There's a lot of things on my mind lately regarding the school district's responsibility for providing a safe learning environment for all students. Bullying policies are garnering a lot of press lately because of the new state law that requires districts to enact policy to curb bullying. Click on the post to view one article about this new law.
The article states in part, "Now, a new law that requires school districts to enact policies prohibiting bullying could help curb such activities before they get to the point of involving police." Not to rain on anyone's parade, but I really think the legislature and the journalist live in some kind of vacuum, or their kids don't attend public schools. Our district has had a policy in place since I have been paying attention. The problem is that ENFORCEMENT is feeble at best. If parents have had it up to here with the abuse their child is forced to endure because the adults "don't see it," they have been instructed to bring the issue to the attention of the police and to press charges. I have had more than one person tell me that this is how they were told to handle repetitive bullying of their child. Grow a pair, district officials.
I recount an example of our 10-year-old son to illustrate just how impotent our district is to effectively address bullying. I don't want to make him look bad, but it's an informative anecdote. As a school board member, people often took umbrage when I used my children as examples of problems with the district. But I continue to maintain that if it's happening with my kids, it can happen with any kid. I will tell you how I handled it and pose to you a question afterward.
My son had a very rough fourth grade experience, educationally speaking. He had finally gotten his groove around January when his dad had to have emergency heart surgery. He went through a tough time emotionally and I alerted his teachers and principal about the issue. When it came time for the late winter conference, he seemed to be really blossoming and knuckling down to do his school work without any drama. I told his teacher this and was stunned when she essentially ignored all of the compliments I was heaping on him. She proceeded to tell me that my son, along with several other boys in class, had decided to single out one poor boy and bully him unrelentingly and unmercifully and that it had been going on for three weeks. I wasn't sure who to be more furious with, him or the teacher for not telling me immediately. At that point in time, I chose my son. In retrospect, I should have told the teacher she was a co-conspirator.
I looked my son in the eye and told him that he would not see the beloved glow from any screen toys for at least a month and all his privileges were henceforth revoked until such time as I saw fit to reinstate them, if ever. I yelled at him non-stop all the way home. I asked him, "How do you think that boy must have felt coming to such a terrible, unsafe place every day for three weeks. Do you think that he enjoyed coming to school, that learning was fun for him anymore?" When we got home, I told him his consequences. He had to do the following:
1-Write a letter of apology to the boy.
2-Present the letter to him in person and apologize verbally too.
3-Write a report on the long term effects of bullying both on the bullied and the bullier.
4-Lose screen time (TV, computer, video games) for a month. More if improvement is slow.
5-Grounded for a month. More if necessary.
The letter of apology was most telling. "Dear XXXX: This apology is very dear. I'm sorry I was mean to you. I was worried that if I didn't join in, they would taunt me too. But I will be strong now and stand up to them with you. Sincerely, YYYYY."
I got a lump in my throat when I realized that he felt if he didn't do this horrible thing, he would have to face their wrath himself. He was willing to go so far outside of his true character to keep that from happening. True group mentality at its worst. He is every kid. He is a genuinely easy-going fun kid. Most people enjoy having him around. But he was willing to perpetrate despicable behavior I never imagined him capable of to stay under the bullies' radar. Now before you think I'm just a mom who has idealized her kid, I had people look at me with the stunned "deer in the headlights" expression when I discussed this with them. "YOUR SON?" So, yes, I think he's the bee's knees, but so do other people.
I went to Vicki in tears and told her there was NO EXCUSE that this was allowed to go on for 3 weeks without my knowledge. I felt so horrible for that poor kid they ganged up on. I felt rage that I had not been afforded the opportunity to deal with my son in the way I knew would instantly curtail his rotten behavior. These incidents require immediate, multi-pronged, sledgehammer counterstrategies. Kids have to know that every adult in their sphere of influence expects them to treat others with kindness and dignity at all times. They need to know that parents and teachers will collaborate to enforce this expectation. So I hit my son where it hurt, swiftly and without mercy. "No screen time AAAAHHHHH. WRITE A REPORT? Mom, you're killing me. This is really hard! APOLOGIZE IN PERSON? ARRRGHHHHH!"
Of course, there are always parents who think their kids are perfect or who simply don't care. "Kids will be kids!" I hate that phrase. I think it was invented by a bully to make excuses for his or her own behavior. We had trouble when we first moved to town with the privileged kids in our neighborhood roaming around deciding which kid to pick on that day. It was always one younger, weaker, less influential kid who got targeted, often a different one each day. They would lull the victims into a false sense of security by pretending to be their friend one day after abusing them the previous day. On the "friend" days, the bullies would goad their new "friends" into bullying another victim and they would comply because kids will do anything to be accepted. The mother of the ring leader told me "kids will be kids," and I told her that she and all these bullies' parents took the "Lord of the Flies" approach of child rearing and to kindly keep their progeny out of my back yard. The reference likely fell on deaf ears. But I digress...
So, our son was essentially on lock down for about 7 weeks. His time was extended for a week for rudely calling one of his classmates a troll. The big time extension for his consequences was a result of him being brought home by the police one late winter afternoon. The fine 12-year-old kid down the street taunted him into walking out on the nearly melted Lake Leota by calling him choice words that challenged his sexual orientation. Really? He's ten. I don't think he knows what it is and is pretty much oblivious to anything that isn't part of a video game or Lego's set. But he knows he doesn't want people to call him that name. When asked why he would put his life in danger because some bully called him a name, his answer was short and sweet. "Because I knew if I didn't get it over with, he would continue on at school." So here's a kid who, even after severe sanctions were imposed for his own bullying, still couldn't face the prospect of these urchins taunting him at school. He was willing to endanger his life by doing such a stupid stunt. I'm sure he didn't internalize it that way at the time, but I bet he does now. "You could have been killed. Is it worth dying because some kid calls you a name at school?" I really appreciate the person who called the police (I was at a board meeting) and thank you Evansville's finest. You helped drill the lesson home and we need all the help we can get.
In light of this environment which our kids must face at school each day, whether real or imagined, do any of you really believe a state law will make a positive change? I have physically observed the some playground monitors, teachers and counselors alike take a "no blood no foul" approach to bullying, even though we have an anti-bullying policy. I'm sure there are also many who take this issue very seriously. The adults in charge, for the most part, are my age peers who grew up in a time when the mental torture currently inflicted on one another by first and second graders was the exclusive stuff of middle schoolers. The staff members, also like myself, are resistant to believe these gap-toothed cutie-petuties could wreck such havoc on each other. I quickly educated myself after observing hateful behavior that wasn't being effectively mediated at the elementary school. I also sent information and book titles to the counselors and administrators in charge to help educate them. Shortly after this time, the anti-bullying initiative began in our schools. I don't think it was due to me, but I was sure glad to see it.
The new trend is that municipalities are changing their statutes to make it easier to hold bullies and their parents accountable for the damage they do. Here's one approach Milton will try.
This may be the only way to effectively deal with this problem. If parents are threatened with financial consequences, they are likely to be less blase about the behavior of their little felons-in-waiting. Do teachers and school staff have time to document bullying and enforce consequences? No, but it's time they took a very serious view of this issue and say, "The buck stops here!" A good way to begin is with a good rapport with parents of both the bullies and the bullied. Reaching out to parents to solve the problem together is a strong first stride in beating this evil amongst us.