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SANDY BANKS

Who Is Responsible for Creating 'Monsters' Who Bully at School?

March 18, 2001|SANDY BANKS

She is well into her golden years, but she can still recall the first--and last--time she bullied another kid.

"The three of us--my sister, brother and I--picked on a little boy and threw his tennis shoe in the mud," she related, in a message left on my answering machine. "It was the only time my father ever took a switch to us. It was just a little sting on the legs, but it was his words that hurt: 'If you three kids ever pick on anyone else,' he said, 'this whipping will seem like nothing.' And believe me, we never did."

She learned--not at school, but at home--that bullying would not be tolerated. "And I wonder what we're teaching kids today," she said, "that lets them act like such monsters in school."

*

The Santa Monica middle school that Robert Illes' son attends is a good school, he said, with a policy of "zero tolerance" toward verbal and physical abuse. But how many times can you run to the principal for help when your child is being bullied?

"It gets tough to go to them with frequent complaints. After all, there are 1,300 kids at the school, all at that wacky age" when, experts say, bullying peaks.

Like many parents, he is struggling to understand what seems to have made brutality as much a part of some kids' school day as English and math.

And just how much can we expect our schools to do, and how far should we be prepared to go to protect our kids when schools can't or won't?

One Orange County mom says her family fled their neighborhood to rescue her son from the abuse he endured--at the hands of a bigger, tougher kid--from fourth through seventh grade.

"Three times I was called to school to pick up my son and take him to the doctor with injuries," said the woman. Once, the bully "walked up to my son at the lunch table, called him a dirty Jew, grabbed the back of his hair and smashed his head in the concrete."

She talked to teachers, the principal, the bully's mother, "and no one would help us, even though what was happening was no secret or mystery."

Finally, she and her husband threw in the towel, packed up and moved 25 miles away, where her son "started eighth grade in a new school, made great friends from lovely families. Overnight, he lost his 'label.' "

He's in 10th grade now--"cute, fun and witty"; an honor student who plays in the marching band, has a girlfriend "and a group of friends who think he's great. And three years ago, we were worried he could become suicidal."

Sometimes, though, a parent's best efforts aren't enough, and it can be a school's intervention that saves a child.

Kim Jones didn't know quite what to do when school became "a living hell" for her son, Matthew, in seventh grade in rural Idaho. "We talked, coached, offered suggestions," she said in an e-mail. "The one thing we didn't do was go to the school ourselves, because for him that was a bigger humiliation--Mommy and Daddy coming to the rescue. He assured us he could handle everything and reported back that he did.

"A few months passed without incident, and we thought this was behind us. Then, one afternoon the principal called. Matthew had been threatening to bring a knife to school. A kid had seen a folding pocketknife in his backpack." The chief of police came out to question him, and Matthew admitted that he'd brought a knife to school the day before.

"Thankfully, the principal was an intuitive man," she said. "He reprimanded the teachers [who had known of the bullying], scolded our son for bringing the knife and threatened the bullies with expulsion. He knew Matthew was a good kid and viewed his action as a cry for help."

*

When Christine Baron presents the rules for her English class at Fountain Valley High each year, "it always startles the kids a bit." There are the conventional classroom standards--no gum chewing, no tardies. And then this: No harassing anyone for any reason--not hair color or grades or shape or religion or sexual preference or accent or style of dress. "I tell them you're not going to be made fun of for at least one hour [in this class] every day."

She's been talking with her students about the school shootings in Santee, "and I'm not real encouraged by what they say," she said. "Our zero-tolerance rules aside, they consider bullying just a part of the school day."

But what troubles her more is hearing from them that teachers "sometimes make fun of kids . . . call them stupid or make fun of a dumb answer in class."

Some teachers don't want to be civility police, she said. "They say, 'That's not my job. I'm just here to teach math.' But being aware of what we say to the kids, the kind of behavior that we model . . . that would certainly be a good place to start."

And if you wonder where our kids learn to be "such monsters," as my grandmotherly caller said, consider this story, e-mailed to me from the mother of a student who once attended a "very prestigious" private school:

Her daughter's classmate was named to the queen's court for the Rose Parade, and a bouquet of flowers arrived for her in the principal's office. Meant as a joke, they came with a note asking the girl for a date--purportedly signed by the school's singularly awkward and unpopular boy. The Rose princess was "horrified," and everyone in the office got a laugh.

"My daughter was appalled that grown-ups would join in on the scorn that was constantly heaped on this boy," the woman wrote.

Their hearty laugh, at his expense, gave tacit approval to the notion we say we're fighting--that some kids are fair game for contempt and ridicule.

Sandy Banks is at sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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