Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The School Bully and the Principal

It's "Back to School time"! I know this because of the abundance of "Back to School Ads". I got to thinking of some of the trials of school with all of the bullying that is going on.

For better or worse, some aspects of high school are 'Darwinism on display'. The little kids stay out of the way of the bigger ones, the smart kids avoid the dumb ones. And the nerds keep a wary eye on the jocks. Survival of the fittest.

School violence was big in the media at the time my son went to school and the district that governed my son’s high school instituted a zero tolerance for violence one year. In some ways the new 'zero tolerance' policy upset this delicate Darwinian balance. A couple of the smaller kids actually began taking advantage and started bullying the bigger kids. Most of these bigger kids, like my son, were focused on grades and college prep and were former little guys themselves who had just hit a growth spurt.

So I was shocked when I learned that my son was being bullied and even more shocked when I learned who the perpetrator was.

In humans, dwarfism is sometimes defined as an adult height of equal to or less than 4 feet 10 inches. This kid had barely surpassed that threshold and my son was at least a foot taller. He was more than willing to clean this other kid's clock but he'd been taught not to. So I was on the spot. I did what most of you would do; I told my kid to go have a talk with the school principal, explain the problem and let the zero tolerance policy do its job.

The principal explained to my son that the non-violence policy had been put in place to protect the smaller kids from the bigger ones. He doubted that my son was being bullied because he was tall. He hinted that he should be able to take care of himself and more than just hinted that my son was being a sissy for allowing a little guy to push him around. Now I was really on the spot, because everything I had taught him about the system seemed to be garbage and I had to think of something quick.

I had my son write a letter and then we photocopied it. We put one copy in an envelope and tucked it away. We took the original and put it in an envelope, sealed it, put a stamp on it, and then addressed it to the superintendent of the school district. My son couldn’t wait to mail it. He couldn’t wait to see that principal squirm when the superintendent lowered the boom on him. I had to sit my son down and ask him what his goal was. Was his goal to solve the problem or was it to punish the principal. His mouth said "solve the problem" but his eyes said something else… "punish him!"

I told him that we were not going to mail the letter, not right away. There was a third letter that my son did not know about and that letter was addressed to the media. The letter to the superintendent was our back-up plan, the letter to the media was our nuclear option.

Some of you will read this and see blackmail and I have to acknowledge an element of that. But as angry as I was, I tried to put myself in the principal’s shoes. I had to make some assumptions. I had to assume that he was not a bad guy, that he was probably overworked and saw this problem as a 'little' problem. I considered what I would want to happen if the roles were reversed. If I was this overworked principal I would want another chance to fix things.

In these days of emails it is too easy to fire off an angry message and be done with it. With Facebook I could have mounted a campaign to get the principal fired. I see that a lot these days. Sometimes it’s justified - a lot of times it is not. Often the loudest shrillest voices are those who have the worst kids and they are either blind or in denial.

Some parents are just angry while others simply want everything done their way. A teacher once told me of a parent whose kid was diabetic and wanted all snacks with sugar banned because her child kept eating snacks from other kids' lunch-boxes.

Some parents are into power and when an administrator does not bend to their will they enlist the help of others and use whatever influence they have to exact their revenge.

Yes, some administrators are incompetent and should be fired. But others are simply overworked and all you really need to do is get their attention. The key is to know who you are dealing with and not apply the same bludgeon to everyone. The key is to try and do the right thing... and revenge, though immensely satisfying, is rarely the right thing.

So before starting that carpet-bombing campaign, you probably should stop and think about what your goals are.  Do you want the problem fixed or do you want the administrator punished.

As we sat in that principal’s office and watched him read the letter, I knew right away he fell into the latter category. He was overworked and we just needed to get his attention. In this case the problem was resolved to my son’s satisfaction by the end of the day. More importantly, in that principal, my son had a reluctant ally for the remainder of his time in school.

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