Dear Buncombe County Schools,
I heard about your school in North Carolina that told Grayson Bruce he was not allowed to bring his My Little Pony Bag to school, because it was a trigger for bullying. You released a statement saying that you take bullying seriously and will continue to take steps to resolve this issue. Well, Buncombe County Schools, I have a few suggestions for you:
1). The school could have taken a moment to learn about the dangers of victim blaming. Victim blaming is when you tell a target that he brought the attack on himself and the bullying will stop when he changes. It is a slippery slope: What, your son is being taunted about being black? Oh, let’s ban him from coming to school until he changes the color of his skin. You say your daughter is being taunted about having large breasts in the fifth grade? Oh, well, let’s ban her from school until she gets a breast reduction surgery or until the other kids start to develop, so she doesn’t stand out. Not such a great strategy.
2). The school could hold a Proud To Be Me Day, where every student is invited to bring something or wear something that represents a special interest of his or hers. In preparation for the day, teachers can hold a sharing circle where each child can speak about his or her plans for Proud To Be Me Day. On Proud To Be Me Day, invite the kids to have a Show-and Tell about their outfit or toy or item. My daughter’s school began holding an annual Proud To Be Me Day after she was taunted for carrying a Star Wars water bottle. Thank goodness the school didn’t ban her from carrying Star Wars stuff. They would have found Darth Vader on the playground with a zillion Stormtroopers!
3) The teachers can use the opportunity to have the older students work together to produce a play about acceptance, and the older kids can perform the play for the younger grades. Little kids idolize big kids and will listen to them. Make the play specifically about a child who likes My Little Pony, so that the taunting kids cannot possibly miss the point.
4). Grayson’s teachers could invite him to do a presentation to the other kids in his class about My Little Pony. He could show the other kids what he loves about MLP and share his knowledge about the lessons he has learned from the show. Then they could all have a My Little Pony party with snacks and music and a viewing of one of the episodes.
5). The teachers could ask each kid to write down the name of his or her favorite toy or character or game. Then they can ask the kids how it would make them feel if they were not allowed to express their interest in those toys or games. Cultivate empathy by asking the children to step in Grayson’s shoes.
6). The school could do some lessons around how to act as a witness or an ally instead of as a bystander. Kids can role-play scenarios where they practice ways to support a target. Sometimes kids say nothing when they see bullying because they are frightened and do not know how to stand up for someone, but if we teach them the skills, they are more likely to do the right thing.
7). The school can inform the parents of the kids doing the taunting that the behavior of their children is unacceptable. If anything needs to change, it isn’t Grayson’s behavior; it’s the behavior of the other students. Ban the bullying, not the bag.
8). The school can implement social emotional training and research-based programs, such as Second Step or Steps to Respect, or Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, in order to change the culture of the school from a place where bullying is supported to a place where bullying is condemned. If you take bullying seriously, take action to address the emotional needs of all parties: targets, aggressors, and bystanders.
9). The school can use the tragic story of Michael Morones as an example of why bullying is dangerous. Michael Morones is an 11-year-old boy, also from North Carolina, who was bullied about loving My Little Pony, just like Grayson. In part due to this bullying, Michael was experiencing psychological distress, and he attempted suicide. Michael’s mother and brother found him, and he survived, but he is now suffering from severe brain damage. Suicidal ideation is complicated, and it is not a single-issue problem, but bullying contributes greatly to the sense of hopelessness that at-risk people experience.
10). The school can acknowledge they made a mistake in how they handled this, and ask for help in making it right. This would speak louder than any lesson, because it will show kids that adults sometimes screw up, and the best thing to do is to own up to your mistakes, take accountability, and find a way to repair the damage that you have done. Hint hint – it’s never too late to do this, and you will be amazed by how well received a sincere apology is. Here’s how you do it: “We are sorry. We made the wrong decision. How can we make it better?”
Okay, Buncombe County Schools. The ball is in your court!
Carrie Goldman is the award-winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.