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.)
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!