As a school counselor and educator on the topic of Bullying Prevention, I get to do a lot of reading, thinking, and talking on the subject of unwanted aggression in schools, families, and communities. More importantly, I aim to do a lot of listening to the teachers, parents and students who make up my audiences, for these are the people from whom I gain the most profound insights about the cruelty of bullying as well as the resilience of the human spirit.
Recently, a mother described to me the very emotional account of her son’s experiences with bullying throughout middle and high school. I was instantly moved to tears at her son's painful experiences, shocked at the bland responses of too many adults who failed him, grateful for the nurturing care that finally came his way in school and amazed by the strength of his mother who was a warrior on his behalf.
Although this mother did not originally intend for her story to travel past my ears, I asked her for her permission to share it (with identifying details changed) because it is an important story of hope and perseverance and because while I know that her journey is all-too-common, I also know that families traveling down this road often feel as if they are completely on their own. She and her son agreed to let their story be told as a way to help others understand that they are not alone and to educate helping adults on how to effectively reach out to kids--and how to never, ever downplay a report of bullying.
Here it is, with profound thanks to one very brave mother and child for allowing their story to be shared:
Very early in my son’s life it became apparent that he didn’t have the same social skills that other kids had in big groups. We didn’t know it then but we were in for an epic battle for our child, one that is still going on right now.
Kyle* often said or did exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time, which elicited a predictable negative response from other children at school. He was fine amongst the neighbor children, at home, in family gatherings, etc., but when he was with his peers at school, everything fell apart. I can remember teachers informing me that it was his fault for all the problems in the class. They said they didn’t mind if he wanted to stay home for a day to let things settle down. They told me that he brought it upon himself. They insisted that he needed to be medicated right away because he overreacted to everything. They said that he must be on the Autism Spectrum, have ADHD, have a Learning Disability, or have Tourette’s Syndrome because clearly something was very wrong with our child. This was how the conversations went.
I tried to work with the teachers and Kyle. I did a lot of talking about things with him, coached the teachers and administration, and tried to reason with the other children’s parents, but nothing really ever changed for him. I can remember a certain principal telling me on more than one occasion that the other kids said they “didn’t do it” and that Kyle was lying again.
In the 4th grade, Kyle’s peers got to telling him to just go lie down and die in the road. They told him this often enough that he began saying, “Do you want me to just go down and lie in the road and die?” They’d chant “Yes!” The principal, when told and told about it, chatted with the chanting boys and then assumed everything was okay. The taunting just continued and my son started to say that he wanted to die. He hated school. He hated everybody. Finally, I withdrew him and home-schooled him.
This was a much happier time for him. He excelled in school and loved hanging out with the other home-school kids during the day.
After two years in homeschool, I tried to put him back into school because I thought he needed a chance to further develop his group social skills. It epically failed. The same kids started telling him to die again. When given the opportunity from my husband’s employer, we decided to move.
We truly believed that a fresh start in a new city would be the ticket. Our new doctor prescribed an ADHD medication for Kyle and we enrolled him in 7th grade at our local middle school. The year was a roller coaster: we were trying to figure out the right doses of medicine and get Kyle going with a counselor he trusted. At the same time, his classroom teacher was often absent. Somehow, he finished the year.
In 8th grade, however, a male classmate decided to target Kyle through almost daily physical aggression. Routinely, Kyle would be knocked down at school and spun around by his hood. I was in to the school office many times. The kid was suspended three times for his aggression towards Kyle and they were separated in school, but the boy still somehow found a way to get at Kyle. The final straw was when Kyle came home with a concussion and said that he’d never go to any school ever again. He wailed in sorrow and told me he just gave up. Clearly the school wasn’t handling it.
I called the police. The police came over and took Kyle’s statement. They said they were aware of the child who had been assaulting him and that they would keep the incident on record should he or anyone else from his family try and hurt Kyle again. That scared us all. I informed the school, who were shamed and defensive. They tried to get Kyle back in to school for half days. At this same time, Kyle rejected any offer of friendship (according to his teacher) and just wanted to stay home. Could you blame him? He wasn’t about to take the risk to join any local youth groups or sports team either. He’d been burned too many times.
This is when he started talking about suicide and drawing these images that were awful. He tried to strangle himself, electrocute himself, and began carrying around knives. After he tried to hang himself one night, leaving bruising around his neck, we went to our doctor and just hung on to each other and cried. I had no idea what else I could do. I thought that I’d tried everything I could to help my son. Kyle didn’t believe things would ever get better. The doctor got Kyle emergency access into a psychologist for help.
Dr. Miller* was the key to turning things around for our son. Things did not improve overnight by any means, but Dr. Miller was the first person to truly believe Kyle and support the entire family. We all attended counseling with him as a family and separately. To say that Kyle, and to be honest the entire family, had been traumatized was an understatement. During this time, Kyle took an extended leave of absence from school for intensive counseling. It was a rough go for him. He was just really tired all the time. He sunk into a depression and had to be put on more medication to even out his moods.
Forever the optimists, we thought that putting him back in to school in a new high school in the area (new friends = fresh start), that perhaps things might pick up. There had been gains in the counseling and perhaps, if we had the counseling team connected to Dr. Miller and Kyle, we hoped that things would be okay. Kyle loved it for exactly two weeks. It was at this point that an older classmate set up a fake Facebook page in Kyle’s name. On the day that Kyle found out about it and read through the humiliating posts and embarrassing photos, he tried to kill himself. Talk about a bad decision. When I went to see the principal, he suggested that we use the Facebook page to post humorous photos, as a way to show that Kyle could take a joke. His only other solution was to have Kyle see the counselor on staff and to “try to keep an eye out for him.”
Stunned to the core, I left. Kyle remained in hospital for three days. He didn’t want to leave. He was afraid of himself to leave. But the doctors prescribed new medicines and sent us on our way.
In the summer after 9th grade, something wonderful happened. Now consistently having good counseling sessions and taking the two medications prescribed by Dr. Miller, Kyle was finally in a very positive head space. He had heard me talking about an alternative school and the small classes full of kids who didn’t “fit in” in other schools. When I first approached the principal and vice principal and tuned them in to Kyle’s experience thus far, they both really wanted him to attend their school. In fact, they insisted that Kyle would be a part of the school’s family and that they took care of their family. I was so grateful I cried. When I told my husband, he cried right along with me again that night. It was here that Kyle finally, now in 10th grade, began to flourish.
Life has not been perfect by any means, but with his true acceptance for who he is, total safety and support with the staff, specific teaching around being with other students in healthier ways, counseling support and daily check-ins, he is now earning A's and B's in his core subjects. He is not Learning Disabled, on the Asperger’s Spectrum, Schizophrenic, Manic Depressive, Bipolar, have Tourette’s, or any of the other things that teachers and administrators tried to pin on him. He does have anxiety around his peers and ADHD. He and his teachers have found ways to work around these issues, work towards healing, and take his strengths and use them to his benefit. He is a square kid in a round world that now smiles, wants to go to school almost every day (he is a teenager after all), and is making plans for his future in law. He now wants to be a lawyer to fight for those who can’t. Poetic, really.
It’s the end of May now and he’s going into his exams soon. He honestly believes he’ll be just fine and has submitted his course requests for next year at our school. This is truly a celebration. He has opened up about his bullying experience with his classmates. Dr. Miller says that we don’t need to come anymore and that our doctor can take it from here. We can always go back if we need to, but he feels that Kyle is now on a much healthier track and has some skills in his back pocket.
The vice principal remembers a young man who would not leave the car or make any eye contact with her at all. She, along with the other teachers at our school, is amazed in the change that one year can make. I’m overwhelmed and grateful for how much our school has made a difference in his life. I always knew that a positive classroom environment was key for students, but now I have witnessed on an entirely different level and know it in deep in my bones. I just wish I could have made this happen earlier for him. We’re here now, however, and I couldn’t be happier. If you were to ask Kyle, he’d tell you how smart he actually is and that he loves school now. He even has the beginnings of a new true friendship, not just an acquaintance or online buddy. How spectacular is that!
For years and years and years I fought for Kyle. I still am in my way. I knew all the right things to say to the teachers and administrators and I was blocked and judged at every stop. I know the frustrations, anger, fear, sorrow, and unbelievable pain a parent feels when their child is hurt so deeply. I’ve listened to other teachers complaining, watched administrators both ambivalent and upset with their hands tied, and seen very angry parents, some with aggressive qualities themselves, along the way.
How I wish I could have found a place in the early years for my child like he is right now. What a difference that would have made to his life. I feel this profound responsibility to make change in our school system, not just my classroom or school. Something better needs to be done. But how can I do this? Where should I start? Who should I talk to? The answer I’ve come up with is to go back to school myself. My plan is to keep on working while I build my skills in a Master’s program. I am going to become a principal myself and bring about change in my community. It’s not enough for me to be disgusted and frustrated about my son’s, and other students’, experiences. As Andrew Soloman taught in his TED Talk called “How the worst moments of our lives make us who we are” (2014), I must forge meaning from my son’s trauma. I need to make lemonade from his struggles somehow and be thankful for this deeper understanding of bullying and all of its horrific impacts. I will forge meaning, build a positive identity, and then share my joy with others. I will help my son and others to do this as well.
*name has been changed
Signe Whitson, LSW is a national eductor on Bullying Prevention, school counselor, and author of 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools. For workshop inquiries or more information, please visit www.signewhitson.com.