The story begins with a frustrated father taking matters into his own hands in an attempt to protect his daughter from bullies. The incident itself is unique. What is not unique is that bullying is an issue everywhere.
For this story, some fear using their names. Many people came forward to tell their stories. Some are allowing me to use their names. Others are allowing me to retell their experiences and not use their names.
Herscher, Illinois is a small farming community South of Chicago in Kankakee, County. The flat landscape was hewn by one-mile thick glaciers 25,000 years ago, depositing sediment, and creating rivers. Prairie grass covered the plains for thousands of years. Seas of grass growing high each summer, and dying each winter, created the black soil that is some of the most fertile lands in the world.
Farmers settled the land, and agriculture still is the economic engine that drives this small community. The people are close-knit and are good people. To the dismay of residents who love the land, wind farms now are on some of the farmland that once reserved for soybeans, corn, wheat, and vegetables.
Change is coming to the community, and some of it is not welcome change.
Some of the farmlands are now subdivisions. Homes built over the past 40 years as families left nearby Kankakee, the closest city, and County seat, as Kankakee’s crime-rate grew.
The new residents are not farmers. They work in nearby communities in hospitals, factories, and offices, then commute to neatly kept homes each evening. Diversity is coming to Herscher, whether it likes it or not. Many do not like it one bit.
“Almost all forms of bullying peak in middle school and then decrease in tenth grade” (Zweig, Dank, Lachman & Yahner, 2013).
Last week, things boiled over for one local father of a middle school student at Herscher CUSD #2 School District. His daughter is mixed race. She is Caucasian and African-American, and she became a target for bullies on the school bus.
Kids on the bus were calling her a “nigger” and spitting in her hair. Many children on the bus tried to protect the little girl from the cruelty of her tormentors. It is not their job to protect one another. Under Illinois laws, that task falls to the bus driver. Illinois code states that a child becomes the responsibility of the school at the bus stop. The driver did nothing, to stop the ridicule and abuse of the little girl.
The father came to the bus stop and threatened the bullies. The School called the police, and the father was detained for further investigation.
I interviewed the father and the mother the day of the incident, and then again after a story appeared in a local newspaper. In the story, the school district stated they were unaware of any problems. The mother contradicts the statement. “They knew what was going on,” she told me in the interview.
On social media, stories started coming forward about bullying in Herscher Schools. A woman who wants her family name kept out of the press, told me of her daughter’s experience with bullies. The family moved into what they thought was a safe school district. The parents say they were in the school regularly, and the bullying continued. They report their daughter attempted suicide.
"School-based bullying prevention programs decrease bullying by up to 25%" (McCallion & Feder, 2013).
Fran Ditta is the mother of a former Herscher CUSD student. Her son was the target of bullies. The problem grew to the point he came home from school crying each day. The parents contacted the Principal and Vice Principal at Limestone Middle School.
“I called the school and went to the school repeatedly... I was sent away with a firm assurance that that was not happening at their school by the principal and vice principal. I knew better... I was worried my son would commit suicide,” Ms. Ditta told me.
Then one day, a call came in to come to the school. Mr. Ditta told me the bullies had shoved her son down, and he struck his head on the gym floor. He was throwing up.
When Ms. Ditta and her Husband arrived at school, the school Administration told them that their son had hurt himself. The school was adamant that their son was not a victim of bullying. “The school didn’t mind if I took my son to the hospital,” Ms. Ditta told me. At the hospital, the family learned the young man suffered a concussion.
A couple of days later, Ms. Ditta came to the school to drop something off to her daughter who also was a student at the same school. She reports, “I was met at the double doors by the Vice Principal who told me I was no longer allowed on school grounds.” She then told the Vice Principal she wanted to see her son before she left. The Vice Principal refused to allow her to see her son. According to Ms. Ditta, it took a phone call to 911 before the Vice Principal would permit her to see her child.
“Later I talked to Rich Decman [Ed note, the Superintendent]... He acted like the vice principal was in the wrong, but I had to get "special permission" to attend my son's graduation that year. Bottom line I was in the wrong for trying to make them protect my child,”
“Although school staff reported a willingness to intervene in bullying situations, less than 40% of staff reported being directly involved in formal bullying prevention activities” (NEA, 2011).
There are right ways and wrong ways to address bullying in schools. All schools have consequences for bullies when caught in the act. Not all schools are proactive in their approach to bullying.
A few miles north of Herscher in Channahon, Illinois, an innovative program was implemented at Three Rivers School, by Principal Susan Kavich. I spoke with Kendra Hills, the school social worker who uses the “Bullies to Buddies” program at Three Rivers. You can read about the program by clicking here.
We often take a Rube Goldberg approach to problems, when simple solutions can work. The foundation of the Bullies to Buddies program is an idea that has been around since the Bronze Age: treat others as you would like to be treated, the Golden Rule.
Ms. Hills told me they counsel both the bully and the victim. For the victim, the social worker role plays with the student to give the child tools, and responses to cope with and disarm a bully.
She also told me the goal of the program is not to force the children to become friends as the name of the program implies, but to be cordial to one another in a respectful way, remembering the Golden Rule.
Ms. Hills told me, “A lot of times, students at this age can generate an assertive response in their head, however when they are put in the situation, emotions take over and then become unsure of what to say. This leaves them to taking either a passive or aggressive approach, which is what we want to avoid because the bullying is more likely to continue or escalate when handled that way.”
The tools given to students by Three Rivers will serve them well in anytime they confront conflicts long after leaving school.
When I started this article, I posted on a local website a call for stories about bullying in the Herscher School District. The large volume of responses came as a surprise. Preparing this article, I spoke with many who live in the area. They are good people who care about one another.
The little girl who started this story has many defenders. The kids who tried to protect her learned that racism and bullying are wrong and they learned those values in their homes in Herscher, Illinois. That speaks highly of the community.
I hope the incident spurs the community into action and forces the school system to address the bullying issue more proactively. The problem is in every school. Do you know how your local schools resolve the issue? There is not a community in the U.S.A. that would not benefit from the community having an open dialogue about the issue.
Some in the community are thinking about a “Bullying Summit,” to talk about the problem and to find a resolution. It is not just a school problem. It is a community problem and one every community in America needs to try and fix.
[UPDATE: since the publication of this story 7 hours ago, the Kankakee State's Attorney has brought criminal charges against the man who threatened the children on the school bus. As far as charges against those who called a young girl a "nigger" and spit her, no charges for hate crimes or discrimination have been filed.]
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