The day I used the flu to excuse my son’s absence from high school was the day I knew this was serious.
He did feel sick. Our entire family was sick. It was the kind of sick you feel when your stomach feels heavy, or your heart beats a few beats faster than normal, and your thoughts sound something like, “I just don’t know what to do.”
It’s the kind of sick when you lay up at night, engaging all creative fragments of the imagination and intellect to soothe the body and soul. Your internal values and compass are screaming for some relief, to be heard, to be seen. You’d like to wield the powers of the universe in the direction of your child, like the Genie in “Aladdin,” grant three wishes and make things all better. To be saved, to have him saved. Though, as we were learning, this is not within the high school scope.
You can imagine that the type of illness our son was experiencing is more common than most would like to acknowledge. Current epidemiology is remarkable. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 70% of youth report they have witnessed it, 60% of school staff witnessed it more than twice in the last month and 30% of students report they have given it to someone else. Overall, 20% of students receive it. Though quite well known amongst the academic realm, there is an obscure feeling to this disease. It can be easily hidden.
The institutions that ignore or refuse to keep children safe from it, often use soft terminology to avoid the actual definition and hide the scope of what is commonly known as bullying. Herein lies the problem.
Instead of using “sexual assault,” it’s termed “lewdness.” “Physical assault” can be softened by using “aggression.” “Self defense” can be termed “mutual combat.” The problem is distributed through ignorance. A lack of significant education to identify the symptoms. A lack of training to respond appropriately. A lack of strong policy to support accountability and safety. A culture of secrets.
There are narrow policies that prohibit bullying and there are broadly termed policies that do very little. Using terms such as “if” and “may include” expand generalizing and dismiss accountability. This ambiguous terminology punishes the child who has contracted the effects of the disease. It promotes permissiveness of assaultive behaviors.
The child who is assaulted, harassed, name-called, groped, shoved, hit, cornered, heckled, hazed, targeted, retaliated against, trapped, poked and prodded has the right to be safe in school. When institutions refuse to uphold local and federal laws, such as Title IX, by omission through loose-lipped policy, they become the bully.
Then, why do victims stay? It’s explained by the classic cycle of abuse. Two words: Power and control. The victim needs something from the institution. They need an education, so they stay. By law, they are required to attend school. The dynamic of power. The school engages in tactics of refusal to report, covering up, lack of protective measures, ignoring aggression, poorly written policies, lying, stone walling and placating. The dynamic of control. This style of leadership leaves parents and victims powerless.
The day I called the school, they said there wasn’t a category for “bullying or fear.” She marked “sickness.” Sure, check the box. We are in the middle of an epidemic over here.
If you’re child has experienced, or witnessed, bullying in the school setting, start “curing.” Document. Report to school and law enforcement. Tell teachers and coaches. Reach out to superintendents. Sign up to address boards of education. Review policy. Contact your legislator to change local/state laws. Require accountability. Get involved. Review and suggest anti-bully programs. Get creative. Keep talking.
Andrea Moore is a Utah clinical social worker and therapist, a mother of four children and engages in advocacy for children.