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Girl acted tough, but Mom is tougher

Suspended preteen is punished by carrying a sign saying: `Don't Be Like Me. Stop Bullying.'

May 18, 2007|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

She's taken away the cellphone, she's banned the television, but when her daughter was suspended for bullying a classmate last week, Ivory Spann felt a new punishment was in order: public humiliation.

After checking to see if it was legal, Spann forced her 12-year-old daughter, Miasha Williams, to spend the last four days in front of several Temecula schools carrying a big sign saying, "I Engaged in Bullying Behavior. I Got Suspended From School ... Don't Be Like Me. Stop Bullying."

"I felt I needed to do something that would make an impression," Spann said.

It may have done the trick.

Miasha lugged around the handwritten sign from Great Oak High School to Temecula Valley High School to her own Erle Stanley Gardner Middle School and ended her "sentence" Thursday. She displayed the placard in the mornings when kids arrived at school and in the afternoons when they left. At each stop she was surrounded by somewhat baffled students. Sometimes she looked sheepish and embarrassed, other times as if she was enjoying the spectacle.

"This is my fault," she said Thursday, holding her sign in front of Gardner Middle School, where the Temecula girl is a seventh-grader. "I agree what I did was wrong. Bullying is not a nice thing to have happen to you. The person who is bullying feels tough, but you have to understand what the other person must feel like."

Miasha said the incident happened May 10 when she and five other girls confronted a fellow student who they said called them a racist name.

No violence occurred, she said, but the girl felt intimidated enough to complain. Miasha and another student were suspended for a week.

"Time will tell if this is effective," said Patricia Mathis, assistant principal at Gardner.

"I'm not a psychologist. I'm not sure what effect this will have on Miasha. We do know this parent. She is a loving, supportive parent and very active on campus."

Mathis said the school takes bullying seriously and has a bullying-prevention program. The 1999 massacre of 12 students at Columbine High School in Colorado heightened awareness of the issue.

A study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in 2001 found that bullying was a serious problem in U.S. schools, with 16% of students saying they had been victims of it.

Temecula police and the Riverside County district attorney's office put on anti-bullying presentations at local schools, including Gardner.

But Mathis said bullying was not a major problem at the school. Of the five schools she has worked at, she said, Gardner has the lowest incidence of bullying.

As for Miasha, Mathis said the girl works with severely disabled students and is rarely a problem.

"I would not put the label 'bully' on this kid," she said.

Miasha's mother aims to keep it that way.

The tough-minded mom has two other children and was raised in a family of 10. She said her mother never tried to be her friend and didn't believe in such things as "timeouts" for misbehavior.

"My mom was hard-core, old-school discipline, and I thought she was the meanest mom in the world, but I call her all the time now to tell her 'thank you' for what she did," Spann said. "I understand the pressure to fit in, but at the same time I cannot let her use that as an excuse to get into trouble."

After the suspension, Spann, 34, took her daughter to an office supply store to buy some poster board. She told her to think of something to write that would adequately express her sorrow. Spann had her own ideas but decided they wouldn't fit on the sign.

"My daughter didn't think I was really going to do it," she said. "I have had people ask me, 'Aren't you embarrassed?' And I say, 'Why would I be embarrassed? It's not my behavior. It's not a reflection on me or my parenting.' "

As she spoke near Gardner Middle School, the bell rang, and hundreds of kids poured out. Miasha stiffened a bit, bracing for the onslaught. The students were drawn to the tall, thin girl with the sign. They read it closely. Some snickered; others frowned.

"I think it's kind of good," said classmate India Bowers, 14.

"I think its very effective to use humiliation as a tool. It will teach them a lesson not to be bullies."

A boy walked past muttering, "This is messed up."

A few students debated the incident that led to the suspension.

"If she is guilty, then OK," said Malen Blackmon, 13. "But it's a little harsh."

A parent said her son had been bullied at the school.

"Given the seriousness of bullying," said 32-year-old Christina Banzer, "I think the punishment fits the crime."

It has certainly made a impression on Miasha.

"It's humiliating at times," she said. "And it's also embarrassing."

But more than anything, Spann said, "it's tough love."

david.kelly@latimes.com

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