Sunday, September 1, 2013

On bullying - in memory of Bart Palosz

About a month before the end of my son’s eighth grade year*, I took him out of school for a doctor’s appointment. When the doctor asked my son to lift his shirt so he could listen to his heartbeat with a stethoscope, I was horrified to see words half written, half carved into his stomach with a ball point pen: I AM HATED.

Even as someone who spends every day expressing myself through words, it’s hard to find the right ones to describe how I felt seeing that carved into my son’s skin that morning. As a mother, you want to protect your children, from danger, from physical pain, and from emotional pain dealt out by the kind of insensitive kids who hurt you when you were their age. Seeing “I AM HATED” carved into my son’s skin, made me realize the depth of my failure.

It was no great secret that my son was having a difficult time in middle school. He has Asperger’s Syndrome, and while that means he got into Mensa at nine and his brain works in ways that never cease to fascinate me, it also results in the fact that he’s not your “typical” kid.

He is now in college, and fortunately his peers have matured enough to recognize that differences are what make our society and the world such an interesting place. Indeed, many of our greatest scientific discoveries and cultural achievements we made by people who didn’t fit our definition of “normal.” Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol, Vincent Van Gough, Satoshi Tajiri (inventor of Pokemon), Alan Turing, Thomas Jefferson, Sir Isaac Newton, are all thought to have had Aspergers. My son’s fascination with, and almost encyclopedic knowledge of international affairs makes him a great person to know if you’re interested in politics. He also has remarkable sense of humor.

But middle school, as I know from my own difficult experiences back in the Stone Age when it was called Junior High, is about fitting in. For those who don’t, it can be a tortuous, unforgiving place.

I’d been to my son’s school too many times to count to talk about the problems he’d had with bullying. There were phone calls. E-mails. Meetings with administrators. At one point we tried to set up a meeting the parents of a child with whom there were continuing issues. As a single mom, I asked to bring someone with me for support. The other parents refused to meet unless I came alone. The vice-principal shrugged and said, “What can I do?” The meeting never happened.

That pretty much summed up the school’s attitude. With the exception of one person in the building, the school psychologist, without whose genuine compassion and caring I’m not sure my son would have made it through middle school intact, the rest of the administration threw up their hands in helplessness and said, “What can we do?”

Perhaps if I hadn’t been engaged in a protracted divorce from my son’s dad I would have been able to devote more energy to fighting the school. In my “I’m a bad Mom” moments, I punish myself for not doing more. But that day in the doctor’s office, I was filled with an anger so fierce I wasn’t going to take any more excuses.

Shaking with rage, I drove back to school, had my son to wait in the car, and told the administration what I’d seen. I said my son wouldn’t be setting foot back in the building until they could guarantee him a safe environment.

For the next few days, I home schooled my son, while the administration tried to figure out what to do. Their solution? He would finish out his eight-grade year doing independent study in the guidance office. In other words, rather than dealing with the actual bullies, they would just hide him away, out of sight, so they could get the year over with and be done with the “problem.”

And sadly, that’s how it happened. The good news is that my son wasn’t being tormented for that last month and a half of eighth grade. But the tragedy is that once again, it was the victim who was punished.

As I contemplated with dread the thought of my son having to navigate the local high school with its student population of 2,700 students, Winston Preparatory School, a New York-based school for kids with learning differences announced it was opening a Connecticut campus. When headmistress, Beth Sugerman told me that my son was accepted, I burst into tears of relief.

You’d think it would be a happily ever after story from here on, but it wasn’t. My son was so used to being bullied, so reactive against everything and everyone, that it took him almost a year to realize that the world wasn’t his enemy. That’s one of the many reasons bullying sucks. The pain is deep, insidious and lasting, and that’s why we find that sometimes the bullied end up becoming bullies themselves.

I’m eternally grateful that there were resources within the family to send my son to a school where, once he realized that life was no longer going to be a day-to-day struggle for survival, he thrived. But as I am all too well aware, not everyone is as fortunate, and the Greenwich school district fights such placements tooth-and-nail, despite the fact that it’s clear they do not have the will power to deal with the problem of bullying themselves.

As research for my upcoming book with Scholastic, BAITED**, I read Barbara Coloroso's book, THE BULLY, THE BULLIED, AND THE BYSTANDER: From Preschool to High School How Parents and Teachers can help break the cycle of violence. I think this should be a town wide read, and basis for discussion. We have to stop the denial, stop pretending that this doesn't happen here in perfect Greenwich with our high SAT scores and our manicured lawns. It DOES. And Greenwich Public Schools is complicit in the denial and the enabling.

I learned something important when I was a docent at the Anne Frank exhibition at our high school back in 2003– Don’t be a bystander. As Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Okay, Burke’s one of those old dead guys who wrote a long time ago when women didn’t have the rights they have now, so I’m changing “men” to “people”. But here’s the thing. If you watch someone being bullied -in person or online - and you do nothing, you’re an accomplice. We all need to stand up to bullies – each and every one of us. It’s the only way to end the pain and prevent more tragic deaths.

*My son attended Western Middle School, the same middle school at which Bart Palosz allegedly experienced bullying. What makes me so furious is that so much time has passed and nothing has been done. GPS continues to protect the bullies over the bullied.

** Edited later:  The title of BAITED has been changed to BACKLASH

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