Education

Tormented by Racial and Anti-Gay Slurs, Student Speaks Out; School Accuses Him of Overreacting

The school claimed there was no evidence the teen was bullied, yet it had a plan to keep him safe.

Photo Credit: Suzanne Tucker via Shutterstock.com

Victor is a tall, soft-spoken young man who is proud of his black and Hispanic heritage. A senior at Amundsen High School*, a diverse high school located in the northside of Chicago, Victor is a passionate Star Wars fan and a member of the Rebel Legion, an international fan-based organization that creates realistic Star Wars costumes. “My dream is to attend college next year to study engineering and possibly work one day as an Imagineer for Disney,” he said. 

But to many of his classmates, Victor is none of those things. He is, quite simply, a target. “They call me fag, the N-word, a Star Wars nerd, all kinds of stuff,” he told me. “This has happened to me all my life, people making fun of me. But it got so much worse when I came to [high school]. If I talk, people often tell me to shut the F up. I just want to disappear when it happens.”

A classmate of Victor’s confirmed his allegations. “People tell Victor he is stupid and a fag,” Keisha** said. “They tell him to go away and say he doesn’t belong.”

Victor’s story is the same one shared by ostracized kids at schools all over America. It serves as a case study for how difficult it is to effectively reduce harassment and bullying in schools without consistent support, training, and social emotional education for the whole school community.  

While Victor had been taunted by peers throughout high school, it wasn’t until he was moved into the school’s International Baccalaureate program during his junior year that he began having problems with teachers, as well.

“It felt unbelievable,” he said. “My Spanish teacher told me to leave her class, that I wasn’t smart enough to be there. And my biology teacher didn’t put grades in for me. He said that I never turned in the work and gave me zeroes. My school counselor had to sign and date my homework before I went to class, and she kept copies to prove I had turned in assignments.”

Always a strong student, in the face of so much harassment Victor’s grades began to plummet. He felt anxious and unhappy, and the environment at school continued to feel hostile. “There were two students in the lunchroom who threatened to kill me with a knife. I told the security guard, who then sent me to the dean, but the dean never followed up with me. I was afraid to go to the lunchroom for the rest of the semester.”

When students began throwing pencils at him and taunting him regularly in Spanish class, Victor finally confided in his mom, Delores.  “I hadn’t wanted to worry her. She is older and she’s a single mom, and stress makes her sick, but I knew I needed to talk to her. I had asked my Spanish teacher for help, but she said she didn’t see anything.” 

Victor’s mother told me, “Victor has been very strong with all this. But when he is hurting, I am hurting.” Delores has had numerous meetings with the school, and she and Victor finally found an ally in the school counselor.

“[The school counselor] was the most helpful official at the school,” Victor said. “She brought the students in who had bullied me, and they admitted to picking on me. They told her it is because I’m a nerd and annoying and that I like Star Wars. After that, one student did change his behavior and make amends. But the other kids were even angrier at me for reporting. They retaliated by calling me racial slurs on our IB Facebook page. Since the school itself hadn’t created the IB page, they said they wouldn’t take action. So I reported it to Facebook and had it removed.”

The Complexity of Addressing Bullying in Schools

Compared to many U.S. schools, Victor’s school is doing some things right. For example, via a school-wide initiative to promote “Accountable, Honorable, and Scholarly” behavior, the school does have positive behavioral intervention and supports (PBIS) in place.

But PBIS is less effective in high school than in the younger grades, explained Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, a bullying prevention organization that promotes positive norms and teaches kids to be helpful allies to those at risk. 

“PBIS is imperative, but it needs to be partnered with other programs. On its own, there is no evidence to support that PBIS reduces bullying,” Willard said. Victor’s school is not currently using any school-wide social emotional programming in conjunction with PBIS.

The school does have a Student Voice Club, which is a critical component to bullying prevention. Victor is the club’s president, and he has spearheaded several anti-bullying activities in response to his own struggles. This year, the Student Voice Club created and administered the school’s first anti-bullying survey for the student body and then made a PowerPoint presentation to the principal with the results. The principal approved their proposal to show the movie Cyberbully to the sophomores, who reported the most cyberbullying.

With these positive actions in place, why does bullying and harassment persist? Nancy Willard observed, “In this case, we need to dig deeper. The Student Voice team at this school has done discrete programs, but they have not been integrated into the rest of the school. Additionally, the anti-bullying survey needs to be repeated each year, and the Student Voice team needs to review the data to see if things have improved. If not, they need to recommend substantive changes at school based on the data.”

Anti-bullying events need proper buy-in from all the members of the staff to be effective. A painful example of how an anti-bullying activity can fall flat without staff integration occurred in April 2013, in the spring of Victor’s junior year, when the Student Voice Club decided to bring Day of Silence to their school, a program where students and staff can elect not to speak for an entire day to show solidarity with GLBTQ students who feel silenced.

Victor explained to his teachers ahead of time that he wanted to observe DOS. In his biology class, it happened to be the week of presentations. 

“[The teacher] asked for volunteers to go on Tuesday,” he explained. “I raised my hand and said that I wanted to go on Tuesday because I would be doing Day of Silence on Friday. He looked at me and said ‘No, you are going on Friday.’ When I tried to present without speaking on Friday, [the teacher] went up and did the presentation for me and then he failed me.” (Victor has signed statements from several students who witnessed this take place.)

When a teacher does not take DOS seriously, it can send a message to students that the event is unimportant. “Some kids thought of DOS as just a chance to get free pizza, instead of caring about the fundamentals of it,” Victor’s friend Keisha said.

When Victor’s junior year finally ended, he was exhausted. In the summer of 2013, he told his mother he didn’t want to return to school for his senior year. “I was ready to just get my GED and give up,” he recalled. But in a last effort, Delores and Victor contacted his local Chicago Public Schools Parent Support Center.

“We worked with a woman who called the school and made them create a safety plan for me,” Victor explained. With the safety plan in place, Victor agreed to return for his senior year. 

A month into the 2013-2014 school year, Victor did something unwise. He hacked into a former student’s Twitter account and sent tweets saying “I’m stupid.” When the school found out, Victor was immediately suspended. “It was a mistake to do that. But it’s frustrating how this school did nothing when people wrote racial slurs about me on Facebook and yet they suspended me for those tweets.”

The inconsistent response to inappropriate student activity online also highlights the difficulty schools face when it comes to responding to digital activities. Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja, co-directors of the Cyberbullying Research Center, advise the following standards: schools can discipline students if their online expressions result in a “substantial disruption of the learning environment,” or if their actions “infringe upon the rights of another student (to feel safe, comfortable, and supported at school).”

Blaming the Victim

Shortly after an outside investigation was launched into Victor’s situation, “the head of our IB program called me into his office to have a meeting specifically about Victor,” Keisha said. “He asked me if Victor was playing the victim and overreacting to situations. He asked if kids were just teasing and if Victor was making a big deal out of it.”

Blaming the victim is a classic institutional response to bullying, because it is easier than addressing the need for sweeping cultural change. The harassment of Miami Dolphins player Jonathan Martin is a case in point. When Martin initially reported teammate Richie Incognito for mistreating him, the response by players and members across the NFL was, “Hey, this is just locker room culture. Martin is weak and over-sensitive.” But when Martin produced hard evidence, it was not so easy to dismiss his claims. Ultimately, an independent report found that Martin did experience harassment and workplace bullying—highlighting, among other things, the importance of keeping evidence of these kinds of actions, whether the target is a student or an employee.

There is another complex factor weighing on many schools that discourages acknowledgment of bullying. According to Nancy Willard, “If schools are required to publicly report the number of bullying events that occur per year, they are reluctant to classify events as bullying because it creates a black mark against the school. So we have situations where kids are told, ‘Oh no, that was just teasing,’ in order to avoid reporting.” 

CPS does not require its schools to publicly report bullying incidents, but there is growing pressure on Chicago schools to reduce the number of suspensions, which are directly related to classifying incidents as bullying. Punitive responses to bullying are often not effective and can lead to threats of retaliation, which is further incentive to employ pro-social means to intervene in bullying. This would explain why Victor’s school decided to talk with students involved in alleged bullying but not to discipline them. It calls into question, however, why Victor was instantly suspended for his tweeting misbehavior.

Chicago Public Schools provided a statement several weeks after being contacted about Victor’s allegations. It reads, in part,

“As part of the District's standard protocol, an investigation was initiated immediately following the student's allegations of bullying. To date, the District has found no evidence that bullying took place as this student has described.” 

Yet despite their claim that no bullying took place, the statement also notes that “in the event bullying should occur in or around the school,” steps can be taken that include the creation of “individualized school safety plans.” 

Given that Victor has a signed copy of his school safety plan, it is hard to understand how no bullying has occurred.

Plans for the Future

Looking forward, it is clear that Victor’s school needs both professional development and student training to help create a more positive climate. “At the high school level, schools should be using social emotional programs such as Lions Quest as part of their anti-bullying curriculum,” said Dorothy Espelage, professor of child development in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A school like Victor’s can also benefit from having a Gay-Straight Alliance; consistent and well-communicated policies toward cyberbullying; and a culture where student reports of bullying are welcomed without fear of retaliation by students or the administration.

As for Victor, he is still trying to figure out his future. His poor grades junior year when the worst of the bullying took place prevented him from getting into the college of his choice. “George Lucas and Mark Hamill are still my heroes, but sadly, I don't believe I will be able to follow in their footsteps,” he says now. “That’s why I came forward with my story. I feel silenced by my school, and I want to show them that other people support me."

*This article has been updated to include the name of Victor's high school.

**Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Carrie Goldman is the author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear (Harper Collins, 2012). She writes the blog Portrait of an Adoption for ChicagoNow. Her articles have appeared on the Huffington Post, Babble.com, CircleofMoms.com, Mamapedia.com and other parenting sites.

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