I need to talk to you about bullying and what you think you know.
Remember when we were in school, and the bullies were big and tough and loud? They pushed people around and stuffed them in trashcans. When they ran their mouths they knew it could mean a fight and they were ready. Stuff went down after school in the allies and parks all over town.
This was no good, so schools instituted zero tolerance policies for fighting. And then they instituted no self defense policies. Which meant that everyone who threw a punch, in aggression or self-defense, got a mini-vacation.
When this went down at the high school level, it was completely ineffective. If you swing on somebody in high school—and probably middle school—you better dig in because the only thing that’s breaking it up is Mo, the lunchroom monitor. And she’s not going to be nice when she does it.
But in elementary school, the no self-defense policy translated more uniquely.
Up until about second grade, kids will tattle on each other to the extent that nothing bad ever really has a chance to happen.
But then things change and tattling becomes ratting, or snitching, so kids don’t do it anymore.
In this atmosphere, verbal aggression has rooted in and exploded. Kids with fast mouths no longer have to worry about their classmates knocking their teeth out, so they sit quietly in the back of classrooms and pick and pick and pick. They follow other kids around in the lunchroom and on the playground and they snark and needle and push. They know that if someone calls them out, it’s tough to prove and easy to lie.
Three weeks ago we sat down with Gabriel’s principal to tell him our son had been bullied for months. The behavior was aggressive, repeated and based on a power imbalance—three main elements of bullying behavior.
We had given Gabe all the traditional ways to handle it: walk away, tell an adult, ignore it. We spoke to his classroom teacher who confirmed he was a target and that she had followed the classroom discipline progression. We were not the first parents to complain about these kids.
We told the principal that Gabriel did not feel safe at school, emotionally or psychologically. He lived in constant fear that every wrong answer, every trip or dropped pencil, would earn him attention. He stopped eating lunch, because they called him fat every day. They mocked his athletic ability, telling him that he sucked at everything he did. When he challenged them, they told him that no one liked him because he was always complaining.
After he exploded one afternoon, and his heart and mine were in tiny little pieces on the floor, I asked him why he had waited so long to tell us.
“I thought they would stop” he said. “If I could just show them I was good enough, they would stop.”
Our first meeting with the principal was unsatisfactory. We know there’s a problem, we’ve decided to implement a program, just give us a chance.
I made sure he understood that he had an obligation to keep Gabe safe and if he didn’t, we had told Gabe that he could keep himself safe. I told him that we would not hesitate to remove Gabe from the school and if we went, we would go loudly.
For three weeks, Gabriel reported every day that things were better.
And then Tuesday I got a phone call after lunch.
Gabriel has been involved in an altercation.
When I picked him up, again the truth exploded out of him—he’d been lying to us, nothing had gotten better, the constant harassment had continued. He didn’t tell us because he was controlling it. When I asked him what that meant, he said he was “controlling his anger”.
Tuesday he listened to an argument over who was going to get “stuck” with him on their team, and then endured a chant of “you’re it, you’re it” until finally, he’d had enough. He punched one of the kids in the face, hard.
He got suspended.
I wanted to know what happened to the bully. We can’t tell you, that’s private information.
But people talk. The bully was not suspended. Maybe he was counseled. Again.
At our re-admit conference the morning Gabriel came back to school, I backed the principal off when he tried to tell me it was an inexact science, one kid’s word against another’s.
This particular child has a long history of treating others poorly. The teacher supports Gabe’s version of their relationship. We were not the first parents to complain about this child.
What about progressive discipline? What about fair and equitable treatment? What about the school’s policy against bullying?
We cannot divulge another child’s discipline status.
Then how do I know you are keeping my son safe?
Before we left, I told the principal that the first day back would be the best opportunity for harassment. The bully would feel like he had free rein, since Gabe had already been suspended, to try and push Gabe over the edge to expulsion.
Oh no, we’ve talked to him. We think he got the message. Plus we will be extra vigilant.
All day long, the bully followed Gabe around asking “Why’d you hit me? Why’d you hit me? Why’d you hit me?”
In the classroom.
On the playground.
So much for vigilance.
There are only two options here: The principal failed to discipline the bully at all, or the discipline fell on deaf ears.
Either way, Gabe is not safe there.
My anger is beyond words. This is a school run by people of my faith and they have utterly failed my son, ignoring a serious issue by hiding behind a curtain of humility and prayer. Compassion for the bullies and their troubled behavior overruled the concern for Gabe’s well-being.
A common failing of faith-based schools.
He will not be the first student to leave the class because of issues like this.
For well-meaning and understandable reasons, we have given too much power to the mean kids with fast mouths and they have figured out that words are hard to hear, hard to prove, hard to corroborate. Administrators are flummoxed by this dilemma, terrified of lawsuits and in way over their heads. Companies are hawking anti-bullying programs that promote non-violent solutions to bullying problems or focus on positive behavior reinforcement, and schools buy them to be able to tell parents Yes, we have a program in place.
The program doesn’t help anyone hear better. The principal was astonished to hear that the bully had engaged Gabriel. But I watched them all day.
As a society of parents, we tell our children that it is not ok for them to defend themselves. Don’t hit. Don’t yell. Don’t confront.
What are we doing? Enough is enough.