives children to harm themselves or others, it is important to examine their journeys as victims and/or offenders. Bullying may leave only minor scratches at the beginning, but the school’s failure to hold offenders accountable infects the wound further and further. Through three stages, the bullying increases in severity, and the victim is scarred by indifference and a breach of trust. This progression leaves resentment to fester with hatred, anger, and despair. Eventually, this floods one’s conscience with anguish and dejection.
Stage 1: Where It All Begins
It all starts with seemingly insignificant events. Maybe it began with weekly offensive comments or sly jokes. In Mya’s case, her peers tormented her for a period of five months, calling her names and making fun of her body. She first reported it to the school counselor, who assured her that she would investigate the claims. But instead, her complaint was ignored; no investigation ever occurred. Nik Cruz had been harassed since early middle school, and this continued for six years. He was “mocked and ridiculed” for his “odd,” yet harmless behavior. Like Mya, Nik complained and his reports were minimized and dismissed.
In the first stage where severity is low, the misconduct is verbal, occurs sporadically, and causes minor discomfort. The offended party feels hurt and embarrassed but is not threatened. They will proceed to report the behavior to a teacher or counselor among other personnel within the organization. The victim usually chooses to notify a lower-level official within the institution first because they may have a closer relationship with them. Sadly, however, after the complaint has been filed, no action materializes. The student is either ignored or is reassured with phrases like “don’t worry, we will make sure this stops” followed by “everything will be ok.” And while a counselor or teacher may inform a principal or dean, these top-tier administrators often dismiss the case and discredit the victim. This tactic of delaying and deflecting leaves the complainant to believe the issue is being resolved. But as time passes, the bullying intensifies.
Stage 2: It Only Gets Worse
Mya’s situation surely exacerbated after she reported her classmates’ shameful comments to her counselor. Her peers began to pull her hair and physically assault her. In efforts to avoid the bullies, she began skipping class which was unlike her. She decided to tell the school principal about the harassment. Mya hoped that a higher administrator would take action, but the principal also dismissed her concerns and failed to inform her parents. Mya herself– feeling scared, weak, and ashamed–did not tell her parents about the abuse. Isolated and lonely, she felt humiliated, helpless, and unsafe.
Similarly, the relentless mockery Nik faced at school became regular and was combined with physical assault. Nik was beaten up by several of his classmates at Stoneman Marjory High School in Parkland. A fellow student of his said, “this kid gets bullied a lot, someone should do something.” Nik also had a volatile relationship with his foster parents, which is why he refrained from communicating with them. School administrators never notified his parents nor confronted the bullies who assaulted Nik.
Stage 2 begins shortly after the first complaints are made. Because the issue is minimized and the bullies aren’t held accountable, they are emboldened to push their boundaries. Sadly, a victim will be prone to facing intense and frequent abuse with physical injury. This would include repeated instances of hair pulling, stalking, pushing, or touching. These violations not only humiliate the victim, but they also subject them to chronic worry, mental instability, and emotional distress. The case is often brought to a higher administrator or even a panel within the organization responsible for handling issues, but again, the victim is let down. In attempts to shield themselves from legal and financial liability, the institution engages in cover-up practices. Here, top-tier administrators will silence the victim through intimidating, blaming, attacking them. This coins the term ‘institutional betrayal,’ as the environment poses danger to the injured party and the abuse has been normalized within it. Thus, physical harassment only exacerbates and leads to critical and severe injury.
Stage 3: Abuse Brings Tragedy
Like in stage 2, the offender gains power and will undoubtedly cross the line in stage 3.
An indisputable pattern of abuse has also been established and normalized. However, we can distinguish stage 3 from stage 2 because now, the boundaries being broken are legal and/or criminal. And since the victim is already emotionally distressed, they are more vulnerable than ever. Their feelings of anxiety and unsafety only escalate, especially when severe threats and dangers are present.
Just hours before her death, two boys at her school forced Mya to perform oral sex in the school auditorium. Following this heinous crime, she fled the school and jumped 34 stories to her death.
Before Nik even attended Stoneman Douglas, he was suspended multiple times for behavioral issues, such as instigating fights. Moving from school to school, Nik revealed signs of depression and suicide as shown by his social media outreach pages. He never received any professional support nor any attention in his household. His mental health never stabilized. Eventually, Nik was thrown into the public system because no other institution accepted him. He was deposited at his local high school, Stoneman Douglas. In 2016, the Parkland sheriff had received two reports related to Cruz allegedly hurting himself. That same year, he also made a threat to shoot the school on Instagram. While the cops visited the Cruz household about 40 times over the course of six years, no official “danger to himself or others” file was tagged to him. In the aftermath of the shooting, Nik Cruz openly discussed having been repeatedly beaten by his classmates, which made him “very angry at the school because of it.”
Stage 3 witnesses the most devastating losses. With trust entirely breached, the victim feels hopeless. They feel dejected and failed, despite trying everything in their power to get their voice heard. Betrayed by the authorities in their life, victims often isolate themselves and resort to unhealthy and, at times, violent coping methods. Feeling as if they’ve lost control, they are prone to making rash decisions that put themselves and their community at risk. This results in ‘self-harm and harms others’ behavior. Some, like Mya, induce self-harm such as suicide or mutilation; but others like Nik harm others through criminal acts like shooting or rape.
Behind the Decisions: Gender & Society
Mya and Nik’s stories present extreme outcomes of the ‘self-harm and harm others’ behavior. However, many adolescents experience pain and hopelessness on a lower scale. One in three teenagers will meet the criteria for some type of anxiety disorder. As a result, teens resort to substance abuse, eating disorders, and bullying others to escape from their weaknesses. But why do some choose self-harm over harming others? On a national scale, we rarely see young men inducing bodily injury and we seldom hear about female school shooters. NBC News reported that young men are usually the ones “pulling the trigger,” or harming others, whereas a study conducted at the University of Manchester concluded that girls are 3 times more likely to engage in self-harm than boys. Behind these findings lie the biological and behavioral differences between genders. Women are emotionally tender and act on their own insecurities, for instance, bodily harm. Young men, though, often hide their sadness which in turn, presents itself as aggression. Mentally-ill males commonly confess “the only way to stop the hurting inside myself was to make the people who hurt me hurt too.”
Stories like Mya’s evoke our pity for her, but when we hear about offenders who resort to violence, we are filled with anger towards them. And yes, we have every right to be upset: there are no excuses or justifications for harming others. But also inexcusable is the school administrators’ inaction to stop the bullying from the onset: their dismissal enables the harassment to escalate in severity.
A Call to Action: Responsibility & Accountability
Our children have so much life left ahead of them, and we take this for granted. Mya could have finished high school on the honor roll and gone off to college to achieve her dreams. The children of Parkland could have been saved, and Nik Cruz could have been healed with proper treatment. If school officials had confronted the students verbally harassing Mya from the onset, the series of unfortunate events wouldn’t have unfolded. These devastating events could have been entirely prevented if administrators handled the issue responsibly when they were first reported. Pure indifference and ignorance created unbearable environments for both teens at school, where they could no longer tolerate the intensifying pattern of abuse. Of lesser importance but clearly, both schools suffered losses to their institution and their community as a whole.
So, if everyone just acted responsibly, wouldn’t all victims, offenders, and organizations be better off? The answer is undoubtedly yes. We must hold offenders accountable from the onset, offering them a path to treatment toward a constructive solution. This will empower them to take ownership of their misconduct and restore trust in themselves, victims, communities, and the justice system.
To find out how you can be part of the solution, visit: www.iciara.com