When I enter a conversation about bullying and I am asked if I think children should be left alone to work through it themselves, I always say the same thing.
If children were meant to fend for themselves, we would leave them on the beach like sea turtles.
Our natures, our instincts tell us something different. As mothers, we relate more to the lioness. We are more like bears than salmon. We defend. We teach. We support. We nurture. That is our existence as parents. That is our role, our pleasure and our great responsibility.
We try not to shelter. We try to walk the fine line between the hover and the safe distance.
My niece Lilly, has been the victim of bullying. A few of the students at Holt High School’s 9th grade campus think that my niece walks funny. When she ambles by, they tell her so. They point and laugh. They crack jokes at her expense. Lilly does her best to ignore them.
After all, she has a life to lead.
Ben & Ginnie are my in laws. They’re alright I guess. They are our children’s Godparents. So, if we die, they get our kids to raise. They are really concerned for our health.
They are clever, loving, good people. They have four children. Three girls and our surprise nephew, Scott who was discovered on the very day Ben was going in for a vasectomy consultation. God really got a good laugh about that one. Scott is Isaac’s very best cousin. They run to each other like star crossed lovers in a field. It’s hilarious and perfect.
Molly and Lilly are the oldest. They have held all of my children and sometimes taken them to the park to watch them at family events. They pop in the movies or offer to jump on the trampoline with them. Sylvia is the same age as Isaiah. They were born almost exactly six months apart. The day her mother let me hold her for the first time I cried because she was the first baby to be born after I married my husband. She felt like the ties that bind. If I were to get pregnant today, Ginnie would too, just to steal my thunder.
We stick together. We hang out. We are a family. I think that mingling of lives is what made Ginnie’s story so hard to hear. It is a long story because it was a long journey. It is important that it be told. No one else seems to be listening.
I listened one afternoon over a glass of wine.
On one October day, a young man thought that Lilly’s strange gait was an invitation to have her seat pulled out from underneath her as she was sitting down in the library. She fell. Hard. She nearly fractured a rib and had a pretty ugly contusion. He hurt her. Lilly’s bestfriend Laney helped her up and then she carefully helped her visit the school nurse.
Her injuries forced her home from school and into Urgent Care that afternoon. Ginnie called Principal Johnston to find out what kind of disciplinary actions would be taken. She called and she waited. She waited two weeks and never received a return call.
No big deal, right? Principals are busy and she was sure the offending student had been disciplined for his actions. They just forgot to follow up. It happens. It was time for a follow up visit. Ginnie picked up Lilly from school one day and popped into the office for a quick update from the Principal while Lilly gathered her things.
Apparently, it was an accident. The student accidently pulled the chair out as Lilly was sitting down. No disciplinary actions needed. It was all just a big misunderstanding. Principal Johnston invited Lilly and the other student into his office so that an apology could be given to Lilly. Done and done.
This is where I stopped her. It is a ridiculous idea that someone could accidently pull a chair out from underneath someone. In my entire 32 years, I have never had a chair accidently pulled out from underneath me. Every chair pulling incident in my childhood was done mischievously with the intent of getting a laugh out of watching someone tumble to the floor.
She was also skeptical that one could accidently pull a chair away from someone you were making fun of moments earlier. Just then, Lilly popped her head in to check in and Ginnie asked her directly if she had received an apology.
Lilly said she hadn’t.
Principal Johnston looked at Lilly and said, “Didn’t I have both of you come in to this office together so that he could apologize?”
Again, Lilly said no.
Principal Johnston asked her again. “Lilly, didn’t I have both of you in this office together so that he could apologize.”
Lilly, a bit intimidated and confused said that the meeting never happened.
Principal Johnston asked her again. Lilly said no, again.
Ginnie is now spinning. As she leaves with Lilly to pick up her other children, the conversation replays in her head. Not only was nothing done but she felt mislead. The principal of the school either intentionally misled her or had no memory of his own actions. Neither idea was a comforting one for a mother who trusted her daughter to their care every day of the week.
She asked Laney to write a statement of what she saw. When Laney gave it to Mr. Johnson he read it carefully. After some thoughtful consideration he recommended a single addition. He asked her to state that she does not feel bullied at Holt High School. Laney declined.
Ginnie decided at this point to file a police report. Her intention was never to press charges. Her goals were to have the incident be officially recorded and to hopefully, push the school into appropriate disciplinary actions. Only one of those goals where accomplished.
The police report exists in a filing cabinet somewhere.
The parents of the child who hurt Lilly intentionally said that Ginnie was blowing the situation out of proportion. In their defense, even though Ginnie did everything she could to encourage the school to take the correct actions, they never even notified the other parents. They learned about the incident from a police officer instead of the school where their son attends.
I imagine, with the reaction of the school being so lame, it would appear that Ginnie was probably blowing that near fractured rib out of proportion. Maybe the medical professionals at Urgent Care were over reacting too. I hear it’s sort of an epidemic.
Ginnie did not press charges. The school continued to do nothing. At this point, Lilly was over the injuries. She was all healed up and going to school every day as usual. Ginnie considered just dropping it. Some of her family and friends even encouraged her to do so. She couldn’t just drop it.
It was no longer the injury of the bullying. It wasn’t the school’s failure to handle the situation correctly. It was the deception about the apology. It was the failure to apologize even after it was pointed out one never came.
I think Ginnie and I are a lot alike. We believe in justice and fairness. When we are treated badly, a heartfelt, sincere apology goes a long way. It is expected. Where our children are involved, it is required.
Ginnie, and more importantly, Lilly was never apologized to. In the words of the Dude, “This will not stand, man.”
She decided to press on. It was the principle.
She called the school again and worked to get an appointment with their Human Resources staffer. It took a little while but she was persistent and eventually she got her slot. She also called the police officer who filed the report and asked her to join in. She invited me to come for support and to keep the meeting on target if she became too emotional. Challenge accepted.
I took the morning off and met her at her home. We drove over together. We met in a large conference room where Ginnie sat directly in front of the HR guy and asked him one simple question. “Do you think that this situation was handled correctly.” He replied that he did.
She disagreed with him and shared why. I heard the story again. I heard about the many phone calls and emails made. I heard about how little was done remarkably slowly. I heard a lot of phrases like; “I hear what you’re saying…” and “If what you’re saying is true…” from the HR guy. It was very frustrating.
I watched Ginnie wrangle her anger and pile it under the conference table. She spoke gently and with respect. She only cried once, which of course, made me cry too. She cried when she tried to explain what it was like for Lilly to be made fun of every day. This is not the first time she has brought this bullying issue to the school. This is not the first time she has been ignored. The tears ran hot.
The lie came new. This time, Principal Johnson not only asserted that an apology had been made face to face but in writing too. Lilly never received a letter. She still maintains the face to face apology never happened. Mr. Johnson’s deception was as real and determined as the principals Ginnie was standing on.
Ginnie also came with a plan and a willingness to help. She did her homework. She found no bullying policy on the school website or in the school handbook. She researched what other schools were doing and brought in a few copies of some other bullying policies she found. She offered to volunteer, to find a bullying program or to bring in someone to speak to the students.
The HR person and the police officer explained that Holt High School has one of the best bullying policies in the Mid-Michigan area. They said that many of the other schools were scrambling to adopt or update their policies to match theirs. I asked to see it. Eventually, it was also explained that the policy is not actually in use because it is being reviewed. At the time, you could not find it on the website and apparently, the sheer volume of the one page policy would make the school handbook too large.
To summarize, the policy was perfect, unused and inaccessible. They were also uninterested in taking her up on her offers to help.
The meeting was not going well. In the end, the HR guy did agree that “if what Ginnie was saying is true”, then the situation was not handled well by Principal Johnson. He agreed to find out what happened and help rectify the situation. To Ginnie, all that would have needed to happen was to hear an acknowledgement of a failure and an apology.
We finished the meeting with handshakes and uncertainty. We were hopeful. We picked up Lillian, who wasn’t feeling well and headed home. We laughed to keep from crying about the meeting. It wasn’t funny. Ginnie was treated respectfully. It was the kind of respect you get when you’re crazy. It was the quiet undercurrent of pity and side stepping to avoid exciting the lunatic.
Later that day, Ginnie received a voicemail message.
Principal Johnson, remembered now. He put in the police report there was a letter of apology. Whoops. His bad. Actually, there was no letter of apology; the apology came in the form of the verbal apology that took place in Mr. Johnson’s office.
She sent me a text in disbelief. At this point, we were all angry. We could not understand how this situation could still be going on. The Principal was clearly lying to cover his failure to protect a student. The story was now evolving to adapt to the current climate. Ginnie contacted a lawyer. She wanted to find out what, if anything she could do.
She also called the Superintendent to let him know that none of her children would be returning to the Holt School District next year. She had contacted a lawyer and was very disappointed with the way that her daughter had gone unprotected from bullies to the point of injury throughout the school year.
He called back in 5 minutes. Ginnie wasn’t sure if it was genuine concern, the loss of pupils or the mention of legal counsel that prompted the response. She didn’t care. She set up a meeting with him, Mr. Johnson and Lilly for the following week.
I’d like to tell you that Mr. Johnson admitted his mistake and apologized. I can’t because he didn’t. The superintendent apologized and he said, “I’d like to echo that apology.” The grown up fancy pants version of “ditto”. The letter of apology was never given to Lilly. The student who hurt her never saw any consequences at school. His parents never acknowledged or spoke to Ginnie about it.
That’s it. After all of that, Lilly will probably never receive an apology.
Ginnie went all the way to the top of the food chain to find one for her. She wanted Lilly’s world to be just and fair. She wanted to be able to prove to Lilly that the teachers and staff that she is surrounded with are her true advocates. Ginnie wanted the students who have gone to school with Lilly her entire life to be true friends to her.
Ginnie was able to prove that she will fight for her daughter. She has taught Lilly that even when everyone around Ginnie encourages her to drop back, stand down, walk away, she will not. Lilly still knows that her best friend will always be loyal to her. She knows that she is loved, chosen, guarded, valued and worthy.
Lillian does walk funny. She slurs her speech sometimes too. At times, her balance is a bit off. A couple of years ago, she was diagnosed with Friedrichs Attaxia. She may end up in a wheel chair. Her muscles are slowly changing and deteriorating. As a family, we are trying to support her and her family.
I am not always sure what to say to Ginnie. She is my sister and it was difficult watching her dreams for her daughter change so fast. I told her that I would cry with her or laugh inappropriately depending on her mood. I have kept my word. Lillian is lightening quick of mind and her jokes are the best. She makes me laugh and I love being her aunt.
All she wants to do is lead a normal life. She just wants to go to school and participate in what she can, while she can. That is what we all want for her. A life full.
We don’t understand why so many of the students that Lilly has known her whole life are being so mean to her now. We don’t know why the environment is an attack on her weaknesses. We are hoping things will be different for her in a new school. We are hoping that the administration will lead by example.
Unfortunately, Lillian will not be returning to Holt High School. After Ginnie specifically requested that she not be placed in classes with either of the children that have targeted her, she was placed in a class with both of them. Don’t feel to guilty if that just made you sigh a curse word under your breath.
When a bully’s actions are met with no consequences it is tacit approval of their behavior. Bullies are cowards but
if they go unchallenged, they have nothing to fear. We have lost children to suicide because they could not find a champion. Our children are not sea turtles. They are people navigating a world that is not always good. We are their compass. They will not find their way without our love, guidance and yes, even our protection.
Let’s try not to leave them stranded on the beach.
I love you, Lillian and I love the way you walk.
PS – Feel free to leave a comment here for Lillian. If you wish to contact Principal Nick Johnson to voice your displeasure in how the Holt High School 9th grade campus handled this situation, you may do so by emailing him here at firstname.lastname@example.org or visiting their website.
PPS – Please no trolls, threats or nasty spam email. Note the title. Bullies are stupid. My readers have class.