THE OUTCASTS

Bullies still target the kids who don't conform

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Despite the best efforts of school administrators on all levels over the 
 last few decades, including passing state laws banning the practice, bullying is still the primary life stress for too many schoolchildren who are marginalized or different — kids already struggling with identity issues who are also struggling with how to present themselves acceptably to their peers.

Incidents of bullying run the gamut — from the recent claims by a First Coast High mother that her son was kicked out of school after a gang beat him up (which the school's administration claims was an "isolated incident" and not gang-related) to the more quotidian (though still traumatic).

A recent example of garden-variety bullying is from Landmark Middle School, where Riauna Campbell is an eighth-grader who, according to her mother, Lisa Acker, has a penchant for wearing clothing designed in themes of children's movies, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Little Mermaid. One day earlier this month, Riauna wore something from her collection — an oversized blue sweater with an outsized Cookie Monster image on the front.

Acker says that her daughter was drinking water from a fountain when she found herself on the receiving end of insults about her sweater from members of a sixth-grade language arts class who were gathered in the hall without adult supervision.

"Look at her, she thinks she has swag," said one. Another, in Acker's telling, chimed in that Campbell was dressed like a second-grader. Others piled on, inverting the traditional middle-school dynamic in which younger students are bullied by older ones. From there, Acker says, a verbal skirmish ensued.

When the sixth-graders' teacher made it into the hallway, Acker says, her students accused Riauna of being the instigator, a determination that summarily led to referral and a two-day suspension.

Acker pleaded her case to school officials — this wasn't the first time her daughter has been bullied, she says — but her efforts proved fruitless. Acker went up the chain of command to seek recourse, and says the Duval County Public Schools region chief is looking into the matter. Still, she's skeptical of any favorable resolution.

"I have already prepared a letter to go to the Federal Board of Education and have been also spending time in the Duval County Courthouse law library researching civil lawsuits against the school system," Acker told me. "This is important to me because our children should feel safe and protected where they attend school."

DCPS had not responded to requests for comment by press time.

The problem is, for every one of these incidents that warrant mention, there are countless other slights and exclusions that do not. The child who is singled out and bullied faces penalties far beyond the actual incident. For every terrorizing moment of rhetorical or physical violence, there are the other consequences — the lonely nights and weekends, missing out on formative experiences, the isolating feeling of being left behind with no way to catch up.

Since I wrote about Caleb Combs a few weeks ago [Fightin' Words, "Classroom Bullies," April 9], I've heard from many people who claim to have been bullied in school. By 
and large, there's one common thread running through the stories: They were all outliers from the prevailing acceptable types of the times.

No matter how well-worded a statute, how well-intended a policy, the fact remains that there is bullying every day for the same reason politicians and sports teams have fair-weather fans: Everyone wants to be identified with a winner, not a loser.

So we learn lessons to get by, to escape the tyranny of the mob, to conform. Not to wear the wrong sweater, not to walk or talk differently, not to stand out in any way. Bullying teaches victims that there are penalties for standing out, for being different. This harsh lesson is handy preparation for the cubicles, drywall apartment complexes and spiritless regimentation that these students are being groomed for as adults.

UPDATE: Commentary added on this situation from Tia Ford, DCPS Spokesperson:

"The school, immediately upon notification, launched an investigation, conducting a thorough and comprehensive review of the reported incident. While details related to the investigation are confidential, as required by federal statute (Family Education Rights Privacy Act), the findings determined in this investigation did not produce any evidence of bullying. Bullying is a disciplinary violation that Duval County, like school districts throughout the state, are mandated to review and report. Any assertion made referencing bullying must and is investigated by school and district officials. This Landmark report is no exception.

"Recognizing the prevalence of bullying as identified on school and college campuses, and even NFL locker rooms, Duval County Public Schools increased its efforts to generate awareness about bullying and support strategies to report and resolve it. Last year, it launched a “Not in My School” campaign, complete with advertisements, personnel and student training, increased school-based offerings (personnel), and an anonymous anti-bullying hotline. In addition, the district’s Web site identifies information and tools for students and families ( http://www.duvalschools.org/Page/10321). Also attached is the district’s anti-bullying policy.

"We are convinced that these efforts, which have earned Duval County Public Schools a gold star and recognition by the Florida Department of Education, have helped to increase awareness about bullying. We will continue to build on these programs with efforts that contribute to a better understanding of bullying as defined (legal definition of bullying). We certainly understand that parents and students are our partners in education and contribute greatly to keeping our schools and campuses conducive to learning. As a result, we encourage any parent who finds him or herself dissatisfied with our investigation to make an appeal. We have a process in place to support such needs and concerns."

Tags: school administrators, First Coast High, schoolchildren, Riauna Campbell, Lisa Acker,
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