When most of us hear the word “bullying,” we think of what goes on far too much in the nation’s schools, when kids target and gang up on one of their own and mercilessly attack some physical trait or behaviorism they see as different. Braces. Being too skinny or overweight. A speech impediment. Anything that’s not “normal” in their eyes.

In our community just within the last couple of years, we’ve seen the effect such attacks can have on vulnerable, sensitive children. Earlier this year, Chatham Middle School student Lainey Smith, 13, took her own life when she reached the point she could no longer tolerate bullying over her appearance — bullying from fellow students and a teacher.

Lainey’s suicide wasn’t the first experienced by the Pittsylvania County school system. In the fall 2017 semester at Tunstall High School, 17-year-old Hannah Cousins took her life when she reached the point she could no longer endure the constant attacks. During the previous 2016-17 school, another, unnamed senior committed suicide for the same reason.

But bullying occurs across society, and the more we learn about the phenomenon, the more we see the tentacles of this plague spreading. It occurs in the workplace, within families, in neighborhoods — basically anywhere we human beings gather in social groups and interact.

The consequences, as we have seen, can be deadly. The suicide of a vulnerable, sensitive child because of school bullying. A mass shooting on the job. A killing in an otherwise quiet neighborhood when an angry, bullied person connected with a gun and decided to turn the tables on his attacker. Or a bullied individual turning to a criminal gang for protection and thus getting sucked into a life of crime himself.

That’s why we believe Danville Mayor Alonzo Jones is onto something with his community-wide anti-bullying initiative announced recently.

Jones wants to spur a community effort to curb bullying of all types here in Danville, and the city is looking to team up with the Danville Police Department to launch an app or some mobile-based effort for folks to anonymously report bullying to authorities.

As Register & Bee reporter John Crane reports, this isn’t the criminalization of bullying, but rather is a crime prevention step, as studies have identified bullying as the root cause of much criminal activity.

According to Maj. Chris Wiles of the DPD, the initiative would be just another way for people to share information with the department, alerting officers to behavior and activity that could lead to crime and giving them the chance to address a situation before it becomes something much more serious. City Manager Ken Larking told the Register & Bee he hopes staff will be ready to announce specifics of the initiative by next month.

In an interview with the Register & Bee, Mayor Jones related why bullying has risen to the top of his list of concerns: “It’s gotten way out of hand. It has become a major concern of mine that these good people who don’t have a criminal record, they want to take matters into their own hands, to go out and possible commit a crime because they couldn’t take it anymore.” He said more and more of the phone calls he receives from residents concern bullying across the social spectrum.

Maj. Wiles says the department has long collaborated with Danville Public Schools on cases of suspected bullying, stalking and making threats. The department would simply expand this effort to the community as a whole. Some cases may rise to the level where criminal charges are warranted, while others, though severe and serious, would be best addressed by other organizations such as social services or mental health agencies.

Tackling bullying — wherever it occurs — is emerging as key to crime prevention. As Mayor Jones notes, many individuals take matters into their own hands when they feel they have other option. And how they do so may result in their imprisonment for decades.

But addressing a problem early, before escalation, is nearly impossible if authorities aren’t even aware a problem exists, especially if the bullying occurs online in the walled gardens of social media apps. Sen. Bill Stanley, who represents part of our region in the General Assembly, has introduced a bill which would force social media sites to notify law enforcement when a threat is made on their platforms against a person in the state. He hopes the Assembly will act on the bill when it meets in a special session on Nov. 18.

Bullying is as old as humanity itself. The strong preying on those perceived as weak is an innate human characteristic. It won’t go away, but through awareness and education, we can stem the effects it has on victims and society at large. We’ve got to try.

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