Is bullying a factor in school tragedies?

TEXAS CITY, Texas – A month after the devastating school shooting in Parkland, Florida, community members and professionals recognize that violence in schools has become one of America's greatest concerns. The recent acts of violence are sparking conversations in schools and communities across the country. As far as schools and the perpetrators of crimes, some question whether bullying is a factor in the violence.

Bullying is the most frequent form of abuse adolescents face. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, roughly one in four students experiences bullying. Seventy percent report being bullied face-to-face and more than 40 percent via cyberbullying, according to StopBullying.gov.

While bullying is common in schools all throughout America, the executive director of The National Alliance on Mental Illness, Glenn Urbach, said bullying has harmful and long-term effects on a child's well-being and mental health.

"It's particularly harmful when the children are in junior high and high school years -- because the brain is still developing," Urbach said.

Urbach said this is a time where adolescents are going through a lot of physical and emotional changes.

According to a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, children bullied starting at the age of 8 are more likely to experience long-term effects, such as depression, low self-esteem, poor school performance and increased risk for suicide and substance abuse.

"Studies have shown that starting at the age of 8 that kids who are bullied are going to be more prone to depression, more prone to anger issues, more prone to substance abuse issues, having effects on their academic performance," said Urbach.

"Then you factor in that mental illnesses tend to manifest themselves in the teenage to young adult years, it's almost as though the bullying is adding fuel to the fire."

Raul Vela knows the harmful effects of bullying firsthand.

"It's like a cancer," said Vela.

In 2016, Vela's 18-year-old daughter, Brandy Vela, took her own life after experiencing chronic bullying.

"It started off as basic name-calling -- 'You big fat pig. You slob. You're ugly,' this and that. Then it went to the point where people were taking her name and her picture and making online profiles for dating," said Vela.

Vela later noticed this daughter was acting differently, not showing interest in things she used to enjoy. Vela hopes that parents are able to spot signs of bullying and try to talk to their children, and spend meaningful time with them.

"It's been a rough road. Our lives changed in a matter of seconds," said Vela.

Vela said he's now advising that his children put away the phones and spend more quality time as a family.

"Let's limit the use of social media so we can put the phones down and actually interact as human beings," said Vela.

Bullying and violence

In the top 10 mass shootings -- nearly half happened at schools.

With the Virginia Tech and the Florida school shooting, both shooters were reportedly bullied.

However are the bullied or mentally ill more likely to become mass shooters? Mental health professionals say, "No."

"The majority of children and people with mental illness are not violent," said Urbach.

Urbach said while bullying may have long-term effects on a child's mental health, it is rare that those who are bullied turn to gun violence. However, when it happens, the perpetrator of violence may be looking for power and control.

"[In certain situations,] it is with the intention [of the shooter] to seek out the bullies, maybe seek out the teachers who they feel didn't protect them and then take their own lives, and that is the end result to bullying tied to the mental illness. But I would tell the viewer that the majority of people with mental illness are not violent," Urbach said.

He said that bullying may be a contributing factor, but not the only factor, nor a justification of the act.

"Bullies tend to come from homes where there is instability and they feel as though they lack control of their own home surroundings so they bully at school to feel as (if) they are back in control," Urbach said.

However, recent research from the Journal of Adolescent Health, does show that those who are bullied "are more likely to report access to a loaded gun without adult permission," a risk factor that researchers say should spark "comprehensive intervention."

Urbach maintains, those who are bullied rarely turn to violence.

"People who are mentally ill are the victims of violence (more) than they are (causing) the violence," said Urbach.

What are schools doing?

In Brandy Vela's case of bullying, her school started taking action, action that her little sister would see.

"My school started a club -- it's called the 'Sting Op: Bullying Club,'" said Brandy's younger sister Michelle Vela. 

She said her sister's life legacy will be to help stop this from happening to anyone else.

"[The club has] grown so big. The meetings have so many people. It makes me happy to see," said Michelle.

"Our president created a Snapchat were you can report cyberbullying," said Michelle.

Texas City also provides an app called P3 to report bullying. The school has had a positive response and considers bullying a serious and important issue.

At Houston ISD, the prevention of bullying is a top priority. The district focuses on creating an environment that is open. Communication, officials say, is key.

"If you go into any of our buildings you'll see a focus on building relationships with the students," said HISD spokesperson Tracy Clemens.

Bullying in schools is what Raul Vela is hoping to help with. He said while he can't bring his daughter back, he can share her story.

"Somehow I was able to turn all that anger into something more positive. We need to do something, we need to change," said Raul.

What can parents do?

He said that to mitigate the harmful effects of bullying, there should be a conversation among parents, their children and the schools.

"We have to meld what's going on in the home life with what's going on in the schools," Urbach said.

He recommends that parents learn to identify whether or not their child is being bullied, and be able to identify the symptoms of depression and other mental illnesses.

"The resources are out there," Urbach said.

NAMI has a free program for anyone who is interested in learning more about recognizing early-onset mental illness in children and adolescents. The Parents and Teachers as Allies program aims to strengthen the alliance between home and school, which NAMI indicates is critical to combating bullying.

For more information on Parents and Teachers as Allies, click here, or contact the NAMI helpline at 1-800-950-6264 or info@nami.org.