In the fall of 2014, Caleb, a bright blond-headed boy with inquisitive eyes and a great curiosity for learning, started kindergarten. He loved his teacher, made friends easily and was happy to go to school. Then Caleb began to come home with stories of how Joey was tormenting some of the kids on the playground. One time he told his mom, Rebecca, that Joey pushed Timmy so hard that he split his chin on the concrete, requiring Timmy to get stitches. The stories continued, as did the accusations that the recess attendants spent more time talking among themselves than they did watching the children.
Caleb has never been one to tolerate injustice, and he tried to protect the other kids when he saw them being bullied. This quickly made Caleb the target. The gang would chase after him and yell “Get him!” and Caleb would run and hide. His mom talked to him about not running and hiding and perhaps playing closer to the teachers, but Caleb did not like that idea. He and his friends liked to play by the swings where they had a lot of space to run.
One day while Caleb was climbing the ladder on the jungle gym, Joey started beating him on the head, then he tried to kick Caleb in the face. Rebecca sent a note to the teacher and called the guidance counselor, but only got her voicemail. The next day Caleb’s teacher sat down with Joey, Caleb and another boy to talk about what was going on. The boys refused to sit near Joey out of fear. In the end the teacher made Joey write an apology. The teacher told Rebecca that Joey was often in trouble for this kind of behavior.
The guidance counselor, who worked only a couple of days a week, called back a few days later. She was surprised that Joey was acting like this and said she had not heard of him doing such nasty things. The recess attendants, the counselor stated, said that Caleb had started a group of kids who reported bad behavior to one recess attendant in particular––the attendant claimed that Caleb had a wild imagination and was trying to fulfill a dream of being a superhero. The counselor mentioned that school was almost over but nonetheless she would file a report and talk to Joey’s parents. The rest of the year passed without incident, and Caleb reported that Joey was acting much better. Perhaps, Rebecca hoped, things had taken a turn.
The start of first grade brought the discovery that none of Caleb’s close friends from the previous year were in his class. Caleb’s new friend, Toby, began threatening that if Caleb did not give him his school store money he would not be Caleb’s friend. In another instance he said he would bash Caleb’s face in if he didn’t give him a drawing that Caleb had done. On top of that Caleb was again coming home with stories of Joey and his gang causing terror on the playground.
Once again Rebecca spoke to the teachers and the guidance counselors, and promises were made to keep a closer eye on things. His parents discussed their options and worried about what had happened to the sweet, curious boy they had sent off to kindergarten the year before. Caleb was now quick to lash out or react in anger, he cried more easily, clenched his fist and hit his dad. By Thanksgiving break even extended family members noticed a difference.
The final straw came when Caleb told his parents about how before the break he was hiding in the tires from a boy who was chasing kids around and hitting them with a stick. Eventually the boy found Caleb and hit him on the back a few times before Caleb was able to run away. He lifted his shirt and showed them the faint marks on his back. Rebecca and her husband felt like the school had brushed them off and let them down. Shortly after Thanksgiving they pulled Caleb out of the school.
Vermont Law states that all schools are required to have a bullying and harassment plan in place that is equal to, or more stringent than, the one developed by the state. There is even an advisory committee through the Agency of Education that helps with the setting up of these policies. We cannot just send our children off to school and think that we don’t need to engage them when they get home. We need to be asking questions, look for the subtle clues and listen to what our children have to say.
I fully believe that to some extent situations like this can make a child much stronger and more fully prepared for the toxicity of our current culture. However, we need to know when to step in and pull them back from the ledge before they become part of the problem or, worse yet, decide it is just not worth facing another day.
Written for the Charlotte News