"Why don't people rob banks?"
It is the question I pose to the man across the table from me. A dour man with spectacles he's dressed in a black wool blend suit. The charcoal button down shirt is not adorned with a tie the top button is undone, allowing his collar to sit lazily. His hands folded neatly on the table. He is the assistant superintendent of the local school district. He is not happy to be here nor is he happy about the topic we are here to discuss.
Sitting next to him is the principal of my son's school a mousey woman whose demeanor speaks volumes. Her hands are sitting idly in her lap the shawl draped across her shoulders does little to hide her bony shoulders. Her eyes focused on her lap. Her posture is that of a woman who has endured years of abuse at the hands of another. I wonder if her future rests on the todays outcome or if it is preordained.
Taking a moment he looks over to the sheriff's deputy and says "I think this is your question."
The deputy pauses shakes' his head and then deadpans "It's a philosophical question."
"Your right it is." I say.
Mr. Berens looks back at me and smiles uncomfortably "You have me at a loss. I'm not sure I am following you."
I nod slowly "Consequenses." His eyebrow arches in reply.
"When a child is born, we as parents use positive and negative reinforcement to teach them right from wrong. As they get older we teach them the morality of their actions. By the time they are old enough to attend school they have the foundation of what is right and wrong. It is then we enter into an unspoken agreement with the school. From there you reinforce what is acceptable and what is not."
"But when they act out and corrective action is not taken or is not serious enough to correct bad behavior, then professionals like the deputy over there are forced to step in and provide the corrective behavior either the parents or the school did not provide." I said
Berens raises his hands in front of him and says "As I've already stated, we cannot get into the actions we have taken with any students." He said his tone flat and final.
"You know there is a website dedicated to this very subject about the school district? 818 members who all have shared their stories. Gut wrenching stories of abuse, violence, stalking, humiliation and intimidation. All of it at the hands of bullies whose actions have gone unchecked."
He starts to point a finger and respond, but stops and sits back in his chair his expression heated.
"There are many stories in the paper where you are quoted. I have to say you really don't come off that well." "I care about every student and am committed to their safety and security." He says heatedly.
"A few years ago a student committed suicide on a playground in the middle of the night. You lost a student on a bus. There is mold in the walls, lead in the paint and the pipes. 818 parents have complained about the bullies in the schools and resoundingly all of them have said either no action was taken or not enough." I said, ticking each item off my fingers.
I continued "There is a systemic problem in the country and the fact we have not had an event that has captured the nation's attention does not mean it won't happen. In fact everytime it does happen the schools get a pass from the media because we are so entrenched and programmed to talk about guns and ammo clips."
I turn to the deputy and ask "How many complaints or instances have there been already this year?"
"More than enough?" He says.
I turn back to Berens "If it were possible to take a poll of all the kids who have just victimized my son I doubt we would find it was isolated to just him." His eyes slide off mine and flick towards the principal. It's all I need to push him in the direction I want him to go.
"Mr. Berens you have an image problem. What with the mold and lead in the paper everyday and now a website dedicated to the violence in the schools. I have to say the public is losing faith in this administration. You need to get ahead of this and make the bully issue part of a larger campaign."
His eyes brighten "What do you propose?"
And there it is his base vanity of his nature exposed for all to see.
Sitting a little more forward in my chair I laid out for him what I want him to do. "First you need to have your communications director put out a statement saying in light of the mold and lead and the number of parents who have voiced concerns over bullying you have had enough. It is time to look at all safety and security policies. You say that you are aware the community has lost faith in the school system, but you're committed to improving in all areas. But you can't do it alone the school system needs the support of the community to make meaningful changes."
Rubbing his hands across his face, he looked over at me and said "That is a good idea. You think it will work?"
"It's good politics and will garner favor from the board. You're the face of this issue. You sit for a few interviews and recognize your detractors for working to bring these concerns to the forefront." "I can't do that some of those people have said very bad things about me."
"You're not legitimizing them, just acknowledging their concerns. But this will go a long way to changing your narrative and it drives a positive message." I said quietly.
"I really like this in fact I need to get with my communications director today if possible and ask her the best way for us to put this out there. Really make a difference. You know there is always room for improvement and we want the community to trust us." He said enthusiastically.
"Make it part of a larger campaign. Let it be known there will be no room for violence at school. Make sure you include the liaison officers in your statement."
"Of course, of course." He said dismissively.
"Just keep in mind the next time there is a complaint you're going to have to really do something different."
He nods in response, but I can see he's thinking more about his image and vanity than taking responsibility. I've gotten through to him because he is at heart a feckless bureaucrat whose ambitions are larger than his current title. Politicians are easy to manipulate, but in this case I don't care because if I can get him to do this then the schools can't run from this any further. Which means the next time my son or for that matter any child gets beaten or preyed upon they are on record.
Victims of bullying without strong support at home followed by some counseling will eventually either turn to suicide, become bullies themselves or seek revenge through very violent means. Parents who don't get kids counseling or do not engage in their lives wind up struggling with teens who have serious addiction or behavioral problems.
Help be part of the solution and not the problem be engaged in the lives of your kids and be part of their scholastic careers its up to all of us to put an end to it.