10: Trust

This is the final post in a series about my son’s recent experience with bullying at school.

After heartbreak, frustration, a friend’s inspiration, and talks with other parents and the school counselor, we got busy. We met with the principal of the lower school. We met with the principal of the middle school. We met with the head of school. We met with a dozen parents in the school counselor’s office. And then we made a plan with those parents to host a meeting with the entire lower school—all 280 families—facilitated by the school counselor, to talk about what we wanted the school to do about bullying. We set a date, prepared an all-school invitation, secured a location, planned the agenda.

And then things started to shift.

Before we could hold that all-school meeting, the administration asked to meet with us. Ian and I were nervous, beset with that old sent-to-the-principal feeling. We reminded ourselves of all of our reasons for holding the parent meeting, our justifications, our rights. We prepared for a fight.

But instead of a fight, the administration offered contrition. We’re sorry, they said. Sam should have never have had to suffer at the hands of his classmates, they said. We realize it’s our responsibility to keep Sam safe, they said, and we have failed.

They told us that it is their job to make sure that each child who comes to the school is supported, and sees themselves reflected in the school. They told us that they had fallen down on that job, and wanted to make things better.

And then they outlined their plans for immediate, intermediate, and long-term bullying prevention work. The plans include hiring a new school counselor with anti-bullying experience, making bullying prevention the couselor’s top priority, launching a preventative anti-bullying curriculum in all grades, starting LGBT diversity training, and engaging parents through a parent/faculty/administration committee and teacher/parent education workshops.

This was so not the reaction we were expecting.

Then they asked us not to hold that parent meeting we’d been planning. We hear you, they said; making clear that it would not be helpful to have hundreds of parents telling them what they already knew. And though we’d been prepared to justify our reasons for moving forward with the meeting, we agreed. It didn’t make sense to antagonize people who were doing just about exactly what we’d asked them to do.

As we left I said to Ian, “Wow, I feel bad that we were amassing a parent army when they were planning to do all this work.”

Ian said, “Why do you think they’re planning to do all this work?”

Right. They’re doing this because the looming threat of hundreds of angry families got their attention. They realized that many parents care, and many children are facing the same issues Sam has been facing. And they seem to understand, at a fundamental level, that this work is essential to the wellbeing of their students. By broadening our focus from gender-specific diversity training to bullying in general, we’d engaged allies we hadn’t had before, and brought in people we never knew cared about LGBT issues. And our voices, together, cut through the mess of competing priorities that make up a school administrator’s life.

I am so immensely, entirely, deeply grateful to the parent group who gave this work the power it needed to become reality.

And so, although we had one plan, we made a different one. The new plan involves trust and optimism that the administration will follow through with their commitments. It involves faith, and a willingness to let go of our anger and frustration. Although, given our multi-year history of of problems for Sam, that faith is tempered with caution and the need to keep a close eye on what happens in the fall.

And our parent group waiting in the wings, watching.

But in the mean time, we’ve decided to trust.

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Comments

  1. says

    Wow. That’s exciting and kind of nerve wracking. I look forward to hearing about the program, if you can write about it, and how it goes forward …

    It just goes to show that when you look for allies, they are, indeed, out there.

  2. says

    Awesome response – the optimist inside wants to believe the school isn’t just spouting rhetoric. Please do keep us updated on what the school puts in place.

    New Zealand has one of the worst bullying records, and not just in schools. Vodafone here just recently won an award for a txt/pxt blocking service (http://tinyurl.com/42h8hug) which means the big boys are listening too.

    Consider your readers as part of that parent army out there, waiting and watching with you. Kia kaha!

    • shoffman says

      We’ve asked them to….over and over. I love that curriculum. It’s all in the hands of the new school counselor…we’ll see what she does with it.

  3. Mark says

    Excellent result so far. You did a great job of mobilizing and that brought the admin to a clear understanding of the issues. It wasn’t just the bullying of Sam, which of course was an important factor, but the bullying of all children that got the attention of all these parents and then brought that to the forefront. Great work and REALLY important work too.

    I thought your response to their plans was also great, it was mature and you can always then interface with the counselor and the admin of things need to be tweaked. You have your posse standing by to help now that it’s all in the open. Great job Sarah, and Ian!

  4. says

    I’m glad you were able to get that kind of response. I am glad that you have a great community of parents that were waiting and willing to move forward with the parent meeting.

    I would still engage with parents….in case the school fails to hold it’s end of the bargain up, your family wouldn’t have to start engaging with others from scratch.

    It’s nice to read about parents really caring about their children. I work in a school district so I’ve witnessed a lot in terms of parental involvement, bullying, and anti-bullying (we use caring communities here)…..Sam is lucky to have parents that care about him!

  5. Donn Christianson says

    This gives the little boy who was me hope that, one day, no one will live in fear of going to school to learn. That parents will listen. Schools will listen. Teachers will *so* something. Principles will *do* something. Things will change.

    I had to fight my way out of my own cowardice by secreting myself away and becoming a fledgling warrior at 15. I had to prove myself an unworthy target, in spite of being ignored by almost, almost, everyone who could help, but did not.

    You made them act because you were dedicated and you weren’t going to back down.

    The same thing will work with bullies.

    We won’t stand for this. We will act. We will pressure you. You will have no targets coming to, at, or leaving, this school anymore.

  6. says

    What a fabulous resolution. I’m also impressed with your stamina on this issue. Sam is fortunate to have you–as are all the children who who benefit at his school. Thanks so much for this series!

  7. says

    I’m sure I am not the only one to say this, but do you think it might have been prudent and productive to go ahead and have the meeting and invite the principle, etc, to announce all these plans? Thus, the staff would be further inspired to move effectively and the parents would be inspired that they are and effective part of the team? I’m a little cynical, but this would turn the media spectacle that the Admins want so desperately to avoid, into something in their favor, as well as further “inspiring” them and possible cementing the work already done by the parents. Maybe I’m too pushy, but MLK didn’t back down when LBJ signed the voting rights act; he just kept right on going with his new ally!

    • shoffman says

      We did want to have a meeting like that, but they assured us that they would announce the plans to the parents at the beginning of next school year. This is one of the things we’re just going to have to trust…I love the MLK analogy, we have to aspire high. If we don’t see immediate action in September, I think your suggestion is the first thing we’ll do.

  8. says

    I’m very impressed with the school’s decision to hire a new counselor – especially one trained specifically in dealing with LGBT issues. It certainly looks like things are on there way to a good, safe place for Sam and I’m glad the school finally took a step forward. Most schools would be hesitant to hire a new counselor and I think it says a lot about what they’re willing to do in the future to correct how the bully situations have been handled in the past.
    Way to go! The parent meeting that was organized was definitely the step that made the school take action and even though it didn’t happen, I’m pleased to see so many parents were willing to stand up for what’s right!
    Good luck to you and Sam in the new school year and I look forward to hearing more about your journey. :)

  9. Laura says

    My gut reaction, while of course I hope for the best, is this:

    Still contact every single parent. It takes WAY more than campaign trails and terminology and one person (the new experienced-with-bullying counselor that as of now hasn’t surfaced, doesn’t exist, and may not take the wages they offer; remember that experience and hard work often walk out the door when it comes to public schools, since they do not treat that experience and labor with very tangible-for-my-family results) to fix a major wreck. In school terms, a long term bullying problem is no easy fix, and just like Obama can’t magically undo YEARS of wreckage from Bush, this person won’t magically dust the place with anti-bullying anything and make it happen.

    It’s going to take the whole village. You ALL have to get this to happen. If you want it happening as fast as you OBVIOUSLY all do–because no one wants their kid coming home hurt. Even the worst parents in terms of affection and such don’t want hospital bills (not saying yours are like that, just a bad early morning way to say there are many ways bullying hurts everyone–money hurts the parents in the gut while the blood and tears tears their hearts to pieces). Takes a whole village to raise the school up to the standards, and my suggestion=committees. You have the summer, and you can still, on or off sight, take these willing parents, find out what they do best, what they’re efficient in achieving, and what they like to do (hey, I am ace at math but I don’t want to manage another corporate budget for the rest of my life!) Be the HR of the bully prevention squad, the BPS that can locate the problems, zoom into them, and find the best ways to tackle them with the help of literal hundreds.

    In presenting it to the principal, you can also point out that kids can be reshaped, molded, and problem kids can get help in the summer instead of just sitting around playing video games, going to camp a week here or there, and going back into the familiar bully world come fall. You clearly don’t want to say YOUR KID IS DOING THIS, but you want to say “ALL OUR KIDS NEED…” and get the kids to comprehend defending everyone everywhere in the school. Bullies are very quickly defeated one at a time if and when the other kids know how and are brave enough to–ie it’s expected and if they don’t, they get in trouble (the only way to get kids to “get it” is to make every single life of every single kid the liability of every other kid; in that, obviously, I’m not talking about them being gastroenterologists at large :)). Even if the school doesn’t punish kids, parents sure can, and if every parent will agree to one thing–superficial, fun, and not necessary (ie XBox/Wii/pizza/friends coming over)–they’ll absolutely ground their kids of any day the “prayer chain, BPS style” notifies them that a kid was bullied and no one helped… I’m not sure how solid the resolve of everyone is, but if everyone can seriously take away that one random whatever (ie not a punishment of extremes but still a bummer) because WHOEVER WAS THERE didn’t stop it, because it happened at all… that is the FAST way. In our school, it was silent lunch. Thing was, for junior high, it was silent lunch THE WHOLE SEMESTER. THAT is what you call memorable punishments (and it is realistic–we get crap for what others do all the time, sadly!) In elementary school, MY school had the counseling stuff, extreeeemely proactive, ridiculously so and over half my classmates went into human service fields last I heard–docs, social workers, even doing financial management for non-profits. The volunteerism runs high in parents. I mean, you get this guilty pleasure of absolutely obsessing over something and spending money you can’t spend on yourself and making someone else happy and raising your own kooky genetic blend of awesome… You volunteered for 18 years of volunteering when you had and kept the child. There may be a deadbeat here or there, but even if that’s true, you only need ‘enough’ which would be probably 4/5 kids proactive and defending others’ honors.

    The prayer chain concept you probably know… it’s a circular sort of thing. With 200+ whoever’s child was hurt calls 4 who call 4 who call 4 and soon everyone’s kid ultimately has (and it can be linked to the level of bullying; physical violence obviously is huge, whereas a name, while it hurts inside and hurts DEEP, can’t functionally, in school or the real world, equal the same consequences since it’s very possible the insult wasn’t grasped. By EVERY child being punished when a kid is bullied, even just for a few days and even just “no whatever you’re most into right now” (ipod, cell phone, those are REALLY effective!) they all feel pain from someone else being hurt. It makes people more connected and acutely aware and attentive to the needs and sensitivities of other kids. Not sure if that makes sense, but while the school will have to do the hard enforcement IN the school, it truly has to go back to home, and while the nicest kids on earth may be sweet shy and all other things to Sam, believe me, as the tiny shy mousy girl with huge brown eyes and pale skin that looked terrified to speak up (blame my kindergarten teacher for saying “her academic skills are so strong; if only we could improve her listening skills to that level.” It literally shut me up for nearly all of my schooling. I got a bad mark on behavior for being nice and fun and for other people wanting to play with my hair–I mean, we were 4-5!)… One thing made me talk back as sassy and strong as a Saved By the Bell cool kid… someone being mean, disrespectful, even vandalizing or littering. Man, I was a policechild… but because I only spoke up when it mattered and when they KNEW they were doing something wrong, not to belittle or brag, it shut every single one up. When kids get told they should be loud and protect, they will. They just need permission and the expectation. They go by the leads they are given. As for the kid who IS the bully on any given day, that kid will feel VERY unpopular if he knows every single kid got grounded from their favorite thing because of their mean behavior. That is the RIGHT social pressure: “treat people like crap, and they’ll think you ARE crap.” This is a reinforcer that at least a few of my childhood psych intervention techniques emphasized (and told me wow I had really solid teachers, too–pardon my English, but They Knew Their Shit!!)

    So there’s my 2 cents before I spend it!

  10. Melissa says

    I just found your blog, I commend you for being an awesome mom and supporting your child in a way no one else can. If all parents stood up for their children’s rights they way you have the world would be a much better place. God bless.

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