Susan Johnson’s 10-year-old son is quiet and a bit of a loner who has struggled socially. So it took a while for her to learn how he had been suffering at school.
This is a school that put a special focus on bullying this year by drafting its own bullying policy, and by participating in Rachel’s Challenge, an anti-bullying, pro-kindness campaign founded by the family and friends of Columbine victim Rachel Scott.
The school hosted an assembly at the beginning of the year for all its K-8 students to discuss bullying. Throughout the year, the school promoted kindness, helping, compassion, leading, and letting go, all core values of Rachel’s Challenge. There were daily messages in morning announcements that were followed up in the classroom with mini lessons or conversations. The school has peer counselors to handle bullying and conflicts when they erupt between students, and a school counselor and psychologist who visit classrooms to teach Second Step, an anti-bullying curriculum.
This is also a school where Johnson says her son was bullied.
I am not naming the school because it would not be fair to single it out as a haven for bullies. There is no way to verify this school is any worse than any other in terms of the number of bullying incidents, or the handling of them. However, two other families shared stories about bullying over the past couple years that resulted in the decision to pull their children out of the same school.
It is important to note that Johnson’s son is no angel. (Johnson is also not his real last name. His mother was fine with me publishing it, but I’m not sure her son would be).
Max Johnson got called to the dean’s office a few times for tipping over chairs, and drawing a picture of a pie being tossed in a girl’s face. But he was also in accelerated math and always had good grades — until they started to slip at the beginning of fourth grade last year.
Within days, Max was crying about having to go to school. “Don’t make me go back there,” he’d sob. He said boys would throw food at him in the cafeteria. If he was on a swing at recess, he told his mom a certain boy always tried to jostle the chain so he’d fall off.
“It was just constant harassment,” Johnson said. “Then I find out another kid was punching him. (My son) was very intimidated.”
Alone in the lunchroom
Johnson wanted to know what was going on, so she went to the school and peered into the lunchroom.
“I looked through the windows … it was almost like he had a disease,” Johnson said, her eyes reddening. “All these spaces around him were empty.”
Johnson decided she needed to take action and asked for a meeting with the school’s dean Sept. 7. Johnson said she was assured the school would look into the situation. There was a second meeting with the dean and the head of the school’s counselors. Johnson thought the situation with her son was being addressed.
But it didn’t stop. In fact, things got worse.
Johnson found some disturbing drawings by her son. One showed a boy holding a gun to his head, with several other drawings of ways he could die. Then there were threats against other kids at school. Johnson was beside herself. She recalls crying as she wrote follow-up emails to the dean pleading for help.
And that’s when, she said, the school put up a professional wall. School officials are prohibited from discussing Johnson’s case due to student confidentiality rules. But the dean and the school’s board president said the school takes bullying very seriously.
“As a school, we are committed to the safety and well-being of our students and staff,” they wrote in an email. “We continually strive to better ourselves as a school and staff. We feel we have an incredible staff who are dedicated individuals who care deeply for our students.”
Johnson ended up turning to her church. A youth pastor at The Rock, Sylvia Barhonas, began counseling Max.
“It really made a big difference,” Johnson said. “It saved him. It helped him see he is worthwhile. He used to say, ‘I’m a fourth-grade nothing.’ ”
Pastor Sylvia, as she’s known (and yes, this is her real name), recalled the boy’s struggles. She did not focus so much on who did what to whom, but rather the impact of whatever was happening on this boy, who was full of despair when he showed up to see her.
“He did not like himself,” Pastor Sylvia said. “Whatever happened to him, he believed it to be true. He was so afraid — it overshadowed anything positive the school was doing.”
Johnson, meanwhile, wondered if she was the only parent experiencing problems with bullying at the school. So, on Sept. 28, she posted a message on a Facebook page for school moms asking if anyone else had experienced similar issues – an act she said didn’t go over well with school leadership.
She said one of the first calls came from the mother of the boy her son had pegged as the bully. That mother said her son had also been bullied at the school. But the biggest surprise? The mom said the school had never contacted her about Johnson’s complaints.
Pulling Max from school
“Right then, it was war,” Johnson said.
She and her husband ended up pulling Max out of the school Sept. 29. He attends another public school in Dougco, and, by all accounts, is doing well.
But Johnson won’t stop. She still attends every one of the school’s board meetings. She wants an assurance this won’t happen again. The school did investigate her family’s case, based on a complaint filed by the Johnsons in late October. It took five months to get a reply. School officials found that all bullying protocols were followed.
She even reported student names to Safe2Tell, which brought a detective to families’ homes asking questions. Nothing has come of the resulting investigation.
“We just want the right thing,” Johnson said. “We’re not stopping. We expect to gain nothing out of this. It’s been a big pain in the neck. I’m sick of thinking about it — but we can’t walk away.”
School officials, meanwhile, said their school is always working on being better.
“Each and every year, we continue to improve our process, procedures and education of our staff and students alike,” the dean and board president wrote in an email message. “We continue to learn how to better handle situations and to teach our students how to handle themselves as well.”
With a little luck, both Johnson and teachers and staff at the school have learned something from this sticky situation and its continuing fallout. But it may still be too early to know what. This story illustrates why the handling of bullying incidents can be so complicated.
If you were the school dean, or the boy’s mother, what would you have done?
About our First Person series:
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.