High school bully victims speak out

“I think kids just find a weakness and exploit,” said Jimmy’s mother. “I think it happens…but given the awareness we have of it happening and how much it’s out there that bullying is unacceptable…” she trailed off.

Being called ugly, getting cursed and preyed upon happens “during the middle of class when the teachers are focused on other kids,” Jimmy said. To him, “It feels like it’s kind of a routine, that’s part of [their] day that [they] need to accomplish putting people down.”

Maria goes through it too, “because I’m a little bit bigger than the other girls,” she said. “They say I should work out more.”

Maria said she was invited to a birthday party where she was sent to the basement of the other child’s home and forced to walk on the treadmill because she was “the fattest one of them.”

It can be hard for students to handle ongoing situations of harassment, even when the school has procedures meant to help them. Fear of retaliation from a bully can keep a child from going to an administrator. Also, “It’s just kind of hard to talk about and you feel kind of embarrassed to talk about it because it’s embarrassing to admit that it’s happening to you,” Maria said.

Fluvanna County High School Principal James Barlow said bullying is a problem he is distinctly aware of. He has noticed its more frequent occurrence, especially amongst and toward younger class members and, like many parents, believes deliberately hurtful behavior in school is unacceptable.

“We have a motto. I wear it every day,” he said, showing a black wristband, “It says, ‘Be a Buddy. Don’t be a Bully.’”
When he was in school, Barlow said, kids were expected to tough out certain kinds of horseplay and teasing. But society has grown in a lot of ways, he said.

“We now try to work it out” between the students, Barlow said. “We try to work it through. Sometimes the administrators mediate. I mediate quite a few myself. There are times when we will have a psychologist involved if we think [the situation] is an extreme.”

The high school has students sign a “No Contact” contract to aide in some of the more difficult situations. “In some cases that has worked, in some cases it has not worked,” Barlow said.

There are also procedures in place for repeat offences. “We will put [the offending student] in in-school suspension. We have also suspended some people, especially in violent situations,” Barlow said. The first out of school suspension is for three days. If the unwanted behavior continues, the consequence is upped to six days out of school. “There is a progressive discipline we put in place,” he said.

In addition, there is an anti-bullying club for students to learn what bullying is and how to react to it. Barlow said it is imperative that administrators know that bullying is happening. “That’s the key, that [the students] tell us. Some kids are bullied every day but don’t tell us. They’re afraid. But we can’t do anything about it if they don’t tell us,” he said.

“It is kind of frightening to talk about it to a teacher because they want a specific name and you think it’s going to get worse,” said Maria. “The thing that’s helped me a lot is journaling and putting my feelings on paper and trying to talk to my friends who I know are going to be good to me about it.”

It would help to stop bullying “if more people spoke up so that the bully knows that people are seeing it and it’s not okay,” Maria said.

“It’s just sad,” Maria’s stepfather said. “When she comes home and talks to her mom about what’s going on, we feel helpless. Mom’s reached out to the administration and some counselors, and it just never seems to go any farther than that.”

So for Maria, the constant name calling, being talked about, picked on, and isolated by her more slender peers, “it doesn’t stop.”

Despite the school’s efforts, Jimmy’s mother feels more has to be done. “There’s an attitude in Fluvanna that ‘boys will be boys,’ or that there was something my son did that caused this problem,” she said. “I talked to the principal at Charlottesville High School and any report filed, you’re done, you’re out of whatever sport you are in. They take it seriously.”

Will Fluvanna school administrators prove to hold fast to their own procedures? Can students be empowered to report what they see, even if they are not the intended target of a bully? Can bullies be made more aware of what they’re doing and what consequences they face by doing it? Will those consequences be meted out?

Some parents are talking to each other via social media because they are skeptical and unsatisfied by what they perceive as failures to protect their children.

One extreme situation concerns Jill, a senior who, with her mother’s help, has used the school’s chain of command in order to stop harassment received from another student. Jill and her bully have a No Contact contract in place that Jill said is continually violated. Efforts to end the animosity have escalated to a point of needing a restraining order from Fluvanna County court, Jill said.  Sadly, vicious verbal attacks keep coming during school hours. Administrators and guidance counselors are notified.

“The video recordings around the school do not record audio,” said Jill’s mother. “Only video. So while (her bully) can be seen near Jill talking, the school cannot make out what is being said. Each and every time Jill reports a verbal attack, which is against the newest No Contact contract they both signed this year, it becomes a battle of he said/she said.”

Jill’s mother is left to wonder why the blame game? “Why keep reporting things when you are always told the same thing? ‘Sorry, we can’t help you,” or ‘There is no proof’?”

Principal Barlow agreed that bullying has increased at his school and said it as important to revisit the topic of bullying with his staff and student body after winter break so that the message is clear: “Bullying in Fluvanna County High School is unacceptable.”

Pseudonyms have been used in this story to allow the vicims to speak freely.

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