Should victims be made to bear their bully’s burden?

As those of you who follow me on Facebook already know, our daughter was injured and missed a week of school as a result of being struck from behind by a classmate while standing in line.

Without going into the details nor attempting to villainize the other child as both girls are just 7 years old, suffice to say that this is not the first incident involving this one student.  Sadly our child as well as other classmates have been on the receiving end of either a hit or a threat of being hit in the past.  In fact the week before the incident, the classmate threatened to ruin the dresses of four girls (including our daughter’s) on picture day.  When my daughter reported this to the teacher, the girl denied it.  However, and I applaud the teacher for her follow through, she asked the other three girls who had been targeted what had happened.  They all confirmed that the  classmate did indeed make the threat to ruin their dresses.  The teacher did take what we believed at the time was the appropriate action to address the issue.  We had hoped that it would end there.

Sadly it didn’t.

The Importance of Documenting

One of the things I learned in preparing for my interviews with leading experts on the subject of bullying is that you must meticulously document every incident as well as report it so as to create an audit trail.

Over the past couple of years we have done this.  We have also saved the copies of the responses we received from the other child’s mother to our e-mails expressing concerns of what was happening at school.  One reply that stands out in particular was the mother’s acknowledgement that her daughter has a problem with her temper and is somewhat spoiled.  It should also be noted that we sent e-mails to the school, as well as called them on more than one occasion regarding the situation.

Based on this and the severity of the injury resulting from the blow, we decided to file a complaint with police.  Much to their credit the officers with whom we talked took the matter seriously and an officer specializing in school situations has since intervened.

Given that our daughter has never been in trouble or has been disciplined at school – she has consistently received glowing comments about her academic ability and positive attitude, we were surprised to receive the following note from her teacher a mere two-days after her return to classes:

“(The classmate who hit our daughter) has been doing her best to avoid Savannah at all times, but Savannah is not reciprocating.  She often stands by the classmate in line or chases her in the gym.

It would be best if Savannah also put an effort into avoiding the classmate.”

As previously indicated, we were of course surprised to receive the note as there had been no meaningful communication from the school since the incident occurred.

I immediately called the teacher for further clarification, and asked her if Savannah was being mean to the other girl or had been taunting her or had otherwise done something wrong.  The teacher assured us that Savannah did not do anything wrong and that she is a sweet girl who does not have a mean bone in her.

The teacher went on to say that they just want to make certain that another situation is avoided in the future.

When I got off of the phone with the teacher both Jennifer and I talked to Savannah and we discovered that in addition to the note, she was called from class so that the principal could talk with her.  The principle, without consulting us on what they planned to do, asked Savannah to stay away from the other girl.  While we do not believe that it was the intent of the principal to make Savannah feel that she had done something wrong, she nonetheless felt that she had.

What is particularly troubling about the school’s plan of action is that is has confused Savannah in that by following the principal’s direction she may be put into the position of having to disobey other rules.  For example, you are not allowed to move ahead or back when you are standing in line in the hallway.  What happens if the other student ends up beside Savannah.  If Savannah moves while in line to get away from the other student she can get into trouble with the teacher.  However, if she stays put she is going against what she was told by the principal.  Remember, we are dealing with a 7 year old not an adult.

After a great deal of discussion and what can be considered a reasonable night’s sleep for parents with 4 children under the age of 7, I sent in the following note to both the teacher and the principal:

Dear Teacher:

Thank you for taking the time to talk with me by telephone yesterday.

As we had discussed, and despite what has happened to her, Savannah is a gentle, sweet and forgiving child.  Therefore it goes against her nature to purposely ignore another person.

While Jennifer and I believe that we understand the intent of your note, we take issue with the manner in which this course of action was introduced.  Specifically, the principal’s decision to pull her from class to tell her to stay away from the other student!  This made Savannah feel that she had done something wrong – which she did not.  After all she is the one who, without warning and provocation, was injured.

Over the next few days we will research the effectiveness of putting a demand such as the one being placed on Savannah in terms of preventing future injury as well as the impact on academic experience.

In the interim, we have instructed Savannah as follows:

  1. Given what has happened in the past, she should be more aware or mindful of the other student and,
  2. That she is not being mean by not engaging or responding to the other student

The above being said, Savannah will not be reduced to walking on egg shells or be forced to mute what has been an otherwise enjoyable experience at school.

For example, if the other student approaches Savannah while she is talking with her classmates, Savannah will not flee from the scene.  Conversely, Savannah will not avoid interacting with other classmates just because the other student may have been in line before her.   In situations such as these we have told Savannah that she should, in a polite but firm voice, remind the other student that they should not be talking and ask her to leave.  If the other student does not respond, we have told Savannah to immediately see the supervising teacher or adult.

We look forward to following up with you once we have completed our research.

Sincerely,

Jon and Jennifer

In the end our concern is that action was taken without our being consulted and, it appears that Savannah is being made to feel responsible for what had happened.  Despite the promise of a meeting we have yet to receive a call from the school’s principal to discuss the situation.  Nor have the other child’s parents given us the courtesy of an apology for what had happened.  I can assure you that had the roles been reversed Jennifer and I would have called the injured child’s parents to see how she was and apologize.  Furthermore, we would have had Savannah write a get well note to the classmate.

Instead, the only contact we received from the parents was in the form of a police officer visiting us at home and telling us that they had received a call complaining that we had been harassing them by way of our postings about the incident on our personal Facebook pages.  We of course did not mention names and after a few brief and concise words with the officer I initiated a meeting with his superior at the station.  The matter was immediately dropped.

So here is the question . . . are our schools properly equipped to deal with bullying?  Do the schools to a certain extent make the victim responsible for bearing the bully’s burden in that they have to modify their behavior, even in those circumstances where they have done nothing wrong?

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Comments
24 Responses to “Should victims be made to bear their bully’s burden?”
  1. Pat Brown says:

    Oh, wow, Jon, I have a very similar story that happened to my son at age eight (or nine)! He was attending a church bible vacation school and some kid, his age, came up behind him as he was standing in line at the water fountain, grabbed both his hands from behind and kicked his feet out from under him, He fell face down on the floor and his top front (adult teeth) knocked out (he had to have fake implants with metal posts into his bone). This boy was asked why he did it and he said he didn’t know, that my son was not bothering him, he didn’t even know my son, and they both looked similar, so it wasn’t a racial thing. The church took no responsibility (even though they were understaffed) and claimed they had no insurance to cover it. I sued them and we had such good evidence (including a note from the boy stating he attacked my son without provocation) that they had to pay up (and they lied…they did have insurance). What really got my goat, though, was the week after the assault (this was before I sued them), the boy was back in the program. My son was scared to death of him and want to be there if the boy was there. The church told me that was his problem, that they were a Christian organization open to all and they were not going to deny my son’s attacker the right to come to the program. If my son was uncomfortable with that, he could stay home!

    I find it absolutely appalling that the victim of crimes of other children are penalized because the adults have issues removing the dangerous child from the school or church. Basically, the victimized child is told to forgive and forget and to squelch his or her very reasonable fears because the adults don’t want to make the little criminal feel badly or deal with meting out proper justice. I have no respect for adults like that.

    • piblogger says:

      Thank you for sharing your story Pat. As always your comments are concise and insightful. I do believe that this problem will not go away until adults do step in and do what’s right as opposed to doing what is convenient. This of course starts at home with the parents of the bully.

  2. Larry Winget says:

    Jon, you did a great job as a parent in this case. Open communication with all parties is the best tactic to take and you did that for sure. What I approve of most is that you made it clear that your daughter would not flee the scene or sacrifice the enjoyment of her day because of the bully. That’s important – instilling fear in the goal of a bully and to run from the situation rewards the bully – the teacher and the principal should also realize that as their advice rewards the bully. In my book, Your Kids Are Your Own Fault, I talk a lot about bullies. My stance is different than most. I believe that it is impossible to have a bully without a victim and that parents should teach their children not to be victims or to be victimized. The first thing I always suggest is to ask your child what is it about them that makes the other girl want to pick on her. She likely won’t know the answer to that but since there are other children involved, asking why she thinks that the bully is picking on each of her friends might help get an answer you can work with. Why does the bully pick on them and not everyone? The answer is that the bully sees weakness and bullies love to prey on the weak. When the bully stops seeing weakness she will stop bullying. These are simple words from an outsider who isn’t in the midst of it all and dealing with a hurt little 7 year old girl – but these are my thoughts. Great blog!

    • piblogger says:

      Thank you, Larry. Your expertise and understanding of these types of situations is invaluable in terms of being able to effectively deal with the bullying problem. Interestingly enough it was your comment during our October 2010 panel discussion on BTR regarding the importance of documenting everything as well as open communication that has been of great benefit to both Jennifer and I as well as Savannah.

  3. Rana says:

    I just wanted to say Thank you (and Jennifer) for sharing this experience that you are all going through with Savannah… It can’t be easy and I wanted you to know that I am really learning a lot on how I can better help my son

    • piblogger says:

      Thank you so much Rana. We are very happy that that you are also gaining some beneficial insight from our experiences. If there is anything we can do to help you do not hesitate to let us know. By working together, we can all put an end to bullying in our schools.

  4. Larry Storey says:

    Well said Jon. I believe schools shouldn’t be dealing with assaults, that is best left for the police who have the tools to handle assaults and the courts to deal out the consequences. Think how foolish it would be if someone was assaulted at their workplace and their supervisor had to deal with the issue. Schools teach, police protect, our judicial system penalizes – simple solution to a problem that has been around too long and has grown out of control.

  5. I’m deeply sorry to hear that your daughter was attacked. I had my fair share of attempted bullying as a kid because I was heavy, so people thought they could pick on me. A punch in the nose usually shut that down, which I know is not very P.C… And to the point of your blog, just how would your daughter manage to avoid this ill-tempered little villain during the course of a school day. In my opinion, what’s missing so far in the debate on bullying is that schools are focused more on the kids than on the kids’ parents… Bullying is cultural. In that I mean you pick it up from home. If torturing the cat is okay in your house, chances are you won’t get punished for expressing the same behavior at school. If your parents demean other races, cultures, religions, you’ll do it as well. I’m probably not the most politically correct guy to comment on this topic because if my son got bullied at school I’d pack all the bullies into my trunk and drive each one home for a personal chat with mom and dad… Hold the parents accountable for bullying and I believe it will substantially decline. Make the parents pay fines, or community service or even jail time and we’ll see bullying decline. Hate breeds hate, so cut the nut off at the tree… The police, the school’s administration, even the town itself, need to stand up with it’s citizens and hold public meetings in schools that this type of behavior is not only unacceptable, but that the parents face penalties for failing to address it. When “Ted & Alice” get arrested in front of their house, or get a visit form family services, because “Ted Jr.” repeatedly bullied other children at school, “Ted and Alice” will start to pay much closer attention to “Ted Jr.’s” behavior. It doesn’t take a village to raise a child, but if you want to raise your child like some feral animal, then you as the parent should pay the consequences.

    • piblogger says:

      You are right on the money Joshua.

      In a book that I co-wrote with Dr. Richard Weinblatt I had made reference to the UK and how that country actually holds parents legally responsible for the actions of their children.

      Of course there are cases in the United States in which parents have been held accountable – although such instances are far and few between. In one example a 16 year old in Detroit broke into several homes while under the influence of marijuana. In court, the judge fined his parents $1,000 for their failure to properly supervise their son.

      While some may bristle at being held accountable for their children’s actions, the fact is that we as parents have an obligation to raise our children so that they grow up to be happy, healthy and productive adults. When parents fail to do all that is necessary to ensure this outcome, they should bear the lions share of the responsibility. Until this happens bullying as well as other problems will continue to plague our society.

  6. Bullying never really bothered me at school … I was short (at high school I was the shortest in the whole school until my last year of school, it was girls and boys) and wore glasses. People tried picking on me but it never really mattered to me. They would call me all sorts of names for being short, so I’d say yes I am short what’s your point? Most found it frustrating that I accepted my “weaknesses” (as Larry said earlier). Probably the worse case I had of bullying came from a teacher at school. I was in Year 11 (second last year of school in Australia) and the vice principal was teaching our history class. I got in trouble for talking or something, so he said stand up. So I did. He then repeated “I told you to stand up” (knowing full well I had just stood up). My parents weren’t happy when I told them about this. I was a very bright student who was well respected by most teachers (the vice principal however had had some run ins with my older sister).

    I now have a daughter at school (she is 8). Thankfully she has only really ran into the “boys don’t like me, say I smell etc.” problem at the moment. However, a friend had to withdraw her son from a primary school because the school did nothing about a boy bullying him. In Australia there is a strong anti-bully message at schools (supported by government and NGOs). However ultimately it is up to the principal taking a hard line on it. I am not sure how I will deal with it when it does happen (because it will). I guess my first approach would be with the teacher and make my way up the line if I get no results.

    On a final note (and a little bit funny). My other daughter, when she was 2.5 (or 3ish) was at a family day care. My wife picked her up after one day and the carer pulled my wife aside. My daughter had wanted a kiss off a boy at the day care (only about 5 attend) and when he wouldn’t let her give him one she had got him in a head lock to get one (he was a year older than her). Of course we told her about personal space and not to grab people etc. but we couldn’t help but laugh when she wasn’t around.

    • piblogger says:

      Thank you for sharing your story withheldindarkness. What is interesting is your reference to the vice principal’s actions, which speaks to the fact that bullying is not confined to children. Interestingly enough I did a show on the subject in which we discussed bullying in the workplace. I wonder how many of the bullies who go unchallenged in childhood grow up to become a bully in the work place?

      • At a previous workplace we had a bully. Everyone was afraid of her. We use to play practical jokes on everyone at work but her. I decided to play a practical joke on her though, and I turned out to be one of her favourites. However if others tried she would get all fired up and aggressive. Again not sure if it was because I wouldn’t let her phase me or what … the bosses were afraid of her, so she was only occasionally told to “behave”. Apparently she was even worse when younger!

  7. Very frustrating – the problem is the school cannot control the problem child who has the anger management problems. You did well. I think the school should have worked with you more carefully to advise you and agree on a course of action. The reason they asked your daughter to avoid the problem child is because your daughter is more likely to comply than asking the problem child to stop, which they won’t. My son was hurt on the bus the other day – they moved my son, which he is a little upset about, but the problem child has to sit in the front to be monitored by the bus driver, so my son isn’t being punished, the problem child just has to be monitored and my son doesn’t. He liked sitting in the front though.

    The advice you gave your daughter is excellent btw. Documentation is key and consistent responses are important. Your daughter needs to report every incident that occurs. That’s the only way to get the problem to stop and get help for the girl who is acting inappropriately and dangerously.

    I’m the author of The Bully Vaccine btw (http://thebullyvaccine.com)

  8. Bullying is a learned behavior and it isn’t always learned from the parents and because the dynamic is between bully and victim, there is only so much talking to a bully can do. Ultimately, the way to get it to stop is to get the victim and by standers to take away the bullies reward. Kids need to be taught explicitly, what to say, how to say it, how to get help and parents need to have their back and yes, contact the police and file criminal charges when necessary. You can’t talk to a bully and get them to stop. They have to be retrained. It’s not easy, but it can be done and it’s a fairly straight forward process. It’s not the answer anyone likes, but it does work. As for punching a bully in the nose, the reason it isn’t acceptable is because occasionally kids die in fist fights. We had one die in our county at an after school fight that just involved fists a couple of years ago. If things escalate to violence it means it wasn’t handled properly at the earlier stages of the harassment. Kids who bully cost society a great deal. They are at greater risk for legal troubles later on and yes, they do become workplace bullies. Why, because it works. This is how they learned how to manage social relationships, through intimidation and fear. We owe it to them and to society to teach our children how to properly handle these situations so that bullies don’t learn how to bully in the first place. (http://thebullyvaccine.com)

    • piblogger says:

      Thank you for your feedback Jennifer. I would also like to suggest to my readers that they check out your book The Bully Vaccine by way of the link that you have provided.

      Bringing the issue of bullying out into the open is critical.

  9. Maura says:

    What a wonderful article.

    Your advice to document everything is spot on. Everything needs to be recorded. (Including phone calls although this may be illegal in some countries.

    I used to be a teacher. I fund that schools were overwhelmed with the problems of their students – incest, death of members of the family, alcoholism, drug addiction the list goes on. So much energy is spent on supporting students with problems like these that when a bullying problem comes up teachers hope it will go away.

    A common attitude is that the child will survive. It will toughen them up.

    Parents must communicate clearly and politely with the school. They must keep on top of the situation and not let any incident slide.

    If things do not improve then they should contact the local member of parliament, a lawyer and the local newspaper.

    Finally, parents need to demand that the school expels students who are damagaining the ability to learn of other students – whether this is due to bullying or general bad behaviour. Unfortunately too many schools bow to pressure from parents of the offenders.

    • piblogger says:

      Thank you for your sound feedback Maura.

      I was fortunate to have interviewed Larry Winget on the subject of bullying back in 2010 and it was his recommendation to document everything. Of course he was at the time talking about how to deal with bullying in the workplace, but the same principle apply to how parents should deal with the problem of their children being bullied at school.

      The key I believe is to in a concise and respectful yet firm manner, bring this issue to light in a atmosphere of transparency as opposed to shrouding the problem under the cover of plausible deniability.

  10. Jenni Walker says:

    I would like to say I’m sorry for what your daughter had to go through. I live in WV and had a similar incident happen to our son. Our son was attacked and sexually assaulted in the bathroom at his school. My son at the time of the attack was 4, the bully was 10yrs old. To make a long story short the school denied it happened. We were never able to confront the parents. We contacted child protective services but found out they only intervene when an adult is involved not a juvenile. There is a huge loop hole in our system. I’ve been trying to get this information out and get some kind of law passed but politicians agree its a issue but nothing is done….
    We contacted the police like you and was told since it wasn’t an adult we had to go through the school.
    Children this young need protected…they are slipping thru the cracks of laws. None wants to pursue anything from my state. There are bullying laws but nothing to enforces penalties on juvenile offenders. Worst punishment given; school suspension. This isn’t enough when the victims are getting hurt physically and mentally. And some like my son don’t recover. I wish it was a scratch or a bruise that will heal, but the damage it did to my son will never go away or heal.
    We did document everything…took the school to court and won! They were found guilty of neglect. They allowed my son to go to the restroom unsupervised..the documentation I had played a key role in our trial.
    My son has been diagnosed with PTSD at the age of 8…he has nightmares, scared to go to the bathroom alone, scared of staying anywhere, has flashbacks, etc… Its so hard to watch your child go through these issues knowing it was caused by a bully. And like others on your blog stated “told it was the victims problem now”. I can tell you from a parents view that when your child’s life has been forever changed and robbed from a normal child/adult life due to a bully…hurts….cause I can’t put a band aid on his wound. I’m there for him always but will it be enough? Knowing that the bully walked away and still lives a normal life is hard to take. It’s a lot like knowing a criminal is walking around with no punishment cause of there are NO LAWS to protect the victims.
    It sickness me that our children have no protection from the school system or the judicial system.
    Any ideas on how to make a difference or change please advise. I’m worried about the future of our children.

    • piblogger says:

      Thank you for sharing what I know as a parent is a painful story. What is most upsetting beyond the incident itself is the denial on the part of the school. Unfortunately, this seems to be the preferred route of response by most schools. It is only when parents unite and take action that changes will be made.

      My thoughts and prayers go out to you and your family.

  11. Jon….Indeed, you and Jennifer have acted appropriately and assertively so that you don’t get bullied yourselves by the school administrators who are hoping this situation just goes away. Obviously, students who bully have emotional issues that their parents often deny or are incapable of stopping. That is not a reason for the administration to ignore what is happening and putting victims in the role of bearing the burden of the issue. It’s as if the administration is saying to Savannah, “this bully has problems, so make sure you don’t provoke her.”

    The child should be suspended and not allowed to come back to school until a mental health professional gives a written ok! End of story.

    Be well.

    Jack

    • piblogger says:

      Thank you for your feedback Dr. Jack. I respect your expertise and insight into what is a growing issue across North America as well as around the world.

  12. My 13 year old was bullied for more than 4 years and we did not find out until she was admitted to an in-patient psychiatric ward for suicidal ideation. We did go after the children using the police. In each instance, the parents believed their children and went into the police station defending their kids. Luckily, it did not come down to a he said she said situation. My daughter had been savvy enough to screen shot the correspondence on aim. AIM (instant messaging) is used extensively by middle school children and the correspondence is not retained as emails from AOL are. So, in each case, after the denials, the parents and children were presented with the kids’ own comments! My daughter has now been hosppitalized 7 times in a year.
    As Executive Director of the Illinois Psychiatric Society, I have a platform to do something about this! Last year, we supported an anti-bullying bill which went absolutely nowhere because it would have required the Illinois State Board of Education to actually put together and implement a uniform policy which they heavily opposed.
    The IPS bill will add cyberbullying as a specific offense in the Parental Responsibilty Act. I hope everyone in this chain of correspondence will support the IPS bill which will be introduced in January. Please email me directly if you would like to have the bill forwarded to you for consideration in January (after it has gone through the Legsilative Review Board.
    Thank you

    • piblogger says:

      Your story Meryl is particularly troubling in that it clearly demonstrates the lasting impact that bullies have on their victims. I have heard so many stories from people who now as adults recount their experiences as if it had just happened the other day. This has to stop.

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