First Person

Editor's blog: Why bullying is so complicated

Susan Johnson’s 10-year-old son is quiet, and a bit of a loner who has struggled socially so it took a while for her to learn how he had been suffering at a certain Dougco school.

This is a school that put a special focus on bullying this year by drafting its own bullying policy, and by participating in Rachel’s Challenge, an anti-bullying, pro-kindness campaign founded by the family and friends of Columbine victim Rachel Scott.

The school hosted an assembly at the beginning of the year for all its K-8 students to discuss bullying. Throughout the year, the school promoted kindness, helping, compassion, leading, and letting go, all core values of Rachel’s Challenge. There were daily messages in morning announcements that were followed up in the classroom with mini lessons or conversations. The school has peer counselors to handle bullying and conflicts when they erupt between students, and a school counselor and psychologist who visit classrooms to teach Second Step, an anti-bullying curriculum.

bummed boy with head against brick wall / bullyThis is also a school where Johnson says her son was bullied.

I am not naming the school because it would not be fair to single it out as a haven for bullies. There is no way to verify this school is any worse than any other in terms of the number of bullying incidents, or the handling of them. However, two other families shared stories about bullying over the past couple years that resulted in the decision to pull their children out of this very school.

It is important to note that Johnson’s son is no angel. (Johnson is also not his real last name. His mother was fine with me publishing it, but I’m not sure her son would be).

Max Johnson got called to the dean’s office a few times for tipping over chairs, and drawing a picture of a pie being tossed in a girl’s face.  But, he was also in accelerated math and always had good grades – until they started to slip at the beginning of fourth grade last school year.

Within days, Max was crying about having to go to school. “Don’t make me go back there,” he’d sob. He said boys would throw food at him in the cafeteria. If he was on a swing at recess, he told his mom a certain boy always tried to jostle the chain so he’d fall off.

“It was just constant harassment,” Johnson said. “Then I find out another kid was punching him. (My son) was very intimidated.”

Alone in the lunchroom

Johnson wanted to know what was going on, so she went to the school and peered into the lunchroom.

“I looked through the windows…it was almost like he had a disease,” Johnson said, her eyes reddening. “All these spaces around him were empty.”

Johnson decided she needed to take action and asked for a meeting with the school’s dean Sept. 7. Johnson said she was assured the school would look into the situation. There was a second meeting with the dean and the head of the school’s counselors. Johnson thought the situation with her son was being addressed.

But it didn’t stop. In fact, things got worse.

Johnson found some disturbing drawings by her son. One showed a boy holding a gun to his head, with several other drawings of ways he could die. Then there were threats against other kids at school. Johnson was beside herself. She recalls crying as she wrote follow-up emails to the dean pleading for help.

And that’s when, she said, the school put up a professional wall. School officials are prohibited from discussing Johnson’s case due to student confidentiality rules. But the dean and the school’s board president said the school takes bullying very seriously.

“As a school we are committed to the safety and well-being of our students and staff,” they wrote in an email. “We continually strive to better ourselves as a school and staff. We feel we have an incredible staff who are dedicated individuals who care deeply for our students.”

Johnson ended up turning to her church. A youth pastor at The Rock, Sylvia Barhonas, began counseling Max.

“It really made a big difference,” Johnson said. “It saved him. It helped him see he is worthwhile. He used to say, “I’m a fourth grade nothing.”

Pastor Sylvia, as she’s known (and yes, this is her real name), recalled the boy’s struggles. She did not focus so much on who did what to whom, but rather the impact of whatever was happening on this boy, who was full of despair when he showed up to see her.

“He did not like himself,” Pastor Sylvia said. “Whatever happened to him, he believed it to be true. He was so afraid – it overshadowed anything positive the school was doing.”

Johnson, meanwhile, wondered if she was the only parent experiencing problems with bullying at the school. So, on Sept. 28, she posted a message on a certain Facebook page for school moms asking if anyone else had experienced similar issues – an act she said didn’t go over well with school leadership.

She said one of the first calls came from the mother of the boy her son had pegged as the bully. That mother said her son had also been bullied at the school.  But the biggest surprise? The mom said the school had never contacted her about Johnson’s complaints.

“Right then, it was war”

“Right then, it was war,” Johnson said.

She and her husband ended up pulling Max out of the school Sept. 29. He attends another public school in Dougco, and, by all accounts, is doing well.

But Johnson won’t stop. She still attends every one of the school’s board meetings. She wants an assurance this won’t happen again. The school did investigate her family’s case, based on a complaint filed by the Johnsons in late October. It took five months to get a reply. School officials found that all bullying protocols were followed.

She even reported student names to Safe2Tell, which brought a detective to family’s homes asking questions. Nothing has come of the resulting investigation.

“We just want the right thing,” Johnson said. “We’re not stopping. We expect to gain nothing out of this. It’s been a big pain in the neck. I’m sick of thinking about it  – but we can’t walk away.”

School officials, meanwhile, said their school is always working on being better.

“Each and every year we continue to improve our process, procedures, and education of our staff and students alike,” the dean and board president wrote in an email message. “We continue to learn how to better handle situations and to teach our students how to handle themselves as well.”

With a little luck, both Johnson and teachers and staff at the school have learned something from this sticky situation and its continuing fallout. But it may still be too early to know what. This story illustrates why the handling of bullying incidents can be so complicated.

If you were the school dean, or the boy’s mother, what what you have done?

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk