As a single mother of three children I thought I understood bullying. I’ve read every definition and policy on it from daycare to preschool to grade school now. I’ve preached against it to my own children, I’ve tried to teach against it and redirect it on the playground and at play dates. We watch movies like Mean Girls and celebrate Pink Shirt Day every February. For someone who thought she had “got it” I’m feeling awfully confused and disillusioned on this topic of late.
In his final grad year of elementary school my son has become an unlikely target of bullying. As I try and deconstruct the situation I am struck by more questions than answers that delve into personal parenting styles, disciplinary action and responsibility at our school and even in our society at large. Ian is a typical twelve year old boy. A tall, attractive and athletic boy he has always been quite popular in his class among the girls and the boys. Last summer Ian lost interest in two boys in his class who were engaging in activities in the neighborhood which he appropriately regarded as bad judgement. They were breaking into abandoned buildings, setting fires in the alleys, and sneaking out and walking the streets at 1 am. Quite independently and quite quietly he simply decided these activities and therefore these kids weren’t for him.
This was not well received by these two boys, who we shall call Charlie and Marco. Charlie, a bright, straight A and highly persuasive student is the stereotypical ring leader. Hatches the plan but has the fall guy carry it out, and never, ever gets caught. The fall guy, and conscious follower in this case, is Marco. Charlie and Marco decided early in Grade 7 that Ian’s departure from their activities was not ok, and quite deliberately and effectively set out to make Ian’s life hell. It began with teasing and taunting, tormenting comments that insidiously weighed down on Ian. It moved into public mocking for his interests in basketball and more active torments like stealing his basketball and enlisting younger children to hide it and bury it in the sandbox. Bullying continued to engulf Ian’s school life through conscious exclusion, directing others to not speak to him, not sit near or beside him, and to perform silly rituals if anyone were to touch something that Ian had last been in contact with. As a mother I watched Ian become quieter, almost stoic about school, until one evening about November he burst into tears in the car acknowledging how crushing the cumulative effect had been and sadly reflecting that he had no friends in what would be his graduation year, I quietly approached the school despite his request to solve it himself. The gym teacher kindly offered Ian a reprieve. He could use the school gym to shoot hoops during recesses and lunch hours to avoid contact with these two boys. It worked as an evasion strategy but with it came even more isolation.
Around this time Ian began finding his lunch bag disassembled in the classroom sink and filled with water. The teacher asked who was doing this. No one could figure it out, though everyone knew. Christmas holidays were a welcomed reprieve that arrived not a moment to soon. The color appeared to return to Ian’s drained face and as he spent time with close family friends and was reminded what healthy relationships look like. It made me realize how far off of “normal” he had gotten in the social cage I was dropping him at Monday to Friday during the school year. The holidays ended and January arrived and I felt like I was sending Ian back to finish a sentence in a prison of sorts where I had little to no control of his day to day treatment.
And in fact, January ended explosively, when I received a call from the principal asking if anything had happened at our home the night before. I had been at work but my nanny reported someone coming and banging loudly on the door, which she would not open. The principal informed me that another student had come forward after playing after school with Charlie and Marco the day prior. He expressed concern about “how much” these boys hated Ian and more concern about a plan they had made to come to his home and set off fireworks when he opened the door. They claimed to already have the fireworks. I had already forwarded screen shots of text messages sent to Ian’s phone threatening that Charlie could “see him” and “knew where he lived” only a week prior to this. The principal appropriately now saw the severity of the situation. Not only was this a threat, but they had come to the door of our home. Bullying was now beyond the school 9-3 and extended to our personal residence with threats of fireworks in the evening. Suddenly this seemed very real. The school called the VPD youth services and an officer attended. He pulled Charlie and Marco from class searched their bags explained to them the risk and consequences of their actions, including that after 13 they could be criminally charged. Marco was tearful and afraid and appeared remorseful. Charlie showed no sign of remorse and bragged he had beat the system since the “cops didn’t find anything”.
I was shaken by how far this had come. How had things gotten this far? How had we spoken and documented the slow but steady erosion of Ian’s sense of self and overall happiness as a result of bullying and yet things had continued to progress to this point? At least I assuaged myself, we were here. It was real now. We were steps ahead of those most horrific stories of bullying that we all hear amid the pink shirts in February. But were we?
A week later, these two boys remain at school. The have offered Ian apologies, one semi sincere, one insincere. And otherwise, Ian tells me, life is pretty much no different. Charlie continues to ring lead and plan activities with the conscious exclusion of Ian. Marco states he doesn’t want to be a bully but wants to continue to be friends with Charlie, which requires certain behaviours. Ian no longer wants to attend school at all or calls asking to come home mid-day. His mood is lower and if anything he appears almost hopeless and cynical in his confirmed acceptance that there will be no consequences for these boys’ behaviours. Half a year of emotional abuse and threats coming as far as his front door. No punitive action, no suspension, no call from Charlie’s parents, no nothing. Effectively, a scare by police, a sorry and another chance, all handed out in a seamless return for one boy to another hellish day in seventh grade.
Ian is disillusioned and hopeless. Stoically accepting there is no cure for this and instead that it is something he must quietly endure for the next five months, provided it doesn’t get worse. But then, well the trajectory tells a different tale. And what if it does get worse? All we know from this is that there are no consequences. This perplexes and concerns me. Why no consequences? How can we learn without consequences? Is that not the very essence of Pavlov’s notion of behavior? So what is withdrawing the consequences here? Does it lie in permissive, protective, “head in the sand parenting”? Does it lie in limitations of schools’ abilities to implement consequences for bad behavior? Whatever happened to suspension? Does it lie in the perhaps overly forgiving and supporting values of Christian schools that may unknowingly protect the bully over the victim? Does it lie in law enforcement’s limited effectiveness with youth or sensitivities in evidence requirements? As I said at the beginning, I have more questions than answers.
What I do know is it sucks. Bullying in schools absolutely and brutally sucks. Ian is a fairly self-assured confident kid. And every day since the beginning of September I drop him off at a place where his self-esteem and his very happiness are eroded relentlessly. We’ve done everything we’re supposed to. We’ve followed every guideline in every handbook on bullying. We engaged other students, other families, the teacher, the principal and even now the VPD. And at the end of the day, when my part broken son looks at me and says “See Mom, I told you it wouldn’t make any difference. I told you nothing would ever change.” I am both heartbroken and chilled because I know he’s right. Without consequences, bullying will never go away. But how do we affect some consequences in this mess? I will be holding my son close and sharing a common sense of hopelessness this anti bullying day sadly. We can do better to beat bullying Vancouver. But we need some consistent consequences for the behaviors. Otherwise we are sadly enabling and empowering our bullies. And that scares me.