Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

The tragic case of bullying leading to the suicide of a 15 year-old girl in South Hadley, MA has been in the papers for a while, now.  Yesterday, charges were filed against nine of the bullies.

I’m not sure what to make of “bullying” as a criminal offense.  It is obviously malevolent behavior, but does the impact on the victim dictate where it crosses into a criminally punishable act? Apparently this is the case, as the nine bullies have been charged with a “violation of civil rights, with bodily harm resulting.” I’m not sure if the public programs that include role playing, colorful signs, and a No Bullying Policy really address the problem or make it a joke. Isn’t “bullying” a rather cutesy way to describe the already illegal acts of assault, bodily threat, and intimidation?

And while my heart truly aches for the unimaginable agony the parents of the teen who committed suicide must now face, who, other than the girl herself, is truly responsible for it? For their bullying actions, which seem quite clearly to have contributed to the girl’s serious distress, I am still undecided upon what form justice might take for the nine who stand accused, beyond punishment under existing laws against assault and making plausible threats of imminent harm toward someone.

Adding to the tragedy, the following lines conclude a story in yesterday’s Boston Globe regarding the arrest of nine bullies whose behavior led to the girl’s final tragic action.

Ashley Dunn, 16, a sophomore, said she recently told school officials she had been bullied, and that they had found a way to solve the problem.

“I felt small, and I cried every night,’’ she said. “It didn’t get to the point where I thought about suicide, but it was pretty bad. It was handled very well. The school did counseling and mediation.’’ Now, she said, she and the bully “are on better terms.’’


Does compromise between the aggressor and his victim seem to be the best way to treat these situations? 

I may be uncertain about the just treatment of these bullies, but I am certain about the destructive nature of the unprincipled efforts of school administrators who suggest that the kids should just get along without regard to the situation.  I have some firsthand experience with that attitude.

Last year, while in class, another sophomore student proclaimed to my daughter that she was a cunt, loudly enough so that several kids around them commented to him about the inappropriateness of his behavior. This kind of language may not shock anyone other than me – in fact, at first, it didn’t seem to even bother her much, except that she took an ever-so-slightly-protracted time in telling me about it.  Sheepishly. 

I understand that as a parent, I was partially lucky with regards to having a child who would even share this incident with me. 

Despite my instantaneous imagining of myself as having claws, fangs, and huge, powerful jaws to accommodate those fangs, as a low-crouching, growling she-wolf, prepared to lunge straight for the boy’s jugular, I discussed the situation with her calmly, with only a little extra lachrymal fluid to belie my matter-of-fact calmness.  (At least I had no dripping saliva.)  After understanding how she felt about the incident, her behavior leading up to and after his proclamation, and any of her remaining concerns, we concluded that she could use some help with handling the situation. (Her offense which prompted the outburst? She didn’t find his antics amusing.)

I started by looking in the school’s Code of Conduct. 

If your child goes to public school, you know that the school’s Code of Conduct is among the rush of brightly colored papers your kid brings home on the first day of school.  It’s usually accompanied by another sheet you have to sign stating that you read and understand it and that your child has read and understands it.  I’m the kind of parent who actually does read and understand these documents before she signs her name to that effect.  (My thoroughness with this particular task drives my daughter nuts.)  While all schools must have Codes of Conduct, there is something so perfunctory about the public school’s code, delivery, and required testimonials, I doubt it is often read, let alone taken seriously.

So armed with chapter and verse of the Code which the boy violated by his actions, I called the school.   The vice-principal, apparently the person in charge of discipline, called me back.

I wish I had recorded our conversation, but I remember his salient points: You have to understand, kids just talk like that now. It’s not the same as when we were in school.  I suggest that they both come to my office for mediation - together. Seriously. That’s how he wanted to address the issue, by having this student, who is well known to the students and faculty as being a smart-ass, constantly disrupting the classroom, frequently crossing the line into behavior supposedly not allowed in school, meet face to face with my daughter whom he attempted to disparage in a vulgar public declaration – in class – the day before? 

Fuck you.  

Well, that’s what I thought. What I said was that she would not participate in any such mediation and I emailed him the appropriate section of the Code of Conduct.

Students are expected to treat every member of our learning community with respect.  Words – written and verbal – gestures, and actions that are perceived as inappropriate, disrespectful or offensive will result in disciplinary consequences.

Minimum consequence: One day of detention for failure to show civility to all members of our learning community.

While I see the ironic juxtaposition of my unspoken vulgar dismissal of the administrator’s suggestion followed by the citation of the Civility section of the Code of Conduct, it in no way reduces my charge.  I emailed the learned educator/administrator the section of the Code which the student had violated and the consequence according to the Code of Conduct that I certified earlier in the year to have read and understood.  Apparently, as the party charged with enforcing the Code, he was less inclined to read and understand it than I was.

Admittedly, I used the Code to make a point, but I understand now that the entire document is simply a Cover Your Ass piece of legalese.  No one cares what’s in it.  Worse, no one seems to care about right and wrong. Everyone knows that the kids act like they’re there to socialize rather than to learn, and the teachers act like they’re doing the kids a favor rather than their jobs – which, I often remind my daughter, nowhere includes expounding upon their political points of view.  So long as the goals and ideals of the educational environment are all in black and white (or whatever color they choose to make it look important) somewhere, no one need be concerned with the practicability or achievement of those goals.  That they have been written down and sound good is all that matters.

In a statement made today by Elizabeth Scheibel, the Northwestern District Attorney who is in charge of the bullying case, she claims the following:

“. . .Phoebe’s harassment was common knowledge to most of the South Hadley High School student body.  The Investigation has revealed that certain faculty, staff and administrators of the high school also were alerted to the harassment of Phoebe Prince before her death.”

 “A lack of understanding of harassment associated with teen dating relationships seems to have been prevalent at South Hadley High School.  That, in turn, brought about an inconsistent interpretation and enforcement of the school’s Code of Conduct when incidents were observed and reported.”

In case there is any confusion, let me state clearly that I do not think my daughter was bullied, nor harassed. But when a clear violation of the Code of Conduct was pointed out to the administrator in charge of enforcing that Code, rather than abide by the written policy, he fell back on the putrescent idea that getting along was more important than enforcing the written Code of Conduct.

I would be remiss at this point if I failed to mention that as a child, I had some excellent educational experiences, including many wonderful teachers who were absolutely passionate about teaching their students and held each of us accountable for our work and behavior – in public school!  The good kids (a simplification of “those who want to learn”) flourished and the bad kids (again, simplification of “those who want to be anywhere but there”) had to put up or get out; as a result, most of them flourished as well.

I know there are still devoted teachers and these kinds of public schools may even still exist. . . somewhere.

However, as a parent, my experiences with public schools have been overwhelmingly limited to their functioning as sheepfolds of institutionalized apologies for the baaaad behavior of faculty and students alike.  

I contend that as part of promoting a better learning environment, any individual whose repeated behavior runs contrary to the standards established in the school’s documents should be culled from the environment.  (And the bad kids should be kicked out too.) 

It’s a universal truth.  When getting along is a primary, it creates an environment where determining right and wrong is subjugated to mob rule, where compromise has been raised above the actual standards under which that environment was originally established, and where the requirements, once conceived and constructed to support the now merely nominal goal, serve only as a painful reminder of the inability of its leaders to think in principles.


Deb said...

Beautifully written, Lynne. Thanks for posting this.

Lynne said...

Thanks, Deb.

I was concerned about including the actual vulgarities, but I thought they were both appropriate in this instance.

Beth said...


Vulgarities have their place.

Thank you for such a thoughtful post.
The "crime" of bullying seems to me on par with hate speech. At some point, language can cross the line from being merely words into psychological aggression, intimidation and harassment--just as following someone can segue into stalking.
Sure points out the need for objective laws based on a proper concept of individual rights.

In regards to "going through the motions" with the code of conduct, unfortunately much of the "education" in government schools follows the same pattern.

Some days the struggles seem unending!

Reading blogs like yours helps make real the fact that some people CAN think in principle.

Lynne said...

"Sure points out the need for objective laws based on a proper concept of individual rights.

That's an excellent point.

I think this tragedy also points to the severe repercussions which emanate from the very existence of compulsory government schools.

Beth said...

RE: I think this tragedy also points to the severe repercussions which emanate from the very existence of compulsory government schools.

Of course it does!
If attendance were not compulsory, those who do not find the schooling of value would not be there and could more easily be expelled for failure to meet the standards--behavior, educational or otherwise.

Amy said...

This is one factor in why I plan to homeschool. It's not so much the bullying or teasing, but the acceptance of that behavior as normal that I think is damaging to children.

Lynne said...

And then there are the science teachers who scoff at the idea that anyone would question the religion of global warming, the staff who sells drugs (of which I have no proof or would certainly pursue with authorities), and the kids, no doubt encouraged by the education they are receiving, who think that Chairman Mao and swastikas can be used all in good fun.

What's worse is that I don't think our schools are some kind of anomaly. We live in what is considered to be a decent small town and have what is considered to be a decent (not the best) public school system. Based on what I know to be true, at least some of the behavior described above is even worse at the academically better, and larger systems around us.

There is another episode, which hurts to even mention, that involved an organized effort by an entire class of students who thought that it would be fun to figuratively kill a mockingbird and the dense staff who didn't understand what was going on.

So why does my daughter continue to go to there? We have no affordable alternatives and she tired of the limited company the exclusive (mommy - daughter -little sister )school she once attended offered her.