When School Policy Isn’t Enough

October is anti-bullying month.  I know that today marks the second last day of this annual observance and campaign, and some may even suggest it’s a little late to post on this topic, but I feel it is the perfect time.

Most spend the first 10 to 15 days of the month being bombarded by organizational propaganda, reading about the sad stories of victims and genuinely feeling sorry this problem exists.  But it’s just not pretty, and so by the end of the month it, and its importance, have been given permission to fade from our consciousness, in favour of the next, shinier and sexier, cause (Movember).

Face it:  Bullying happens.  And it happens every day, not just in October.  Not only when the world is forced to stand up and listen and hopefully care, but every day. And it takes so many forms.  Some so insidious you may not even realize they are happening.  Sometimes, the very people who are supposed to help and protect your are the biggest perpetrators of it.  I know because my family is the victim of bullies.  And today, on this 7th anniversary of moving to our new home, and only 2 days left in Anti-Bullying Awareness Month it is the perfect time to tell you our story.

It started when we moved to our first house, in a small town, seven years ago.  My son entered Senior Kindergarten partway through the school year; a tough transition for such a little guy, but he made it through the day and even came home at the end of the first week proud of having made a friend.                   ¿

This had been a big move for our family and a decision we hadn’t made lightly, as we migrated north with our young family, almost 2 hours away from our nesting grounds.  Having been the victims of crime on three occasions in a very short time in the Toronto area, this mother hen said “hell no I’m not raising my chicks here!”

My husband and I both longed for the safety of our childhood.  A time when children came streaming out their front doors at 9 a.m. and weren’t seen again until shortly after the streetlights came on.  During those hours, children were explorers, soldiers, musicians, robots, mothers, fathers, dogs, horses…wherever their imagination could take them.  And we had no geographical restrictions.  We were given license to travel wherever we wanted in our suburban limits, as long as we were home when the streetlights came on.

My mother never worried about where I was or what I was doing because we had connections with our community: neighbours, friends, parents of friends, storekeepers.  We all knew each other and watched out for each other. (How do you think I got caught smoking down at the creek twice?!)  It was a magical time I still keep in the locked box of my memory.

And it was this freedom I sought for my children by making this move.

Shortly after moving here, we started to notice changes in our son’s behaviour and moodiness and attributed them to an adjustment period.  Small at first, those changes gradually overtook our sweet little boy in spite of our efforts to stop them.  He could be his usual happy-go-lucky self most of the time, but at others become defensive and angry about what seemed to be nothing.  This continued to the end of SK without him being able to express what was happening inside him to cause this.

Finally, in Grade 1 (six years old), he came home to tell me about a boy and his friend who were being mean to him and calling him names and shoving him around. In total, there were two incidents where my son reported being bullied by these two older boys to me.  They were only a grade ahead but they were the size of 10 year olds.  I reported each of these incidents when I learned of them and was told each time the principal would investigate and take corrective action.  I accepted that. However, no follow up was ever made with me or my son.

By the end of Grade 2, our amazing, happy little boy had all but disappeared, adding to his miserable demeanour a harsh critic, who lied and stole and crept up on his sister to purposely scare her to death; only one of the tactics he started using to bully her.  By the end of Grade 2, I had been to the school another three times to report separate incidents of the same two boys bullying my son, for a total of five incidents.  The final time, the school principal told me that I needed to “understand the home situations of those boys” and I almost lost it.

It was that precise moment I realized with whom the support lay at our school.  My rage over this realization forced me right out the front door without another word, before I could actually strike her for her ignorance.  At this point I’m not sure what I believed about her, personally, but I had now come to realize school policies are only as effective as those enforcing them.  Two years later, after having received another 7 reports from me when these boys had bullied my son, this principal, the leader at our school said:

“Perhaps [my child] should do a presentation on the country he’s from and present it to the school at the next assembly so the other kids can understand more about him and maybe it will help them learn tolerance”…

WTF???!!!!

I asked her if she thought a project on Canada would help, sarcastically.  She said, “well, no.  I mean the country he comes from”.  My son was born the inter-racial child of a white Canadian woman and a short Laotian man…. in Canada.

After reiterating at least 6 times to this ignorant racist that my child is Canadian and that it is not HIS job to teach tolerance, but HERS, I hung up on her.  She had come so close to doing the same to me I didn’t care how rude it may have been.  I trembled with the shock at her clear prejudice against my child and I couldn’t process what had just happened.

Why did we move here?  I ask myself this question all the time. That question leads to others: Will moving away will make it better?  Will moving away damage my daughter who is (quite astonishingly) well adjusted here?  And then I ask myself again:  WHY did we move here?

On the surface, the town we chose was a “white, Christian” community, with the exception of the Indian family running the Mac’s and the Korean family running the Daisy Mart.   There is no melting pot here and I did know that.  I just didn’t think it mattered for some reason.  I can’t tell you why I thought we wouldn’t encounter racism here, I just didn’t.  I hate making assumptions based on a surface review of a thing, and knowing it was 2006 (plus, believing in the social shift I see since the dawning of the Age of Aquarius), I convinced myself we would not encounter racism here.  My son is an inter-racial child.  His father and I divorced when he was a baby and being mine, I see only my boy’s physical perfection.  I am blind to his heritage, in a way.  I know it’s there, I just don’t spend time on it.  If it matters to you to understand my perspective, I’m a very Arian-looking woman but I have no ethnic prejudices so, no, I didn’t think I was fooling myself.  I have always believed there are lots of me’s out there.

And in my naiveté 7 years ago, I believed that.  I was so wrong on so many levels.  Perhaps in retrospect, I wanted this setting so badly I only hoped, rather foolishly, more than believed, we would not encounter racism here.

Now, travel quickly through the rough years at home with me; you don’t want to see these:  My boy has become miserable and in turn, so have the rest of us.  All traces of the happy-go-lucky child have disappeared.  We live in terror of our own child’s temper, rage and physical attacks on our home and its inhabitants.  We occasionally bring our daughter’s mattress into our room to sleep and lock our bedroom door for the false sense of security, or extra 2 minutes it might afford us to escape.  We hide all the sharp tools or discard them entirely, we go around the house each night looking for potential threats.  We have sleepless nights we worry we will be the subject of some tragic news story we’ll never get to read.   We eliminate violent imagery from his world as much as we can, we try to talk to him but he just doesn’t “know” what’s wrong, or can’t (or won’t) put it in words.  And our questions can send him into nuclear meltdown mode. Yes, we lived like that for three and a half years.  Victims of the bully who had been our son.

Fast forward to Grade 6 and we have a new principal.  At home, my son’s disruptive, violent, insolent, moody, rebellious, destructive behaviour has hit a peak that seems to have no summit.  Until the day he said “no more”.  After three and a half terrible years of thinking I, his mother, am the one who will get through to him given the right time, the right readings, the right influences, the right diet, the right support, the right…..Sigh.  No support I could ever conjure would make up for what he had been enduring but never spoke aloud.  And until he fought back, I never understood what he had been enduring.

My precious little boy has been spit on, he has been kicked, he has been punched, he has been tea-bagged, he has been pushed/shoved, he has had things thrown at him, and had precious possessions stolen to taunt him with.  The physical attacks were not daily, but often enough to keep his spirit broken.  The physical assaults on his psyche are not what hurts most, nor what has the long-term effects on self-esteem.

What hurts most are words.  “Just words”:

“Nip”, “Charlie”, “Chink”, “Gook”, “Rice patty”, “loser”, “freak”, “dumbass”, “weirdo”.

Sadly, my precious little boy, having the potential and brain-power to be anything he wants, believes he is too stupid to live.  He first showed signs of being suicidal at 11. Yes, you just read that correctly:  “suicidal at 11”.  At around the time he developed these thoughts, he also decided not to take the bullying anymore and brought a plastic butter knife to the school yard for protection (I found out later) and not only used it, but got caught.

Even more sadly, when the racist principle was removed from our school, she took with her any prior knowledge of the systematic bullying my son had endured and he was treated as the aggressor.  She had never recorded a single one of the more than 12 separate incidents I complained about in his file.  There was no evidence to support our side that my child had been systematically broken down by these boys and he finally fought back.  Instead, the real aggressor got away with it (again!) and my child received the first of three 5 day suspensions.  He has since fought back and been suspended two more times.

Maybe I shouldn’t, but I applaud him for that.  Maybe I should be the one saying: “be the bigger person, son”, but I have been saying that for years and he has been living it and it just ain’t working anymore!  Maybe I should approach the mother’s to resolve this, but they do their best to intimidate me with the power of their little clique and it works:  I’m too chicken!

So, now we live with the knowledge that the school is unable or unwilling to assist us.  School policy is not protecting my child.  The administrator’s tasked with upholding the policies are not protecting my child; in fact the first administrator contributed significantly to the bullying problem by not removing her bias shade.

It is unfortunate the school administrator did not understand it is not her privilege to allow her personal bias, stereotype or prejudice – simple.  When receiving consistent reports from the family about the SAME CHILD’s insidious bullying, using racial slurs, threats and intimidation it was her JOB to do something to end it and she did not.

As a family, we have travelled this weary road for too long.  We need peace.  We have found some in the last year since my child’s suicidal thoughts were made known and he started seeing a youth counselor once a week or so.  In Sara, he has a confidante, a mentor and a counselor.  Her office is a place where he can not only talk about what is happening and how it makes him feel, but new strategies to cope with and even overcome his fear and pain.  Since he started seeing her I have seen hints of my sweet little boy back.  (Granted, he’s a pre-teen and he’ll naturally not be “sweet” all the time for a few years.)

We are among the lucky ones.  We not only discovered our child’s misery and pain, but seem to have discovered it in time to make positive change in his life.  I pray there are more of us out there.

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