Over this past weekend a young student from the South O'Brien Community School District committed suicide. He was the victim of relentless bullying and harassment after he revealed he was gay about a month ago. The taunting started soon afterward, and a horribly malicious Facebook page was posted. When school officials intervened, consequences were meted out, and the school officials had no further reports from the victim. When there are no further reports the case is closed and the district moves on. That is the way it is handled in Iowa school districts, once we have investigated the incident, if there are no further reports the case is closed.
We have students here at the Hudson Community School District who report incidents of bullying. They come from victims and witnesses. We often find that the bullying has been going on for quite some time and the victim or victims friends just can not take it anymore and file a formal complaint. I like to think that once we start the investigation process and take it through to fruition, we are very successful. Our consequences are severe, beginning with a lengthy suspension. If a student violates the bullying policy three times during their career as a student they are recommended for expulsion. And yes, we have actually expelled students for bullying. I was very surprised in my first year when we did just that. When my administrators brought me this recommendation it seemed a little heavy handed, but I was assured that this was the way that we do business at Hudson. No fooling around with bullies. No place for bullies, we are going to root it out. I was even more surprised that when we had the hearing and presented the evidence, the Board acted swiftly and decisively.
Indeed the consequences are severe, even after the first and second offense. But what has bothered me over the last week is the idea that there are so many cases of bullying, probably even in our own school district, that go unreported. In the case of this youngster, after an initial report of bullying had been dealt with, there were no further reports. Clearly, this youngster was still being harassed. Often times victims won't report the violence because they fear that the abuse will only intensify. Was that the case here? I don't think we will ever know.
Sometimes kids will report to their parents that they have been victimized, only to be sworn to secrecy by their kids, because of a belief that the school can't, won't, or hasn't done anything. That is a huge mistake. In our school district, once something has been reported we act on it, regardless of whether or not it goes against someones wishes. In fact, there have been times that an incident has been reported and the investigator has stated "You do realize that now that you have reported this, I am duty bound to follow up" (sometimes to the chagrin of the witness or parent).
Then there is the bully. On some rare occasions, we get the parents that state, "How dare you make this accusation! My child would never do something like that. For crying out loud they are friends!" They can't believe that the consequences for this type of behavior are so severe and unyielding. Why are we so relentless when it comes to reprimanding bullies? The reason is that we can't afford not to. We have to protect our students. We have to make sure that this type of behavior is properly addressed and that bullies everywhere know that we are very serious about stopping this barbaric behavior. Did you know that a school district in New Jersey was recently sued because the district didn't do enough to stop their sons tormentor. They won a settlement of $4.2 Million. In this particular case, the student was hit so hard in the stomach that he formed a blood clot. As a result the student is now paralyzed and confined to a wheel chair.
Monetary motivations such as being on the losing end of a lawsuit are really not the point here. That is truly irrelevant. The point is that we are quite literally dealing with life and death in many of these cases. There is no amount of money that can squelch the pain of losing a child. As educational leaders, teachers, parents, and adults everywhere; we are not wired to bury kids. We are wired to educate them, nurture them, and guide them toward adulthood. We are here to teach them right and wrong, to show them that everyone deserves human dignity and respect. Too often we hear about a student committing suicide because they have just simply had enough and can't take it anymore. Two of the five students featured in the documentary Bully killed themselves because they could no longer tolerate the cruelty that was directed at them.
Bullies are manipulative and sneaky. When the question is ultimately asked, "Why didn't you do anything", our response: "This is the first report we have heard".
"But it has been going on for months," you say. "How could you not see what was going on?"
The fact of the matter is that we probably haven't. This happens out of earshot of the adults. It happens in the hallway when no one is looking. It happens in the locker room where no one is around. It happens when the teacher turns his back to write something on the black board. It happens on the school bus. So you see, we probably didn't see it.
But, here is the good news. Someone did see.
For the students who may be reading this blog post: You saw it, didn't you? Did you intervene? Did you report this to an adult or principal?
To those students who have sworn their parents or friends to secrecy. Don't. Let us help you.
To those students who may have seen something. Tell an adult.
I think we can all agree that an intervention where an aggressor is dealt with in a swift and decisive manner is a very small price to pay. You may save a life. You may also provide a life lesson for that bully.
Finally, and in closing if you or anyone you know has been the victim of bullying and harassment in our school district, you are urged to call Mr. Lipinski immediately.