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An Anti-Bullying Strategy for One Child that Affected the Whole School

“I Am Not the Only One”

Part 1

In the autumn of 1974, in my first year as school principal, a kind and gentle fifth grader named Davion was having trouble with some of the other boys in the class. In particular, Jeremy was becoming increasingly intimidating. The teachers intervened anytime they saw an incident. Jeremy had already been sent to my office once, and the teachers were beginning to talk to me about him. We felt that bullying was going on, but saw very few punishable offenses.

One day, Davion’s mother—a kind, thoughtful, single parent —came to my office to complain about Jeremy. I assured her that we had a policy of no tolerance for bullying or harassment. Any kind of physical or verbal violence was unacceptable.

She said, “I can understand people saying mean things to each other, but I have told Davion never, ever to be physically violent.”

I told her that we had the same attitude, but reiterated that I took an equally strong stand against verbal violence. I even told her about the new teacher who told her students that she has one rule: “Be kind,” and that the faculty and I were talking about making that the school rule.

“No physical violence,” she repeated. “It’s an absolute.”

I decided not to press the point, so I said that I wanted Davion to come and talk to me, and she replied that he was afraid to talk to me. When I asked her to encourage him to do it anyway, she bristled. “He shouldn’t have to.”

I said, “I know what you mean. But it is important for him to learn that he can find resources beyond you to help when he has a problem.”

“Look, I am not the only one who is upset. Many parents are talking about this problem.”

We talked for some time, she complaining and protesting, and me insisting that Davion come talk to me. Finally, she left my office unconvinced that her son would be safe, despite my efforts to reassure her. When I walked home from school that day, I went over and over the conversation, but my thinking produced no satisfying plan. I woke up at four in the morning with butterflies in my stomach and stewed on the problem.

As a 29-year-old, rookie principal I was always waking up before dawn with butterflies in my stomach over problems like this, and I had dozens to worry about. After all, in a school with about 250 students I had over 750 incipient relationship problems. I feared that all this worry was sapping my energy, and I couldn’t see that I was solving any problems, but I couldn’t help it. I just woke up before dawn and stewed.

If you had been my mentor, what would you have advised?

Tune in next Wednesday for how it turned out.

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4 Responses to “An Anti-Bullying Strategy for One Child that Affected the Whole School”

  1. Kelly Karius January 4, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

    I would have told you to immediately implement a meeting with Jeremy’s parents, separate from the children, to determine their attitude to the situation. Most parents can accept when their child’s bad behavior is discussed, but rebuke the word bully as a label for their child. The situation needs to be explained in a clearly defined way, and the parents advised of how the school will proceed, hopefully with their assistance. The same kind of meeting can take place with Davion’s mom. These parents must be given tools to teach their children how to avoid both bully actions and victim responses. That’s one level you need to look at. The next is the school and community as a whole. It’s great to say we have a policy of “be kind”, but more specific work is needed to bring everyone on board. A concrete definition of bullying needs to be provided (In the 70’s my advice would have been to write one!). Adults in the school must be supported in programming as well as the children.
    Oh Rick…if we could travel across time and talk! I’ll be watching for how it turned out.
    Blessings, thanks for sharing.
    Kelly

  2. Brooke January 5, 2012 at 6:50 am #

    The best “bullies” are smart and figure out how to do what they do leaving no figure prints.

  3. Todd January 6, 2012 at 9:25 am #

    Hey Rick,

    I tend to agree with Kelly. The attitude and assistance of the parents of the problem kid is a key ingredient.

    I would add that I think the mother was short-sighted in her refusal to encourage her kid to talk to you. Not that you had any control over that. But parents of kids who are bullied have a responsibility to their kid to help them find ways to solve the problem. Simply going to the school and saying, “Fix it.” Is missing an opportunity to teach the kid a life-skill.

  4. Rick Armstrong January 6, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

    As a just retired CC math teacher, I regret not having been more ‘interventionist’ with our adult students in terms of “Let’s talk about….” with respect to attitude, low grades, or absence. When I did intervene, it was usually positive. Thus I feel awkward advising well outside of my experience and my comfort zone. I’d suggest:
    1. Be friendly to Davion in hallway and at entrance. After a couple encounters, “Would you like to chat sometime?”
    2. Alert the teachers, “Next time please bring Jeremy and Davion to my office”.
    3. If you feel you do need mom’s permission to speak to Davion, ask her to join as an ‘observer’ with the conversation clearly between Davion and you.

    Nice cliff-hanger – waiting for the sequel. 🙂

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