In Part 1, I shared with you my experiences of being bullied. In Part 2, I've written my oldest son's story. Hopefully our past history will enlighten parents about the seriousness of bullying. Part 3, will focus on what parents can do about it.
Finding the right school goes wrong
My family and I moved back into my childhood Near West side townhouse after my mother died. Now married with two boys, I hoped to raise my sons in what was becoming a trendy neighborhood. New townhouses, businesses and schools were cropping up as my community gentrified. Public housing still stood across the street, but its days were numbered. The tenants had changed drastically over the years from the working class poor with dreams of a better life, to young men and women with babies to feed, drugs to sell and no dreams to realize. My childhood friends were long gone. Oddly enough, people kept to themselves so violent crime was low.
Devin, my oldest son attended a neighborhood Montessori school - his only positive school experience. The teacher adored him but wisely sensed he would be labeled unfairly because of his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She was right. I didn’t want him to go to my old public school for fear of the same fate I endured, so I enrolled him in that predominantly Italian Catholic school Mom detested, thinking it would be a smaller more structured environment for him. Plus, the administration convinced me that the school accepted diversity. That was a lie.
In first grade he was trapped in the bathroom with 5th grade bullies. They wiped feces all over the walls and blamed my son (who could not reach that high where the feces was smeared). It took the rest of the day for the school to figure out that my six year old was being blamed for something he didn't do. He was so traumatized and afraid, he couldn't speak. On another occasion, his teacher made him stand in the hall in a corner because he colored St. Francis of Assisi brown. She told me sternly, that she didn’t mind him making Santa Claus a Negro, but he better not mess with her saints. There were other incidents at that school. He didn't go back the next year.
Punished for practicing self-defense
After applying to 13 magnet and private schools in the Chicago area, only the 13th one accepted Devin. It was a new magnet math and science academy in the neighborhood, integrated but predominantly Hispanic. Second grade was good. Third through fifth was a struggle. His ADHD was a challenge. Behavior modification was not working in class. At the teacher's urging, I put him on Ritalin. That brought on a new set of problems.
He fought a boy in 5th grade who teased him because he took meds thanks to his teacher who announced out loud in class that Devin should take his medication. The bully hit my son. My son defended himself. He was suspended along with the boy - Zero Tolerance in action. School administrators' hands were tied because any child who engaged in fighting would automatically be punished - self-defense or not. It didn’t allow for administrative discretion. My son was advised not to ever fight back but to run and tell the teacher. That brought on even more problems. Though Zero-Tolerance was enacted to protect students, some officials, administrators and parents felt it did more harm than good by penalizing kids who didn't deserve the harsh punishment.
Taunted for not fighting back
In a second altercation, a bully, who also had ADHD and ODD, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, knocked out my Devin’s tooth. My son didn’t fight back for fear of Zero Tolerance. His schoolmates labeled him a punk and began teasing him, thus beginning his reputation as an easy target. This prompted another bigger boy to jump Devin outside of school. I called the police and had that bully taken to the police station. I filed a written report. By this time my husband and I were fed up with the school, neighborhood and Chicago. Perhaps the suburbs would offer my sons a better chance.
New locations don't always heal scars
Oak Park was our choice, a diverse community with a renown school system and myriad resources. Though Oak Park was a less hostile and more nurturing environment as a whole, my oldest son still carried scars of being bullied to the point of having anger management issues throughout his remaining school years. His response to what he felt were injustices by students and authority (founded and unfounded) sometimes prompted him to overreact. Zero Tolerance was practiced at his school, but because he was diagnosed with ADHD, he could not be expelled. There were a couple of administrators who knew and liked Devin and went out of their way to offer the best help. The sad part is, there are a lot of boys - especially African-American males, who suffer the damaging effects of being bullied, but aren't offered the resources they need to overcome the rage. In our case, we addressed Devin's needs through parent/teacher/student communication, therapy and a lot of prayer. It took many years to undo the damaging effects.
Today, Devin is a fine young man; college graduate, father, personal trainer and entrepreneur. He told me, as soon as he began weight lifting, he found the confidence to walk the streets without fear of someone taunting him.
My youngest son, Kai who has ADD, was fortunate to begin his school years in the Oak Park school system and had little problems with bullies.
Why kids have thoughts of revenge or suicide
Today, bullying has elevated to a hideous art form. With all the negative Facebooking, Tweeting and YouTubing, it has left little room for a child to breathe – even in their own home. It pains me to hear about a child taking his or her life because of bullying. Zero Tolerance makes it impossible for children to defend themselves in a bullying situation. And with social media, the ridicule goes global. The victims absorb the teasing, taunting and beatings and then hurt themselves to escape. I had the fear that my oldest would do the same, but I believe those days are past him. If Devin had been bullied in the age of YouTube, I shudder to think what he would have done.
Part 3 Coming Soon: What parents and children can do about bullying