It was hate at first sight when Mayana Appel met Carmen Rossmann at school. Both teen girls were confident and bossy; Mayana decided to take Carmen down.
“Oooh, I did not like her personality at all,” May told TODAY Parents. “I turned everybody against her because I didn’t like her.”
A natural leader, Mayana influenced everyone in her group at their small school to make Carmen's life miserable. No one would speak to Carmen except the youngest girl at the school. May threw Carmen’s jacket in a puddle. She tripped Carmen, then pretended it was an accident.
The enmity was mutual.
“I hated her when I first met her,” Carmen confessed. “I don’t hate a lot of people, but I really hated her.”
From enemies to friends
Against all odds, Mayana and Carmen are close friends now. The 18-year-olds share an I’ve-always-got-your-back level of loyalty, and they don’t want their friendship to wane even though they no longer live near each other.
“When I was in basic training, I wrote May a letter to thank her,” recalled Carmen, who enlisted in the U.S. Air Force earlier this year. “I told her, ‘You’ve had more impact on me than you know. Your strength, even if you don’t see it, influences others to do what’s best for them.’”
May cringes when she thinks back to the way she repeatedly used mean pranks and exclusion tactics to bully Carmen; Carmen winces when she remembers how she’d pretend not to care by making petty, provoking comments to get a rise out of May.
The showdown, and an unlikely hero
At school, Carmen seethed with rage for weeks at May's bullying until her fury finally erupted in an epic screaming match with May. Carmen accused May of tripping her on purpose; May denied it vehemently. The screaming continued until the youngest girl in the group worked up the courage to confront May.
“I remember her crying and telling May, ‘I saw you do it, I know you did it,’” recalled school program director Chelsea Shackelford. “In my mind, that 12-year-old was the hero of the night.”
“Not one of them liked what they had been doing, but they were all too scared or too insecure to stop.”
Experts know that peer intervention in bullying situations tends to have a bigger impact than adult intervention.
“From a data-driven point of view, the thing that seems to be most effective to squash bullying is to involve bystanders,” Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, told TODAY Parents. “Children need to understand that it’s important to stick up for each other.”
The spell May held over the other girls broke after the 12-year-old publicly stood up to her. The girls had a lengthy “huddle,” or group therapy session, around a campfire that night. One by one, each girl confessed to bullying Carmen.
“All of it was about insecurity — all of it,” said Shackelford, program director for Eckerd Connects E-Nini-Hassee, a Central Florida therapeutic wilderness program and school that Carmen and May attended. “They all kind of got teary-eyed and said, ‘I made my own choices and I did this, but for a while now I thought this was going too far. But I was too scared to not do it.’ May gave a couple of death stares in the huddle, but everyone spoke up anyway.
“Not one of them liked what they had been doing, but they were all too scared or too insecure to stop.”
What makes a bully?
How does a bully become a bully, and how does a kid become targeted? The wildly varying answers to that question make bullying one of the most stubborn problems across the country.
Some kids bully because they’re caught in a cycle of violence or abuse and they will do anything to feel a sense of power and control. Others do it because they’re struggling with depression, low self-esteem, peer pressure or a misguided desire for attention. Regardless of the underlying cause, experts agree that bullying includes one common ingredient.
“Bullying almost always stems from some sort of insecurity,” Shackelford said. “It’s a matter of figuring out what’s making someone feel so insecure.”
Jo Lynn Smith, E-Nini-Hassee’s longtime director, agreed.
“Destructive behaviors are always symptoms of something else,” Smith said. “The kids we see are all good kids naturally at their core ... but the world can take our children away from us in a SECOND.”
Consider the story of May. Growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, she excelled in school and in sports.
“She was in lots of different clubs — robotics, math — with people who might be labeled as geeks and nerds, but she was so happy-go-lucky,” May’s mom, LaShanda Walker, 37, told TODAY Parents. “She wasn’t worrying about what other people thought of her.”
“I looked at people that people were scared of, and I wanted to be that kind of person.”
The security May felt at home and inside herself eroded as she endured one crushing loss after another. May’s father died in a motorcycle accident when she was 6. When May reached high school, six of her close family members died in the course of a single year.
“It kept happening,” May recalled. “I lost my auntie, my grandma, my cousin, my uncle, my mom’s dad … I didn’t really know how to deal with it.”
Around that same time, May noticed the swagger and popularity of gang members in her rough neighborhood. They carried themselves like local celebrities, and nothing ever seemed to hurt them.
“I don’t really see myself as an intimidating person, but when I was 15 or 16, my number one goal was to be intimidating,” May said. “I looked at people that people were scared of, and I wanted to be that kind of person.”
May’s mom noticed that everything about her happy girl seemed to be changing — her wardrobe, her music choices, her attitude. She thought it might be normal teenage behavior, but it quickly became something worse.
At age 15, May joined one of the gangs in her area. Before long, she was addicted to prescription drugs and getting arrested almost weekly. May’s mom reeled as the daughter she knew slipped away.
“My daughter wasn’t my daughter anymore,” she recalled. “Her response when one of our family members would pass away would be to disappear. She was not dealing with it. She was just getting deeper and deeper into whatever this world was that she was in.”
May remembers feeling a need to prove her toughness and fearlessness. She got into at least a dozen fights and wouldn’t back down. In one case that makes her feel sick to remember, she and her friends beat up a girl after school.
“This girl was talking a whole bunch of mess about me, so six of us all jumped her,” May said.
May’s math and robotics friends distanced themselves, and her sports life ended as she stopped attending practices. She adjusted to her new identity as a party girl. A tough girl. A bully.
She was miserable.
Allowing anger to simmer
Kids can be targeted by bullies for almost any reason: Not enough confidence. Too much confidence. Not successful enough. Too successful. No one is really immune — but some kids seem to attract bullies more than others.
Consider the case of Carmen. She grew up as part of a well-off family in a nice neighborhood in Birmingham, Alabama. Everything seemed great, until Carmen’s parents divorced when she was 10.
“I got really angry, and I didn’t deal with my anger properly at all,” Carmen said. “I thought my parents had done what they had done to try to hurt me.”
As a teenager, Carmen’s anger manifested itself in chronic behavior problems and compulsive lying. She’d provoke people verbally just to get a reaction.
"I would act like I didn’t care, but I actually did care what other people thought of me way too much."
“Yeah, I made myself a target pretty easily,” Carmen explained. “I come across as a very confident, don’t-mess-with-me kind of person, and that tends to irk other people who try to be intimidating. ... I would act like I didn’t care, but I actually did care what other people thought of me way too much.”
Life became so rocky that Carmen’s mom sent her daughter to the Eckerd Connects E-Nini-Hassee Outdoor Therapeutic School for Girls in Florida. In this intensive therapy program, students spend about 75% of their time working and living outdoors with 10 to 12 girls under continuous adult supervision. The girls sleep on cots covered with mosquito netting on raised wooden platforms. They get small wooden chests that can hold about a week’s worth of clothes.
And that’s about it.
From darkness to light, with a LOT of therapy
E-Nini-Hassee means “Her Sunny Road” in the Seminole Indian language; the goal is to help dispel the darkness on the girls’ pathways through life.
"May just came up to me and said, ‘Hey. I’m sorry.’ And she meant it."
The program provides near-constant group therapy with the goal of helping each girl develop an acutely accurate level of self-awareness. With no technology or distractions, and with honest feedback coming in from their peers constantly, the girls have no way to hide from whatever has been making them act out.
Carmen was stunned to land in the minimal world of E-Nini-Hassee in December of 2017. She was about to receive an even bigger shock: May, her soon-to-be-nemesis, had arrived at the school three months earlier and established herself as a natural leader among the girls in Carmen’s group.
The clash between Carmen and May was inevitable.
After that nighttime confrontation over bullying, May was put “on chief” — meaning she couldn’t have any conversations with other girls without a supervising adult present. This went on for about a month, and it gave May plenty of time to think.
Carmen was doing a lot of thinking too — about her family, and forgiveness. Could she possibly bring herself to forgive her mom? How might it feel to let go of just some of her anger?
“I had been asking God for a sign: ‘What do apologies even mean? What is forgiveness, really?’” Carmen said. “And then May just came up to me and said, ‘Hey. I’m sorry.’ And she meant it.”
That moment marked a turning point. It took months of work, but May and Carmen became genuine friends. It happened as, ever so gradually, May began to imagine what life might be like for the girl she had targeted.
"Here she is trying to get better, and here I am being another bully in her life.”
“I learned her story and it opened my eyes,” May said. “I learned about how she was raised and the different things she went through. She used to get bullied A LOT. It made me realize: Here she is trying to get better, and here I am being another bully in her life.”
Carmen remembers being surprised by just how much she and May had in common.
“Even though the circumstances in our lives weren’t the same at all, there was a lot of loss and a lot of anger that May and I both shared,” she said. “Our core issues came from things we were angry about, and we didn’t realize how angry we were.”
Carmen says she will always be grateful for May’s influence in her life. May says she’ll never forget what Carmen’s friendship taught her about bullying.
“In the moment when you’re bullying someone, it feels good. It feels like you have power — but it’s not real power at all. It’s just bringing somebody else down to make you feel better,” May said. “When you really feel good is when you’re doing what you know you should be doing — doing what’s right. ... Empathy is so powerful. It can change you.”