Thursday, April 28, 2016

Update on the Bullying Situation at My Son's School

I want to update everyone on the bullying situation at my son, Zach's, school. First off, thank you to everyone who shared my previous post and sent messages of support to Zach.  I can't even begin to tell you the difference you made in his life.

We read through the comments together, and as we did he started to smile.  When we finished, he looked at me with tears in his eyes.

"All of these people wrote to me?" he asked.  "Wow.  I don't even know most of them.  So there really isn't anything wrong with me?"

I assured him that there wasn't, and he hugged me for a long time.  Then he said that for the first time all year, he wasn't afraid to go to school.  He spent the rest of the night thanking me for helping him and giving me random hugs.

You all helped my son feel good about himself.  You helped him find some self-worth. I can't express my gratitude enough.  I worried that making our story public would open us up to ridicule, and instead you reinforced my belief that people can be so wonderfully good.  That you all reached out to a boy (who some of you don't even know)...well, it's beautiful.  I'm in tears right now just thinking about it.  

Zach and I have been brainstorming some solutions to the bullying problem at his school.  He and I both believe that the atmosphere of the school needs to change.  Zach thought of starting an anti-bullying club that would be run by students who are willing to reach out to kids who are being picked on.  Or kids who feel like they don't belong.  The idea is to create a community for these kids.  Students in the club would give bullying victims the same love and support that you all have shown Zach.  They would walk kids into school who are afraid.  They would sit with them at lunch.  One of the worst parts of being bullied is the sense of shame and isolation it causes.  If we can show kids that they aren't alone, we can start to combat this feeling.

I'll talk more about the ideas for the anti-bullying club in a later post, but now I want to tell you what's going on with the school.  Some small steps have been taken.  (Not enough, mind you.)  You all circulated the blog post enough to get the school's attention.  The school called me early the next morning and asked if I could meet.  At the meeting, they apologized and said that they should have addressed the issue earlier.  They also said that they would be monitoring the situation more carefully.  (I'll believe that when I see it.)

Then they told me that one of the worst bullies got detention.  Once.  For when he wrote Zach=Retarded on the board.  I also learned that this boy is something of a class leader.  I am furious at this.  No wonder bullying that started with only two boys spread to the rest of the class.  You can't have a bully in a position of leadership and expect to have a safe learning environment.  Kids copy each other.  Let a bully lead and other kids will begin bullying.

I left that meeting extremely disappointed.  We have been telling the school about the bullying since November, but they didn't take anything we said seriously until I wrote a blog post that embarrassed the school. That's shameful.  A school should not be more focused on their image than on a child.  If they truly cared about my son, they would have acted before it became a damage control issue for them.  My son should matter more than their image.  That's not the case here.

I told them this during the meeting and then I emailed reiterating this and more.    I also attached several screen shots of the cyber-bullying that had been going on.  

One good thing that did come out of the meeting is that I told them about the the anti-bullying club and the school is implementing that idea.  I had a second meeting with the school and they told me (and Zach) that they were going ahead with the club.  This is one positive thing (aside from all of you) that has come out of the experience.  It has shown Zach that he is strong enough to change a bad situation, and that sharing your story lets you connect with others who have had similar experiences.  And that there is absolutely nothing wrong with him, and nothing wrong with being "different".

So, where are we now?  Well, the situation is evolving.  There have been a few bullying incidents which we reported to the school.  They handled one of them immediately, and to my satisfaction.  I have also told the school that Zach will not be returning next year.  (I would pull him out right now, but he wants to finish the year since there are only a few weeks left.  I am trying to use this as a way to show him how strong he is, so I'm supporting his decision.)

Part of the school's strategy is to have the bullies apologize to my son (which I agree with, but which-as far as I know-they haven't done yet).  Then my son is to forgive and forget.  I also agree with this.  BUT it places the onus for changing the situation on my son.  What I want to see is a pattern of changed behavior by the bullies.  THEN an apology.  My son needs to feel safe first.  That only happens when behavior changes, not just when words are said.  Words are easy, but changed behavior indicates a changed heart.  The bullies should carry the burden of changing the situation, not my son.  I say this because he is the one who will be leaving the school while the bullies continue on as usual.
Which leads me to my last point.  

I'm concerned about the kids who are still at the school.  During one meeting I learned that at least two other kids were having similar experiences.  I don't have details (and I wouldn't share them if I did--that's their story), but I am worried about them.  I have also heard from several people no longer attending the school that bullying is a BIG problem there, and that kids are encouraged NOT to talk about it because they might damage the school's reputation.

Something needs to change.  Yes, my child is leaving the school, but there are other kids who might not be able to embarrass the school into taking them seriously.  And frankly, they shouldn't have to.  Every child should be matter to the school.  Every child should feel safe at school.

The anti-bullying club is a step in the right direction.  The idea is to create a reverse peer-pressure so that the kids copy caring and empathy instead of bullying.  And I'm very glad that the headmaster took my suggestion.  But more needs to be done.

From what I understand, the school does not have a uniform anti-bullying policy.  Each case is handled on an individual basis.  While I understand the need to be flexible, I believe this creates an atmosphere where some students--maybe the popular kids, maybe the rich kids--get a pass.  A uniform policy would remove bias.  It would spell out behaviors that would not be tolerated and the consequences for violating the policy.    It would also force the administration to act the first time bullying was brought to their attention, instead of as an afterthought to protect their reputation.

So I'm asking for your help again.  First of all, please comment on and forward this post the way you did my last post.  I don't believe the school will change unless they feel pressure to change.  I am not asking for anyone to loose their job.  I'm asking them to implement a uniform and comprehensive anti-bullying policy.  I'm asking them to create a school culture where empathy, compassion, and kindness are actively practiced, not just talked about. This is a Catholic school so I believe the change begins with the Diocese of Covington and it should apply to all of the schools under their control.

Even though my son will not be at the school next year, I'm not letting up on this issue because the kids in the school deserve someone who will stand up for them.  They need to know that they are special.  That they are loved and cared about just the way they are.  And most of all, they need to know that if they are being bullied they're not alone and there is absolutely nothing wrong with them.  If the school won't stand up for them, I will.  I hope you will too.

Secondly, Zach wants to write a post about his experience.  It's going up on Monday.  I know you all care about him, so when his post goes up, could you send some more love his way?  Thank you all!



Monday, April 25, 2016

I Need Your Help

You all, my heart is breaking, and I need your help.  For the past year, my son Zach has been bullied at school.  At first it was only two boys.  They’d make fun of him, kick his books across the room (during class), and make faces at him when the teacher’s back was turned.  At first, my son felt like he could handle it.  He ignored them, he told the teachers what was happening, he told me (I in turn talked to the school), and he tried to just go about his day.

It didn’t work.  The boys escalated things.  Soon it wasn’t only two boys picking on him, it was most of his class.  During group work kids muttered, “Oh shit,” or slammed their fists on their desks in anger when the teacher assigned him to their group.  He’s picked last in gym.  His grades started to slide.  He became increasingly anxious and depressed.  He started having suicidal thoughts.

It got so bad that we pulled him out of school in November with the plan that I would homeschool him.  We talked to the school, met with the headmaster and dean of students.  They assured us that they would talk to the offending students and make sure the bullying stopped.  My son wanted to go back to school, so we decided to try it again.  After a week at home, he returned and things seemed better.

It didn’t last.  During gym class kids tried to hit him with balls.  They were playing baseball and one kids hit the ball so hard with the bat that he cracked it.  They laughed at him as they aimed for him.  Then they’d say in a stage whisper, “Don’t do anything to him.  He’ll just tell on you.”  One day in class, they waited until the teacher left the room and wrote, “Zach = Retarded” on the board.  The teacher didn’t notice when she returned to class, so Zach had to raise his hand and ask if he could erase the board.

The bullying hasn’t been confined to school.  This year, the school went to a system where the students use Chrome Books.  A lot of their content is online.  The bullying continued there.  In one of the worst comments, a student wrote to my son, “The week you were out of school was the best week of the year.”

Every time we contacted the school.  Every time they assured us they would make it stop.

They didn’t.

This is a private school for academically gifted kids.  We specifically sent our son here to avoid bullying like this.  We’re paying for our son to be treated like this.  (This is where I need to mention that apparently the parents of the bullies give a lot of money to the school.  Hmm, wonder if this is why they haven’t been sufficiently dealt with??)

Thursday was especially bad.  Zach came home with a bruise on his face.  He spent the night in tears.  “Is there something wrong with me?” he asked.  “Am I causing this?  Is it my fault?”  The suicidal thoughts returned.

I kept him home on Friday and we called the school again.  They – once again – said they would take care of it.  Zach returned to school today and my husband went in to talk to the administrators.  They said they talked to the entire class but (wait for it) they couldn’t find any evidence that things were as bad as Zach said.  (By the way, the “evidence” they are looking for is for the students to speak up and say that this is happening.  Um, yeah.  I’m not an expert, but I don’t see that happening.)  Then they suggested that because my husband recently changed jobs and isn’t home as much, maybe Zach is just trying to get attention from him.

This is where I went from my heart breaking for my son, to white hot fury at the school.  How dare they blame him for the bullying.  How dare they excuse the behavior of the other kids.  How dare they act as if my child just has to suck it up and deal with it.  When my husband said that if this happens again Zach will finish the rest of the school year at home, they said they weren’t sure if that was in the curriculum.

But apparently it is in the curriculum to have my son spend the entire weekend scared to death of returning to school.
Finally, when my husband said that things had not been resolved to his satisfaction, the administrator said he didn’t know what else he could do.  I don’t work in the school system, but here are just a few suggestions off the top of my head:

Suspend the bullies
Move the bullies to a different class
Have a teacher/admin shadow the bullies (instead of the victim)
Send the bullies to a month (or more) of detention
Suspend them from extra-curricular activities
Since these two boys seem to feed off of each other, put them in separate classes
Make the bullies write a 10 page research paper on how bullies end up later in life
Expel the bullies
Make the bullies clean the bathrooms

I'd just like to not that all of the above suggestions put the responsibility for the behavior on the bully -- where it belongs -- instead of on the victim.  Just sayin'.

I’m just a mom and a writer, but these are just a few ideas off the top of my head.  I’m sure given more than five minutes I could come up with more.

We're not a wealthy family.  We can't give the school the large donation it apparently requires to be taken seriously to make the bullying stop.  

OK.  That's fine.  What I can do is write.  What I can do is reach out to all of you.  One of the hardest things about all of this has been the isolation that Zach feels.  You all, he feels so, so alone.  So I'm asking for your help.  I'd love to show him that we all have his back.  I'm asking you to do two things.  
First, please leave a comment of support for Zach either here on this blog or on my Facebook page.  I want him to see that there are more good people who love him than there are bullies in this world.  I want to shower him with positive messages of love and support.  

And second, please share this blog post.  I don't want another child to feel the way my son feels.  I don't want another mom's heart to hurt the way mine does.  

Thank you all.  I know this will make a difference.