Yola Robert’s first memory of being taunted by other children came at age 3, when boys and girls in her preschool began making fun of her hair.
As the American daughter of Egyptian immigrants, Robert had curly, thick hair. It wasn’t like other girls’ silky, straight, flowing hair.
She said those differences in her background and the way she looked subjected her to a childhood marred by bullying.
Kansas isn’t an easy place to grow up if you look different, Robert said, and there aren’t many protections for children who suffer daily trauma from bullies in the halls of schools, or electronically through text messages and online social networks, where the abuse can continue around the clock.
Although state legislators passed an anti-bullying law in 2007, it’s among the weakest in the nation, according to an analysis published last month by the U.S. Department of Education.
For years, Robert suffered quietly. A lifelong Catholic and the niece of a cardinal, she didn’t talk about the many times she had contemplated taking her own life.
But when she heard about how bullying might have led a 14-year-old girl at Northeast Magnet High School to commit suicide last September, Robert decided to speak out. She began visiting Wichita schools to talk to children. She said she wanted them to know that they could survive and beat the bullies.
“I made it. I’m alive,” said Robert, 18.
“I am the voice for those who did not make it. I am the voice of the victims who killed themselves who could not see past other people’s ugliness. I know how it felt. I know the pain. I knew how great it would have felt to kill myself, but I didn’t.
“So I’m speaking on their behalf. I want people to know they can make it.”
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— Ruth A. Peters, child psychologist
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Robert vividly recalled a group of children attacking her on the playground at Magdalen Catholic School. She was 6 years old.
As she remembers it, nearly a dozen kids surrounded her on the playground. They threw rocks at her; they dragged her by her hair to a spot out of view of the teachers. One boy stomped on her chest, she said.
“And do you know what happened?” Robert said. “They told them, ‘Don’t do it again.’ That was it.”
As far as Robert knew, no one even lost a recess over the incident. In first grade, she said, she stopped trusting the adults who were supposed to keep her safe.
“That’s when I started to realize no one cares about me,” Robert said. “So why should I tell the teacher?”
Educators and violence-prevention experts say children should be taught the difference between tattling and telling. “Tattling” is motivated by getting people in trouble, usually by trivial events. “Telling” is reporting significant behavior problems that might hurt others, experts say.
“It’s not just for bullying, but we say if you don’t feel safe at school, tell an adult,” said Susan Arensman, spokeswoman for Wichita public schools.
The playground incident, and the feeling that no one took action, caused Robert to withdraw. She became quiet.
The other children didn’t.
Robert said she contemplated suicide for the first time in third grade. She took out a knife and ran it along her skin, thinking about how the blade piercing her arm might relieve her pain.
“For someone who is suicidal, or depressed, to actually feel that cold metal pressing against your skin, you just know if you go a little bit deeper, everything will be fine,” she said. “It covers up the pain you have to deal with every day, all day.”
Yehia and Marie Robert had their oldest daughter a month after they moved from Egypt to Wichita. They had been trying to adapt to a new home and, as adults, faced prejudice.
The concept of bullying was foreign to them.
“We had both gone to strict Catholic schools in Egypt,” Marie Robert said. “I had gone to a school for girls. Yehia had gone to a school for boys. Bullying, or treating people like this, simply did not exist for our generation.”
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By fifth grade, Yola Robert began showing more severe mental health problems.
Research shows that early-childhood trauma, such as bullying and other forms of abuse, can affect how the brain grows.
Studies from Harvard University and Canada’s McGill University have shown that childhood trauma actually changes the DNA of the brain. This can lead to increased risks of anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.
A psychiatrist would later explain these changes to Robert, who now takes medication to help alleviate the effects of what happened to her as a child. But it would take years for her to seek that kind of help.
The Middle Eastern culture that caused her so many problems with her peers also made her parents hesitant to get her help, she said.
“There you have war, famine and poverty – and you say you’re depressed?” Robert said. “Mental health care isn’t really a part of that culture.”
By fifth grade, others called her ugly and made fun of her name.
“I was surrounded by the Sarahs, the Brittanys, the Bethanys, the Jessicas, the Taylors. I mean, what’s Yola? It’s foreign.”
Yola comes from the Greek and Spanish name Yolanda.” It means “violet flower.”
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— the Hail Mary
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When Robert entered Kapaun Mount Carmel High School, other students began referring to her as “a terrorist,” she said. The comments followed her home from school and haunted her from the computer on Facebook.
“I became terrorized by Facebook,” Robert said. “Facebook became Hellbook.”
She stopped eating, developing anorexia. She stopped talking, withdrawing further into depression.
She held on tightly to her Catholic faith, however.
“Every time someone would try to hurt me, I would say a Hail Mary to myself,” she said. “I would pray for my enemies.”
She remembered one day at lunch, a group of boys surrounded her in the cafeteria, their heads wrapped in sweaters mocking Middle Eastern Muslim men. They screamed at her as others laughed.
“I want you to either kill yourself or to leave Kapaun,” one of the boys yelled.
To Robert, that provided the chance to show the bullies they couldn’t hurt her. She stayed in school. She stayed alive.
“I wasn’t going to give them what they wanted,” she said.
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• • •
Lil Wayne’s “She Will” spoke to Robert about overcoming those who would wish her ill and about what goes around comes around.
“They have no emotional empathy,” Robert said of her tormentors.
While she suffered abuse in the halls of Kapaun, she also found help there.
“I had four angels in my life,” Robert said.
Kelly Dandurand, an assistant principal, helped Robert understand that teachers had mistaken her depression for rudeness and disrespect. Renee LeFever, a social sciences teacher, taught Robert about successful people who had been bullied in high school.
“If there’s one tip I would have for administrators, it would be to treat each child as an individual,” Dandurand said. “They are all human, and they all need compassion and help seeing through their difficulties.”
Marie Robert helped her daughter get help outside of school. They found Jeannie Erikson, a therapist and life coach, who helped Yola Robert work through her experiences. She found her fourth “angel” in Fatima Ahrens, a psychiatrist, who prescribed and managed medications for the biological damage wrought by abuse.
Robert said her mother convinced her not to let the bullies ruin her future.
“We told her to focus on her studies and make good grades, because that would be what helps her succeed in the future, and not what others said or thought about her,” Marie Robert said.
Yola Robert’s grades improved, helping her get scholarships and financial aid for college.
“The education I got at Kapaun was just amazing,” Robert said.
The “terrorist” name-calling became less frequent after November 2010, when she returned from a trip to the Vatican to watch her uncle, Antonios Naguib, be elevated to a cardinal in the church.
Still, Robert heard her name from inside a classroom as she walked down the school’s hallway. She stuck her head in and asked whether they were talking about her.
“We were just talking about how we used to torture you at Magdalen,” she heard one girl say.
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The U.S. Department of Education analyzed anti-bullying laws in 46 states, including Kansas. The report, released in December, ranked state laws by how effective they were in identifying bullying and how the laws guided districts in implementing those policies. Kansas rated in the bottom four, according to the report.
Kansas requires school districts to implement anti-bullying policies. But unlike other states, Kansas didn’t give districts deadlines for implementing such polices. Wichita public schools and Kapaun Mount Carmel have developed policies. Kansas’ law also limits school authority to bullying and cyberbullying occurring on “school property, in a school vehicle or at a school-sponsored activity or event.”
Thirteen states, however, have passed laws giving schools authority to address off-campus behavior that creates a hostile learning environment. Under a New Jersey law, schools can report students suspected of bullying to police. New Jersey schools also undergo annual evaluations over how they handle bullying complaints.
Weaknesses in Kansas’ laws didn’t surprise Robert.
“I’d like to help get a stronger law,” she said. “If the kids don’t feel safe, they’re going to leave schools. Parents should feel peace of mind that their kids aren’t being bullied.”
Robert thought she had left the bullies behind when she graduated from high school.
But last September, while attending Wichita State University, she received a text message from a friend, telling her she was on a gossip website. It’s a place where people post pictures of others accompanied by derogatory comments. The pictures of her were from her freshman year in high school, when she was 14. The comments seethed with sexual and cultural innuendo.
That same month, Robert learned that another Wichita girl, Rhianna Morawitz, a14-year-old from Northeast, had committed suicide. Her father said she was bullied.
“That just blew my mind,” Robert said. “I said, ‘No, I cannot take this, I cannot see this happen.’ I need to help these children before they take this step of killing themselves.”
Robert has spoken to classes in Wichita public schools, including Gordon Parks Elementary, where she said students hugged her afterward. She would like to speak to more schools to share her story.
She began writing down what happened to her, hoping to someday publish a book that might help others.
“I want them to know they can survive this,” she said. “I tell them to help me be the voice. I tell them to spread the word that they are not alone.”