FIGHTIN’ WORDS

CLASSROOM BULLIES

What happens when a student is harassed not by his peers, 
but by his teachers?

Posted

Duval County Public Schools has predictably 
 high-minded mission statements. For 
 instance, there's the pledge from the Office of Equity and Inclusion to "help eliminate the achievement gap by fostering respect for — and celebration of — our diversity; promote cultural unity, individual growth, and classroom and workplace harmony." This is an entire department set up to counter harassment and bullying. Pretty groovy.

But what happens when the bully isn't a student, but a teacher?

Caleb Combs is a diminutive, soft-spoken, self-effacing fifth grader who does everything he can to make his mama proud. He's just a few weeks from leaving West Riverside Elementary; he'll attend LaVilla School of the Arts next year, and the harassment he says he's faced from his teachers will be but a memory. But those memories will last a lifetime — some of the first authority figures set up to lead him, to theoretically model adult behavior, instead showed him that bigotry takes many forms.

Caleb's mother, Ashley, is Duval born and bred — and has never heard of teachers saying the kinds of things they said to her son. One, she says, took him to task for dancing next to another boy, because "it looks gay." Another criticized him for singing the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis pro-marriage-equality anthem "Same Love." A third opined to Ashley that "Caleb doesn't feel loved and supported" because his parents aren't married.

For a gentle soul like Ashley, whose main interests in life are raising her son and performing animal rescue, it's been almost too much to bear. She complained to the school's principal, Sylvia Johnson, but nothing came of it. (Johnson did not return a message left on her voicemail requesting comment.)

DCPS spokeswoman Tia Ford, whom I reached at the end of a recent Friday, told me Ashley should have taken the complaint further up the chain and "reach[ed] out to the regional chief." Ford wondered "why the mother would want a media story."

Why, indeed, Ashley?

"I don't want these hurtful things said to anyone — especially not to a gay or lesbian kid who is already struggling with knowing how to be who they are."

For a few halcyon minutes, Ford spoke to me casually and frankly, as if we were off the record (we weren't), in Friday EOD mode. Then Ford checked herself and began talking slowly and measured, like the training document told her to.

I asked if there was an ombudsman for parents' complaints. Ford asked me what an ombudsman was. And that right there illustrates the insularity and the entitlement (and the need for vocabulary lessons) at the heart of DCPS.

While this situation has Ashley worked up, Caleb has dealt with it about as well as he can (though, as these things go, who knows what long-term effects might be?).

Like all entrenched bureaucracies, there is a crony system at DCPS, no matter if Nikolai Vitti or an exhumed Herb Sang plays superintendent. People are lifers there, and lifers have prerogatives — especially in a system in which they are there to "educate" children there compulsorily, unless their parents have the means to escape to the shiny new subdivisions of St. Johns County, or the risk-aversion necessary to trust their kids to some charter school.

Perhaps, as Vitti takes a closer look at expanding elementary schools to include sixth graders in some parts of town, he might want to investigate the experience these kids actually get in their classroom. Not during an official visit, when everyone's on their best behavior, but when the administrators are in "meetings" and the teachers let their guards down and talk real.

And if Vitti needs an ombudsman? I'm available. I know what the word means. And 
I work cheap.

Tags: bullies, education, nikolai vitti, duval county
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