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Warshaw Law Firm, advocating for the educational rights of special needs children, is dedicated to protecting the rights of children with disabilities and children who are the victims of or accused of bullying, and assisting families in crisis through mediation and collaborative divorce.
HARASSMENT, INTIMIDATION, BULLYING, CYBER-BULLYING, AND RETALIATION ARE REAL
Written by Julie Warshaw, Esq.
August 18, 2013- This article and Blog post is meant for educational purposes only and it is not intended to provide legal advice. No attorney client relationship is created by this article.
Harassment, intimidation, bullying, cyber-bullying, and retaliation are real. Many students in our schools have experienced first hand the effects of such behavior and not enough is being done by school districts to educate students about harassment, intimidation, and bullying, known as HIB, to investigate properly complaints of HIB, and to institute effective measures to address the HIB behavior and to change the climate and culture of our children’s schools.
The following are the brave words of an 11-year old client of mine, who not only had to cope with the devastating loss of his older brother, but during the same time frame, suffered first hand from physical abuse from older high school students, being called racial epitaphs, teasing by students about the loss of his brother, bullying by teachers and administrators, and his school’s failures to address HIB behaviors. This child will forever be my hero and his strength is the reason why I will continue my mission to end HIB in our schools and to ensure that all children are safe in school. To protect his identity, I will only refer to him as “TC.”
T.C. in his own words wrote:
I don’t understand what happened and why it happened to me. I am not allowed to do something I use to love doing which is school. What they did to me makes me mad and sad because I am only a kid. I am not perfect but no one is and the things said and did to me should never happen to anyone. I feel left out because for months I could not talk about how school was because they did not want me there. I took a lot of verbal and physical abuse, not telling at first because I thought it would go away and not wanting to have my mom to have to deal with one more thing. I had a purpose once in my life, I had a list of things I wanted to be, wanted to do and I no longer have a purpose because I’m not sure about anything. It was a struggle waking up and not being able to go to school on a school day because they are mad at my mom for standing up for me. Every day I have to worry about the color of my skin keeping me from the same great opportunities as others, or have to feel like allowing myself not to speak up for myself because I will not be heard because of the color of my skin. My mom taught me that people were all the same no matter what color they are and respect is respect. Still knowing what my mom taught me, I started not to believe it because of what they were doing to me and what they did to me. Wanting everything to stop, the name calling (I’m no nigger, I’m T.C.), bullying, mistreatment by the kids and staff, and the abuse, I thought about killing myself. I had a way to kill myself, to hang myself, but the only thing I thought about was my mom and how sad she would be. I watched my mom cry so many times out of frustration of what they was doing me, not being able to do anything because it seem as if the town stuck with each other. Ms. B. and Ms. K. said to me don’t never give up and trying. That stuck with me and because of that I use it to help remind me that if I kill myself they win.
T.C. is not alone in that so many children in our schools today are suffering in silence for fear of upsetting their parents and family and for fear that if they tell someone, the bully will retaliate or that no one would listen. This is a frightening reality and it must change to protect our children.
Last year I visited a Middle School in a very affluent town. This town spent a lot of money obtaining the best and most well known anti-bullying programs they could find. However, it does not matter if a school district has money or not. What matters is how the information about HIB is presented to students, administrators, teachers, and school personnel, and if that information is used by everyone at the school to create positive change. Here, there appeared to be a disconnect between defining what HIB was and actually recognizing the significance of it and doing something about it.
I was waiting in the main office of the school and I noticed that there was a box in the corner that was overflowing with pieces of folded papers. The box was labeled “Anonymous Bullying Tips.” I asked the secretary what that was and she indicated to me that it was where students could submit anonymous tips regarding bullying that they experienced or witnessed and then someone from the school as supposed to read them. She indicated to me that it was helping to crack down on bullying in the school. REALLY? How was it helping when this box was overflowing with anonymous tips and no one seemed to be reading them.
I was appalled and not being able to contain myself, I marched right into the Vice Principal’s office and asked her to come look at the box. I asked her why these tips from students about bullying were not read and she said that they would get to it but that they felt that since there were so many tips, they could not be taken seriously. Again, REALLY? I, of course, could not contain myself and proceeded to lecture her about HIB and what if many of these alleged tips about HIB were really only jokes by students but what if they were not? What if only one of those tips was real? She needed to understand that even if only one of those alleged tips about HIB was real, to think about how brave that student was to write the tip, to bring that tip to school, perhaps risking someone seeing the tip, then bravely bringing that tip to the front office to place anonymously into that box, in the corner of the main office, where the secretaries question every movement of every student. How do you think that brave student would feel, who was able, without anyone seeing, place the tip into that box in the hope that the tip would be read by someone of authority and that the HIB that the student had been enduring or that another student had been suffering would be stopped and then, no one read the tip? What if that brave student was suffering so severely due to HIB that the student was considering ending his or her own life as a result of the HIB? What if that anonymous tip was that student’s last hope to obtain help against the bullying that he or she was enduring or witnessing another student endure? How could no one read those anonymous tips? The Vice Principal apologized and promised to read the tips as soon as possible. I told her that she did not owe me an apology but she did owe an apology to any brave student who put a tip in that box.
A week later, I went back to that main office of that Middle School just to see what was going on with that box and again, the box looked as though no one had touched it. I again went to the Vice Principal and also to the Principal this time and again gave them a lecture about the bravery of a student to be able to place an anonymous tip into the box. They both agreed to read the tips themselves and they did shortly thereafter. However, this experience in a school district that spent a lot of money obtaining and implementing anti-bullying programs, missed this simple and critical component in stopping HIB. What if that student was T.C.?
In T.C.’s case, it was not only students who were committing HIB against him but it was also the administrators and the teachers. In his case, an anonymous tip may not have helped but in other cases it could. School districts need to ensure a safe and not a hostile learning environment for all students and to be educated about and to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of HIB in its schools. In many cases, all the anti-bullying programs will fail unless the climate and culture of the schools themselves are addressed. Teachers and administrators are role models for our children and they need to act in a professional manner and civilly toward each other, even if they do not like or respect each other. The students are watching teachers’ behaviors, they are emulating what they see and hear. If one teacher talks negatively about another teacher in the hallway at school and students see and hear this, then that becomes their role model for behavior when they feel negatively about someone else. As parents, we rely upon educators to teach and model appropriate behavior and social interactions to our children. We do not expect that they will promote negative behaviors, especially in front of our children. As we begin to change the climate and culture of our schools in a positive manner to eliminate HIB behaviors, it is important to keep in mind students like T.C., who endured such unimaginable pain and suffering in silence. Teachers, administrators, school staff, and parents need to work together to recognize the insidious nature of HIB, cyber-bullying, and retaliation and to provide our children with the knowledge as to how to identify HIB and to ensure that they have a safe reliable mechanism in which to use to address these unacceptable and intolerable behaviors.
For more information about this important topic, to post a comment about this article, or to learn more about the Warshaw Law Firm, LLC, please visit our website at www.warshawlawfirm.com or feel free to contact us directly at (973) 433-2121.