Your child comes home and complains of being bullied – in this case, not physically, but verbally. You contact the school, and the steps taken to stop the harassment, or even pin down exactly what's happening, don't work. The problem continues for weeks. As a parent, what do you do? This month, two Canadian families took very different steps to help their 11-year-old daughters. Their stories reveal the complexity of dealing with bullying issues at school, and the frustration families feel when no fix seems possible
Grade 5 student Harley Campos has a personal bodyguard to protect her from bullies: her mom. Each day, Jill Trahan-Hardy meets her daughter between classes at Earl Haig Public School in Toronto and escorts her to the next one. At recess, she stands on the edge of the playground, watching. In between, she volunteers in the library. Harley says friends think it's "kind of cool," but Harley herself isn't so sure. "It's weird," she says. "We talk in the hallway so it doesn't look like she's just following behind me."
It's an extreme measure, but it's better than Harley hiding out in the washroom during recess – what she had been doing for weeks. It started, she says, when some Grade 7 girls began intimidating her in the schoolyard, over a comment they believe she made. Trahan-Hardy, a single mom, says she told Harley's teacher at a meeting in April, and was promised the school would step in. But the bullying, says Trahan-Hardy, continued. Meanwhile, Harley's marks began to fall dramatically, and she pretended to be sick to avoid going go school.
Then two weeks ago, one of Harley's friends recorded an aggressive exchange with these two older students, which prompted Trahan-Hardy to go to the school and contact the police, who made inquiries she says, but didn't lay charges. There's often she said/she said in these cases, but the audio, which is mostly swearing and yelling, depicts a one-sided exchange led by the older students. The girls were suspended for a day and half.
When she asked how the school would deal with incidents in the future, she says she was told that Harley could sit in the office at recess, or change schools. (School-board officials declined to comment more fully on the case, citing privacy concerns.)
"When you walk through the school, you see signs up everywhere: It's a bully-free zone," says Trahan-Hardy. "But then they are just not handling it properly."
Harley says she probably should have told an adult what was happening sooner. But she was embarrassed, she says, and telling doesn't always help. "Bullies are different. If you tell an adult, some bullies will stop, and some won't. I don't think what the teacher taught us does anything."
Certainly, from her mother's perspective, the school's response was ineffective. In the end, she decided the only way to guarantee her daughter's safety, was to walk the hallways herself. She is still working out with the board how she will be present in the school this week.
"That's my baby. I am going to protect her," she says, conceding that having mom shadowing you between classes might prompt more teasing. "I know there's a risk of that. But her safety outweighs everything."
Last week, between math and spelling, Rachel and Megan Engstrom staged a mock provincial election in their house with stuffed animals as candidates. Two weeks ago, after what she saw as a failure on the part of the school to deal with a chronic case of bullying, their mom, Barbara, decided her 11-year-old twins wouldn't return to their Grade 5 class in Squamish, B.C. – at least not this month. Their dad works long hours, and travels for his job. So Engstrom is working from home as a risk manager for a construction firm, juggling their home-schooling. It's the best solution, she says, for a hellish school year.
The Engstroms' version is detailed in seven months of e-mails with the principal and school-district representatives, and a police liaison officer. Once, they even cc'd the premier's office.
Beginning in October, the e-mails describe what appear, at first, to be minor incidents – a friendship fallout, shoulder bumps, isolating snubs. But bullying, as Engstrom points out, is often the accumulation of small events, benign on their own, malignant when piled up over months. Only one side is reflected in the e-mails, of course, but parent meetings were held, a circle group was organized. The situation improved for a while, Engstrom says, before worsening this spring.
"They were both coming home upset, saying 'nobody wants to play with us, everybody hates us,'" she says. Her daughters complained of stomach aches, and nightmares. Megan, she says, began to withdraw; Rachel starting fighting back. "When you are getting constantly bombarded by people and nobody is helping you," says Engstrom, "you get angry."
As a former police officer, Engstrom "seriously considered having them wear a wire" so she could record what was happening at school. She knows how extreme that sounds, but "how could I help them?" she asks."I could see it in their eyes. You could feel it when they were talking to you. It profoundly hurts them."
On May 7, after learning that Rachel was crying at lunch hour (Megan had stayed home that day), she made the decision to pull them officially from class: Rachel and Megan will be taught at home, at least for most of May.
"Our children have to be prepared for what they face out in the real world; not everybody is nice," says Engstrom. "But if this was happening in a workplace, it would be investigated thoroughly. Why is it different in school? If this happens repeatedly, some adult has to step in and stop it. When kids don't see that happening, then they lose confidence in the people they are supposed to look up to."