Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bullying 101: How We Parents Can Better Protect Our Children (In Memory of Jaheem and Carl)

It started, first, with the two little girls telling Mari they didn’t like her outfit. The next day, they told my baby she smelled. The day after that, one of them touched her twists and said, “Ew,” and then trotted off, giggling, over to the corner of the classroom, where her gangsta boogie partner and she continued to whisper and point at Mari while she sat in a heap, struggling to finish her work through her tears.

She’d told me a couple of times that the girls were doing mean things to her, and each time she complained, I advised her the way a good parent should. First, I reminded her that no matter what anyone says, she is special and beautiful and loved. The second time, I gave her some choice words for her two nemeses. When they touched her hair, I pulled her teacher aside and made it clear: “You better talk to them before I do.” The next day, the teacher made clear that anyone caught being mean to a fellow student would get a note home.

Yeah, well, as you can guess, that threat fell on deaf little ears. See, one of the kids doing the taunting was the school director’s daughter; the other was her little BFF/sidekick. And the two of them figured they could just go on ahead and keep at my daughter, sans repercussion. And so they did—this time, picking on my Mari and a friend of hers out on the playground, saying words so ugly that by the time recess was over, half the class was in tears and my nephew, Mari’s cousin, was threatening to take both of the ringleaders out. The next morning, I found Mari in her room crying and fretting over her outfit, fearful that the Oilily skirt dress and tights I’d picked out for her to wear would bring down the wrath.

And that was the day that I said, “Nope—no more.” Now, I wish I could tell you that the resulting afternoon roundtable of parents, administrative liaisons, teachers, and the school director ended in one big Kumbaya moment. But er, um, yeah—I can only be nice but for so long. Let’s just say that by the time Nick and I stomped out of there, the administrators agreed to put into place a system for the kids to complain about bullying anonymously, so that the kids would feel comfortable seeking help. The teachers also agreed to be more vigilant in keeping an eye out for the troublemakers. But I also made clear that if either one of those little heiffas said word ONE to Mari again, she had the go-ahead from her mama to whoop that ass.


I’m all for taking the high road and working it through and hugging it out and all of that—please believe me. But I also believe that when you’re at the end of your rope with the niceties, you gotta let ‘em know. We finished up the year there at that private school with the girls keeping a safe distance from Mari (Note: the threat of the beat down was a scare tactic, not reality—Mari’s no bruiser, and I would never encourage her to fisticuffs. But the threat sure did move that school director to action and put an end to the bull.) More important, though, is that leading all the way up to that meeting and after it, too, our child knew that her mommy and daddy had her back.

All of this madness came rushing back to me this weekend when my nephew, Miles, was invited to sit on a panel of kids gathered by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to discuss bullying and the apparent suicide of 11-year-old Jaheem Herrera, a Georgia 5th grader who hung himself April 16 after bullies at his school relentlessly called him “gay” and a “snitch.” Jaheem’s death came just a 10 days after another 11-year-old, Carl Walker-Hoover, of Massachusetts, committed suicide rather than face another day of bullying and being called “gay” and a “snitch.”

Their stories break my heart. Because they were babies, making the very grown-up decision to take their own lives. Because they thought death would be better than another day of taunting, hitting, choking, and threats meted out by their peers.

Because clearly, these little boys didn’t feel like any of the grown-ups had their back.

I can’t presume to know how much Jaheem and Carl’s parents did to stand up for their boys; both their mamas say they complained to school officials, but the response was either inadequate (in Jaheem’s case) or ineffective (in Carl’s case). What one can presume, though, is that each of these children felt like they had to take matters into their own hands.

Oh, how I wish that all the grown-ups involved recognized and practiced what Nick and I truly believe: That it was on us to handle the mess. What we were trying to do was to make sure that our child knew that whatever was going on, it had nothing to do with her—that somebody else was wrong and that the responsibility for responding to the bad things that were being done to her wasn’t hers alone.

The African American community has always had this complicated response to bullying; the clear message we’ve always sent to our children is that it’s up to them to go out there and handle the bullies on their own. Come on, you know the scenario: You get picked on, your mom or dad slaps you for being a punk, and then pushes you out the door and says, “Handle it, or I’m going to whip you myself.” It’s a tradition we have of trying to toughen up our kids—of making them feel like they have the power to stop the bullying all on their own.

There’s something to be said for this; our kids are going to face bullying throughout their lives. Bullies will be more clever when we get older—people will use their position and power to force us to do things we don’t want to do or make us feel bad about ourselves, and so there is some value to preparing our kids to fight, not flee, these battles. But one of the messages we send to our kids when we make them fight is that we don’t necessarily have their back—that if they “snitch” they’re being weak and we’ll be more upset by this than we will with any bully.

What I’m calling for is balance. Perhaps we need to update our responses—to be a little bit more sensitive to the way that our children think and react to danger and threat. We need to let our kids know that we’re stepping in on their behalf—to send the message that people care about them and will protect them, no matter what. Some kids are going to be able to suck it up and face the bully down. Others are going to be afraid and do damage to themselves instead. It’s on us to give them a third option—to trust that their parents, the grown-ups in charge, will do something about it, and hold these schools and their administrators and the parents of the bullies accountable for not keeping sweet little boys like Jaheem and Carl safe from unbearable abuse.

Before it’s too late.

post signature


  1. Thanks for posting this information. I love your blog. Many blessings, Ananda, an aunt to many wonderful little people...

  2. I am so glad you pushed and made the administrators do their job. I am a parent of that fashion. I don't play when it comes to my kids. Now I will say, if my kid is wrong, then he is wrong. But in cases like this, too many parents, for whatever reason, become limited in their follow-through.

    I am a parent that will keep going over heads until I get my desired effect. So much is happening in schools today that our children are constantly in threatening situations.

    Those poor boys. I couldn't imagine what they must have been feeling. Their parents very likely felt they did the best they could do with what they had. We may not know the circumstances of these parents. I can not judge them.

    My prayers to all the children in our schools.

  3. I always wonder what I would do in this situation.. thanks for sharing and showing me how bullying should be handled by the parent
    Take Care

  4. I can tell you I live in MA not far from where the little 11 yo boy lives and it's very clear the school didn't do anything to stop the bullying. The mother went to the school several times and explained her concerns, and now she is without a son. For me,I have a 2 time real because at my age I don't have patience for 3 strikes. Mess with my child and after the 2nd time I go to the parents. Forget the school. Most times the parents don't even know what their kids are up too. The parents of both of the kids who caused the bullying should be held accountable. Something has to be done. It's getting worse.

  5. Denene, I just read about Jaheem's story today on BMWK and Carl's on Essence.com a short while ago. It's so heart breaking! I'm in disbelief. I have been texting my husband about this topic all day today. Our son, 7, has been bullied for quite some time now and we're not 100% sure why. But, he still seems to be enthusiastic about school, learning and life. He always wants to make all the women in his life happy (his three sisters and I) But boy has it taken a toll on my husband and I. My baby came in the house last week with blood pouring from his head because a bigger kid threw a rock at his him. All I can say is I became the crazy mom in house shoes and a head scarf. When I came in the house the scarf was half off my head. I swear I could feel the blood racing through my veins. I didn't put my hands on no one else's child but I sure wanted to! We took him to the ER to be on the safe side, and my baby slept with me that night so I could periodically check to see if he was still breathing. Dramatic? I'm not sure, I'm just a mother.

    My husband spoke to the mother of the kid with the rock, but I'm really feeling Kathleen Turner in that movie "Serial Mom" LOL! I've decided to really get involved, not just for my son but all kids who are bullied. What I know of right now is bullyfreeschools.com. They came to my children's school.

    My child has ADHD, on an IEP (individual education plan) just started medication, has a speech therapist, occupational therapist, behavioral therapist, counselor, an assistant teacher to help him in addition to the main classroom teacher, whew! Don't get me wrong, these people are apart of our success team for Jalen, and I'm thankful for that.

    My child has asked me once already if he was stupid. I don't know where he got that from. I imagine one of those known bullies we've been dealing with way too long. I don't want my child to hurt himself and no one else child, so I'm getting involved.

    Thanks so much for addressing this.

  6. One more thing, I love the way you handled the situation with Mari.

  7. Denene, as always, thanks for shedding light on an important topic. I can only imagine how worked up you and Nick must have been at the thought that Mari's beautiful li'l spirit was being bothered by Bey-Bey's kids!!! Sounds like your approach was right on target: Play by the rules, Reinforce perspective, then...HULK OUT!

    My mom went through a similar situation with one of my brothers. He was being called the N word by one of his classmates here in good ole Gwinnett. She went to the school twice, and of course, got the old kids-will-be-kids shrug off. She "advised" the teacher and principal that she did not plan on having to do their job and manage their students, but they didn't get the point, so she gave Jared the go-ahead to regulate, if need be. Well, need be'd (lol), and unfortunately, he was suspended for his particular brand of "regulation",and we knew if could have gone from bad to worse in the form of retaliation from a parent, etc. But, at the end of the day, Jared knew is mother was on his side because he had done nothing wrong.

    I'm so happy for Mari, Lila, and the tons of other children with Warrior parents who are straight ride-or-die for their brown babies! It truly takes a village to raise a child, and I am devastated at the thought that Jaheem and Carl didn't feel the presence of that village. It's hard, because even if a fellow parent saw what one of those boys was going through and decided to intervene, odds are, their parents would've been upset by that??! All we can do is remain in direction opposition with apathy and DO SOMETHING when we know a child is being wronged. I know my girls know that their mama can be a beast (not to mention their crazy Jamaican daddy, so a bully better use his/her imagination and stay safe!

    A hear-felt "Rest in Peace" to Jaheem and Carl, and again, thank you for sharing!

  8. What a timely post, thanks for sharing and information. My hearts and prayers are with those families.

  9. It's unreal how damaging bullying is. So sad.

  10. My hearts go out to Jaheem and Carl...may they rest in peace. As always, thank you for adding such an insightful perspective. Miles says that he hopes that his participation in the roundtable discussion helped so that young kids like him don't feel like they have no other options.

  11. this is just so sad.

    it's sad when children feel like they've got to take their lives to get these cowards (bullies) to stop. i try to nip bullying & name calling in the bud as SOON as i hear the faintest sound of it in my classroom. but kids seem so mean these days. i don't know what it is. is it our culture? our music? our lack of solid families? i think the "Stop Snitchin" and "Snitch" mentality of music & hoods as of late is deadly.

    my heart goes out to these families. it nothing else, i hope these horrible outcomes will lead to deeper discussions & action surrounding this issue.

  12. Thank you, every one of you, for all of these incredibly insightful comments. It warms my heart to know that there are so many of us thinking about this and working to help our kids deal with bullying in healthy ways so that we don't have to bear the heartbreak of another Jaheem and Carl.

    @Mrs. Cooper: You're absolutely right: We can't judge these little boys' parents. The superintendent over Jaheem's school here in GA said that if that boy's mother came up to the school even once, that should have been enough of a call for the administrators to take steps to make it stop. I'm right there with you and @Arlice: The parents of the bullies NEED to be held ACCOUNTABLE for their childrens' actions--especially if they're told their kids are bullying others, and the parents do nothing about it. In Mari's case, I DID take it to the kids' parents--the school director. And she (tearfully) accused me of attacking her. I assure you when she said that crap I let her know that that was exactly how my child felt every time her daughter was in the room. Please understand that I wasn't trying to make the woman upset, but I needed to let her know that her kid was a bully and that it was going to stop THAT DAY or else there would be hell to pay--so get to it.

    We can not afford to tap dance around this issue when it comes to our kids. Niceties and kind gestures and waiting for someone to figure out that "kids will be kids" (shout out to Execumama!) isn't the answer will NOT help the kids who are being bullied. Taking action will. I'm so proud of you Arlice for taking action and standing up for your son. I know that you've sat your son down and told him that he is brilliant and beautiful and loved and that the word "stupid" should only be applied to people who bully. I hope you also consider filing a police report against the child who hit your son with a rock and sent him to the ER--if only to send the message that your child is NOT the one--and neither are you.

    @The Prisoner's Wife: I would LOVE to hear more from you, because you're a teacher and in the middle of the madness. Kids ARE meaner today than they've ever been, adn I can't help but to think that every thing you brought up--the culture, music, lack of family values, parental inattention, and that damn "stop snitchin'" mentality--is all a part of it. But how, in your opinion, do we stop it?

  13. Oh Denene...all I can say is AMEN!!

    We live in a very rural community and in a small school district and a 6th grader in our school system committed suicide this year as a result of bullying on the bus. It broke my heart. I agree with everything you wrote 100%.

    P.S. My dad told us the same thing when we were growing up...if someone bullied us, we had his permission to kick their ass and we would never be in trouble for it when we got home. I never did it, but it was wonderful to know that my parents would be there for me if it ever came to that!

  14. Thanks You Denene for this site. We as concerned parents and Grandparents,we can pull together and do what is nessary to keep children safe..As the founder of the Grace Charm School, all children need to be trained in good manners, and it begans at home and then is carried over into the classroom.I'm very pround of that mother for taking a stand with the school. Love Peace and Power.
    Ms. Lerna

  15. This story you tell about your Mari is practically identical to what happened to my daughter last year. A small private school that we paid a lot for was a torture chamber for my little 1st grader. The main culprits were the school's director's and employee's children, and their cronies. I tried everything volunteering at the school, giving the teacher a talking, I even claim close to stretching a teacher out. Finally, I realized that I had to take both of my girls who were being terrorized at two different schools to different schools. I tried that awhile, and thanks to the economy I was able to bring both my daughters home for homeschooling. They didn't really need to go to other schools, my first thought was to bring them home, and I should have gone with that. They are thriving and living as normal kids now. My oldest is supposed to go to high school in 2010, I'm now thinking that's gonna be a no go.

    I myself was bullied in middle and high school, however my mother just called in the older sibling calvary and fixed that.

    I wonder when in America we are gonna put a stop to bullying our kids, so that they won't turn around and bully other kids. It's a big problem that ends in school shootings, suicides and other violence. It's up to us to clean it up, but until we do I'm gotta take my kids education into my own hands.

  16. Boy this is a hot topic. I felt so terrible for the mothers of those boys - what a tragedy and I can see it happening again and again until we learn the lesson of how to get kids to work together instead of against each other.

    My son is 11 - the same age as Carl and Jaheem were and he has had nothing but problems with bullies at his school. We have worked with the Administration and had one boy expelled and another sent to counseling, but they seem to just come out of the woodwork every time we turn around. I've asked the Principal if there was some kind of an anti-bullying class I could take him to, but she wasn't aware of anything. Since this is such a pervasive problem, why dont we have things like the Sylvan Learning Centers that will teach our kids how to deal with these little creeps?

  17. I was very moved by this site and the comments and message in general. I would love to see if we can implement or mandate this in school to elimanate the words "snitch, Tattle-Tale and all the other derrogatory words from school and society. I know what I cannot bring our babies Carl and Jaheem back but I would like to keep this dialog going to assure that this does not continue in the future for all of our brown, yellow, white and red babies...All children and people need to be respected. Please contact me if you would like to have a panel of our peers and leaders meet on a forum on topics such as "School has to step up to the 21 century" etc. Police, teachers, Police Chiefs, Principals etc. need to breakaway from this notion as to not snitch or make a quote on quote "not a big deal or Don't tell on another cop" this is why society is still damaged. I am sorry for straying away from my point. But if you would like to contact me I am a public servant of God and I produce a public access show in ATL on People tv. If interested in more dialog please feel free to contact me. I may not have lots of money YET! but I do have a voice for change and I am willing to stand with anyone who wants to promote positive needed change.. Thank you and have a GOD day...contact @ -bmpresents@gmail.com

  18. again please stay positive and prayful! These babies did not die in vain!



Speak Your Mind Here

Related Posts Widget for Blogs by LinkWithin

wibiya widget