Have been following the story of several teenagers who have been charged in connection with the suicide of Phoebe Prince since running across this New York Times article. I find it troubling that any children in a country that presumes to value tolerance would be able to destroy their consciences enough to allow themselves to do the sort of things that were clearly done to this young girl. I am almost as appalled that there are parents who justify the cruelty of their children and school teachers and administrators who pick and choose who they are going to protect.
Laws and programs about bullying can give schools the opportunity to be democratic when they have never really been. In the past, teachers and principals turned a blind eye when a kid was being picked on if that young person was not popular, seemed “weird,” or didn’t fit in. They didn’t do much about verbal harassment, unless the one talking used profanity. With an emphasis now on paying attention to different forms of harassment and better training of teachers, the opportunity is there to stop abuse and give just punishments to offenders.
But what really happens is often the same old thing, only now it is clothed with programs and posters and sweet sounding reassurances that every child is safe, and any perpetrator will be severely dealt with, no matter how well connected. What really happens is that if your child is the sort of person that seems an easy target for bullies, “no tolerance” means the bullied kid will get punished if they do anything wrong, even if defending him or herself.
I have seen it with my own kids. One of my children spent much of a year being tortured with pushing, hitting, name calling and threats by a little boy while their teacher only seemed to notice my daughter complaining. I had to threaten the school with the unwanted publicity of a lawsuit and the child’s family with an assault charge to get the teacher and principal to even separate the two. They continued to maintain the boy was an innocent victim. Strange that a couple years later, at her middle school, the same boy tried to bully my daughter one time and the teacher then was able to take action right away that has thus far halted the problem.
My son was once picked on every single day by several people, and yet when I went to pick him up from school, I had to go through a gauntlet of teachers who had to tell me about how he wouldn’t do any work and how he wouldn’t try to get along with his classmates. HELLO? Did you get the idea that a kid who withdraws like that and blows up at people calling him names isn’t just “sensitive”? It got so bad, we had to remove him from school. He’s back now, but was sent home from a class trip when he was picked on by one of his former tormentors (oddly, no chaperones were available) and lashed out with “bad language.” No punishment for the kid who used foul language to hurt my kid. No reprimand for the chaperones who couldn’t be bothered to stay in the cabin with the boys. No investigation into the incident. Just me having to listen to a teacher tell me that my son was ruining the trip for everyone else.
Now I look at the case of Phoebe Prince and I am again flabbergasted that school administrators claim they knew nothing about what was happening to her. I just don’t buy it. I know that it is difficult for teachers to see everything. But how can dozens of students witness incidents in a hallway or assembly and not one teacher or one administrator see it? This is part of what they are supposed to be looking for. I have a hard time believing that one student couldn’t say something in confidence to an adult. Doing so might well have saved this girl’s life. Someone knew something and could have done something. Most of the members of this community should be hanging their heads in shame.
A parent of another girl who had been a target by at least one of those charged stated that his daughter endured bullying for THREE YEARS and could get nothing done. Eventually an apology came after the fact. What kind of school are they running here? It seems to be one like so many in America, one that sends the message “Our job is not to protect your child. Our job is to make sure they come often enough to be drilled through standardized testing so we can get our funding. Those who are mean and cruel are rewarded. The unique and the different deserve the pain they get.”
I fear that after all the media frenzy about this case dies down, many will forget that there are still bullies and abusers in every school and that they come in many different packages with many different weapons. I am afraid schools will start new “anti-bullying” programs that will do no more to educate and empower students, teachers, and administrators than before, but only dress the same ignored messages in nice, comfortable language. I worry that we will continue to take the playground bully and the classroom abuser and raise him or her up to be the next Bernie Madoff or Ted Bundy.
But, you bullies out there, I am not afraid of you. I have some hope. My kids have some good people in their lives: family, friends, teachers, principals, coaches, scout leaders, ministers and others whose love can help to overcome the evil of willful ignorance.