My Child Was Being Bullied and This is What the School Did (or Didn’t Do)
[ A True Story ]
When *Amy’s five-year-old daughter *Olivia was accepted into a transitional kindergarten, she felt it was like winning the lottery. Even if her first of two children was happy and doing well in the preschool, it seemed like a good idea to begin preparing her for elementary school which was just a year or two away. Both her children were born in California, where their small family called home and were raised as Americans proudly connected to their parents’ mixed ancestry and heritage. She had heard that the new school had a large majority of kids from different racial backgrounds and she saw this as a healthy environment for her young daughter.
Olivia’s first year in transitional kindergarten was a happy one, recalls Amy. The five-year-old didn’t have much trouble adjusting to the change and easily made many friends in her class. Teachers were recognizing her potential as she performed well in class and had good marks. Amy was quite satisfied with her decision and felt that all her initial efforts to get her daughter accepted into the school — from attending every admissions seminar to joining the donation drives and other activities — were all worth it.
The following year, one day Olivia came home from school and told her mother about an incident of being bullied by another kid in her first-grade class, Amy was almost speechless. “I couldn’t believe my ears that a six-year-old child was talking to another six-year-old in this way,” shares Amy as she recalls her young daughter’s story of that incident. Their family had just recently returned from a trip to Turkey to visit grandparents and family, something they did regularly to stay connected to their Turkish heritage and culture as well as for the girls to be close to their grandparents. When she returned to school, Olivia was excited to share with her classmates about her summer and the wonderful time she spent in Turkey. According to Amy’s retelling of the incident, as her classmates exchanged stories about their summer and respective family customs and traditions during their lunch break, Olivia was keen on sharing about her own experiences of different cultures and bilingual skills. After hearing about her Turkish heritage and fluent tongue, one of her classmates — a young Armenian boy — started taunting and picking on her. “He was saying all kinds of things to her and one of the things she (Olivia) mentioned was, he said something like, ‘We are going to destroy Turkey and we are going to kill everyone in that country.'” Amy remembers how her six-year-old was so distressed about this that even her younger sibling was worried and affected. “My younger child even told me, ‘We should definitely warn Grandma and Grandpa (in Turkey) so they don’t get killed,'” recalls Amy. “It was very traumatic.”
Amy shares that she and her husband were so furious and disturbed by the incident that they immediately had a talk with the class teacher as well as the principal. “When we spoke with the class teacher about what the Armenian kid said to Olivia, the teacher told us that the little boy had a crush on my daughter,” Amy remembers. “She was taking it very lightly.” This dismissive reaction compelled Amy and her husband to go speak directly with the school principal. “We told her about the incident and that we were very worried for our daughter, and the principal told us that this was an anti-bullying school and that she would talk to the parents and make sure the kid apologizes to Olivia. But I remember one thing she said: This is such an early grade (first grade), but if this happened in the fourth grade, there would definitely be harsher consequences [for the kid’s bullying]. But since this was in the first grade and they were too young, they couldn’t do anything beyond that.”
After speaking with the school principal and being assured that this was an anti-bullying school and such antagonistic behavior would not be tolerated, Amy trusted the school authorities and the school’s system that they would protect her child from this incident happening again.
The school principal facilitated a talk between Olivia and the Armenian boy so that he would apologize to her, and Olivia had a choice whether she would accept his apology or not. Amy remembers that the principal assured Olivia that she was not obliged to say that ‘it was okay’ because it was important to emphasize that what the boy said and did was not acceptable. “Then we all thought this was going to go away and we could move on,” shares Amy. “But instead the issue became even larger and it was very bad for us.”
Not long after, Olivia’s friends started turning away from her and chose to be on the side of the Armenian boy. Some were even told by their parents not to be friends with her anymore “because she was Turkish.” Amy shares that other kids would also taunt and fight with Olivia, sometimes even physical attacks, telling her that “her great-grandmother had killed their great-grandmother.” Even her best friends who were not Armenian felt the peer pressure of choosing sides and ended up abandoning Olivia to fend for herself against the constant bullying and harassing by the Armenian kids. Despite the school principal’s effort to make the two children have a conversation and prod the boy to acknowledge and feel accountable for his aggressive behavior and hateful language, this did nothing to change the situation. As the bullying and isolation continued, all transpiring in front of teachers, classmates, other parents, and school administrators, there were no policies, sanctions, nor investigations that took place.
When asked what measures the school authorities and the community had taken to prevent this kind of bullying from happening again and to help Olivia feel safe, Amy vehemently replied, “Nothing of a magnitude to cut the bullying once and for all.” The only action the Principal took during the two years of continuous bullying and harassment was to host a “general” anti-bullying seminar, which was not attended by the parents whose kids did the bullying.
As the situation worsened, the atmosphere grew more hostile not just for Olivia, but for Amy and her husband as well. “Whenever we would drop off and pick up our kids from school, we would get stares and very hateful looks from the other parents,” describes Amy. “Out of nowhere, my husband and I were getting the cold shoulder from the other parents, whereas before it was perfectly normal to greet each other warmly with a ‘Hi and hello’ and some chats in the morning. But then they just abruptly started ignoring us and I was absolutely shocked since our daughter was the one who was attacked, yet all this passive aggressive behavior was being directed at us and our daughter as though it was our fault.”
Amy also noticed that her daughter became more withdrawn and anxious each day. “As the cycle of the boy picking on Olivia, harassing her, hurting her, and not being punished continued, my daughter stopped being herself. She was no longer the happy girl she was once. She became extremely self-conscious around other people, second-guessing and overthinking before she said any word for fear of being criticized, and feeling the need to hide her ethnic identity and her heritage,” describes Amy. “To me this was absolutely heartbreaking. As a parent, I could not stand by and watch this continue happening to my daughter.”
Amy describes the heartbreaking sight of seeing her daughter standing alone under the tree during recess. Due to peer pressure Olivia was shunned by even her closest friends that no longer spoke or played with Olivia. “We would take walks and pass by during her recess break to check up on her, and we would just see her there by herself while all the other kids played together.” When asked if the school had at least provided counseling sessions to help Olivia as she increasingly became distressed, withdrawn, distrustful, and depressed, Amy says there were some sharing sessions, but Olivia had become so anxious and fearful of speaking up as she started to attribute being vocal as the source of all the bullying, and the constant reporting was just aggravating the situation for her. After a couple of sessions, Olivia told her mother that she didn’t want to do the sessions anymore. In those times, all Olivia wanted was to be invisible so the antagonism would stop.
Unfortunately, not only did the bullying and harassing recur, the situation escalated and extended for two school years, leaving Amy no other choice but to pull her children from the school and move the family to a city more than 50 miles away.
Later on, when Amy was in the process of transferring her children to the new school, she remembers what the old school principal had told her. “I remember her saying she was really sorry about what happened, and she wished she could have done more, but that her hands were tied. The school district had told the principal to be careful, as it was a sensitive matter and they did not want to hurt the feelings of the boy who was harassing my daughter,” Amy shares. “Even though it was obvious who was the harasser, and that the damaging effects on my daughter were getting worse every day, it was clear that the system was biased and had chosen to be on the side of the offender.”
Nearly three years later, Amy and her family have settled in their new home miles away from Los Angeles and away from the school that caused so much pain and trauma. When asked about Olivia and how she feels in her new school environment, “I remember her coming to me with a big smile on her face and saying, ‘Can you believe I have a Turkish classmate?’ and it was just such a relief. Such a relief.” Amy also has a smile of relief on her face as she speaks now but takes a pause to consider her next thought. “She can be herself more now, as she doesn’t have to live in fear that someone will pick on her because of her words and her Turkish heritage and identity. But the scars are still there; she still overthinks about what she will say and doesn’t take a lot of initiative to speak up. With constant encouragement and support from people she can trust, she is slowly regaining confidence to express herself. It was worth it to move to our new city just to see my child smile and be happy again.”
*For the privacy and safety of the family names were changed.
What could the elementary school in Los Angeles have done to protect Olivia from racial bullying and to prevent the issue from repeating and escalating?
A lot, apparently, according to anti-discriminatory statutes under the civil rights laws (such as Title VI of CRA 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin). These are enforced by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the Department of Education (ED) as listed in the Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) — a resource document authored and signed by former Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlyn Ali in October 2010 to clarify the relationship between bullying and discriminatory harassment under civil rights laws, remind schools (elementary, secondary, and universities and colleges alike) of their responsibilities to prevent bullying and discrimination harassment, as well as how to respond adequately and appropriately in cases of such misconduct.
For example, when the first incident of Olivia being bullied by her Armenian classmate because of she shared about her Turkish language and heritage, did the school authorities know about what happened? And how did they respond?
The complacent reaction of the school also begs the question of whether any anti-bullying policies were effectively publicized and disseminated in the school, as well as the procedures for reporting and resolving complaints. Furthermore, was the incident unanimously perceived as an act of harassment or did the teachers and administrators perhaps view the situation subjectively, as apparent in the teacher’s dismissive remark that the boy just had a crush on Olivia. The OCR includes the following acts under the definition of harassment and bullying:
– verbal acts (racial slurs), name-calling
– graphic or written statements (vandalism, graffiti of hate speech)
– physically threatening, harmful, humiliating (even if no mention of intent to harm)
– creating a hostile environment as the conduct is severe, pervasive, persistent
The Dear Colleague Letter describes the following possible effects of student-on-student harassment and bullying in detail:
– Lowered academic achievement and aspirations
– Increased anxiety
– Loss of self-esteem and confidence
– Depression and post-traumatic stress
– General deterioration in physical health
– Self-harm and suicidal thinking
– Feelings of alienation in the school environment, such as fear of other children
– Absenteeism from school
Under the OCR’s anti-discrimination statutes, “the school has an obligation to take immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred. Moreover, if harassment has occurred, the school must take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment, and prevent its recurrence. These duties are a school’s responsibility even if the misconduct also is covered by an anti-bullying policy and regardless of whether the student makes a complaint, asks the school to take action, or identifies the harassment as a form of discrimination.”
In the DCL, schools are obligated under the civil rights laws to take appropriate steps to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment, and prevent it from recurring. These steps include:
– Separating the accused harasser and the target
– Providing counseling for the target and/or the harasser
– Taking disciplinary action against the harasser
– Any actions should not penalize the student who was harassed (e.g., forcing the harassed to change classes or schedule so as to be separated from the harasser)
Furthermore, the OCR also requires the school to provide additional services to the student who was harassed, as well as provide training or other interventions not only for the harasser but also for the larger school community. This is to ensure all students, families, school staff can recognize harassment when it occurs and how to respond appropriately and effectively. In certain cases, the school may also be obliged to create age-appropriate programs to educate students about historical events, social or religious issues such as anti-semitism, and conduct outreach involving parents and community groups to prevent harassment. These were measures that were clearly lacking and much needed in Olivia’s school.