Bullying is not a new thing.
From toddlers to senior citizens, people are met with bullies at every stage in life. However, for teenagers, bullying can become rabid during those awkward years of trying to find oneself while also being accepted by peers.
Pam Johnson said she told her daughter what every other parent would tell their child about bullies - “just ignore them and eventually, they’ll stop bothering you.”
However, with the introduction of Myspace.com and similar Web sites into teenagers’ lives, bullying has taken on a new level, allowing members the opportunity to post hurtful and derogatory comments about their peers for friends to see. It was comments such as these about Johnson’s daughter and subsequent events that led Johnson to remove her daughter from Red Oak ISD.
Johnson was shocked when her daughter, a seventh-grader at Red Oak Junior High at the time, showed her a fellow student’s Myspace.com page riddled with comments about her daughter in late November.
Myspace.com pages are set up to allow users the ability to post comments on their friends’ pages. Johnson, a teacher in another district, was told by a child her daughter’s age that comments about her daughter existed. She then asked her daughter to show her the Myspace.com page.
“A kid told me it was there, so after school one day, my daughter went to the Web site and that’s how she found out about what was written about her,” Johnson said. “I was devastated, like any parent would be. To read this was horrible and she just cried. It was awful.”
The comments between two fellow Red Oak Junior High students, which included a fellow member of Johnson’s daughter’s cheerleading team, included curse words directed toward Johnson’s daughter, as well as descriptions of how the girls treated Johnson’s daughter, such as ignoring her and rolling their eyes at her.
“This is a little girl - all these little girls had been at my house. They were all friends of my daughter. They were at her birthday party. It was very hard for me to read,” Johnson said. “This is a little girl that smiles and never says very much. It’s just upsetting when someone you thought was decent was doing this.”
Along with the Myspace.com incident, Johnson said her daughter was experiencing bullying while at school as well. In one incident, Johnson said a fellow male student refused to let Johnson’s daughter sit at the table she routinely sat at during lunch. Johnson said another female student verbally directed a curse word at her daughter in a hallway during school.
After these incidents, Johnson and her husband, Keith, decided to take the matter to the Red Oak Junior High cheerleading sponsor, June Burrow, and to the principal, Morris Watson.
“For at least a week I couldn’t talk about it because I cried. I couldn’t even tell people about it without crying. I couldn’t go to Mr. Watson - I couldn’t talk about it,” Johnson said.
Keith had a conversation with Burrow regarding the lunch incident and had a meeting with Watson about the Myspace.com comments and the incidents going on at school. However, the Johnsons were dissatisfied with Watson’s reaction and submitted a formal complaint to Watson on Nov. 30. In the formal complaint, Johnson cited the comments written on Myspace.com by the fellow cheerleader to be a direct violation of the Red Oak Junior High cheerleading constitution. The 2006-2007 constitution states, “ROJH cheerleaders are expected to be model students and citizens in and out of the school environment. Any cheerleader verbally or physically abusing any student or faculty member will face immediate dismissal from the team.”
After investigating the incident, the cheerleader was dismissed from the team Dec. 7. However, Johnson said the bullying only increased after the cheerleader and her family appeared on Fox 4 News regarding the incident Dec. 8. According to Johnson, the family went on air saying their daughter did not post the comments, saying someone else took her password and wrote the comments on the page.
“The next day my daughter went to school and by this time (the dismissed cheerleader) was telling everyone that my daughter did all this. It was terrible. The next day was the first time my daughter cried. I told her she only had to go to school half a day,” Johnson said. “When she got up to leave class, (the dismissed cheerleader) said, ‘Oh good, she’s finally leaving.’”
Johnson said further bullying, by both fellow cheerleaders and adults, occurred at the Christmas parade Dec. 9. In a letter addressed to Watson and Burrow, Johnson describes cheerleaders on a parade float yelling out to the dismissed cheerleader, saying they loved her, in front of Johnson’s daughter. After the parade, the cheerleaders were running a face painting booth and two cheerleaders’ mothers went the booth and asked that the cheerleaders paint “I love (name of dismissed cheerleader)” on their faces. A student asked Johnson’s daughter to do the same.
“My daughter, who does not cow-tow to anyone, did this instead of telling this girl to go to the other line. That is how intimidated she is feeling,” Johnson wrote in the letter. “This is when I told my daughter her shift was over and we were leaving. These parents and girls came in on my daughter’s shift to intimidate her - there is no other explanation. They had their own shift. They could have done this at anytime but they chose to do it in front of (my daughter).”
Johnson also said her daughter was bullied at lunch, with the group of girls she normally eats with getting up from the table when she sat down. Johnson said her daughter even asked if one of Johnson’s friends could eat lunch with her in order to suppress some of the harassment.
In a Dec. 12 letter in response to Johnson’s first formal letter of complaint, which was filed Nov. 30, Watson said that although the Johnsons said their daughter had received threats at school, he had found no evidence of threats from students. He encouraged Johnson’s daughter to report any incidents to administration immediately so that a timely investigation could occur.
“I do not intend to tolerate or condone students who make threats or make inappropriate statements to other students and I will take appropriate action under the Student Code of Conduct if I discover evidence of such acts occurring at school,” Watson wrote in the letter. Watson goes on to say in the letter that he and administration members had conducted conversations with the students named as members of the group the Johnsons said had been harassing their daughter.
“The administration has conducted conversations with a number of students and counseled them about the unacceptable nature of harassment of other students,” Watson said in the letter. “Additionally, we are considering doing further discussion with individual students and groups of students, and perhaps even conducting a school-wide program emphasizing the school’s position on bullying and harassment.
“It is unfortunate that your daughter is having conflict with other students,” Watson went on to say. “As stated above, I encourage her to promptly report specific incidents of any violations of the Code of Conduct so that we can act to correct them.”
Johnson said that although her daughter never reported the incidents herself, Johnson would report the incidents by a phone call or e-mail as soon as she knew of the incidents.
“(My daughter) wouldn’t tell - she knew it would make things worse,” Johnson said. “I told him immediately or the next day about the incidents.”
Johnson said the teachers at the junior high were probably oblivious to the bullying.
“These girls are pretty darn good - they’re all very smart and very sneaky. They probably didn’t see it,” Johnson said.
Johnson reported more harassment in an e-mail to Watson on Dec.14, saying, “Thanks to the KDFW interview, the rumor has fueled around school that (my daughter) posted the Myspace comments to frame (the dismissed cheerleader) … this unfounded rumor has resonated through school and further damaged my daughter.”
The Johnsons decided to take the complaint to the next level, filing a level two complaint with the district.
“We are now proceeding to level two with our formal complaint in this matter, but you still have the daily responsibility to assure my daughter attends school in a hostile free environment,” Johnson wrote in the e-mail. “I think it’s sad that of all the adults I’ve contacted at the school so far no one seems capable of projecting enough command bearing to convince 13- and 14-year-old girls that they will follow the rules or face consequences.”
The Johnsons requested that three girls who made Myspace.com comments about their daughter, including the dismissed cheerleader, be removed from their daughter’s classes over Christmas break, addressing the request to Watson and in the grievance. When school resumed Jan. 16, the three students’ schedules were changed; however, two days later, the dismissed cheerleader’s schedule was returned to the original schedule, placing her back in Johnson’s daughter’s classes. The other two students did not resume their original schedule
In the grievance, the Johnsons asked that the entire Red Oak Junior High cheerleading squad be suspended for a year after the Johnsons said the girls threatened to drop their daughter during a stunt, asked that Burrow be removed from the post of cheerleading sponsor and asked that Watson be demoted, among other requests.
“You have requested that the class schedule of a student who has had conflicts with your child be changed so that the two students no longer would have any classes together. Red Oak ISD Board Policy FBD (LEGAL) allows a parent whose child has been bullied to request a change of classes for the victim. However, you do not indicate that you wish to have your child’s schedule altered. If you change your mind, please contact the school principal,” assistant superintendent Miles Broughton writes in a letter in response to the grievance. “I am not aware of any class disruptions or altercations between two students in either of the classes that they share. I do not find that moving the other student involuntarily and disrupting the student’s education, if such an action is allowable under district policy, is justified during these circumstances. I do want you to know that to address your concerns about student bullying, the district intends to conduct anti-bullying training this spring for teachers, staff and students.”
According to Broughton, Red Oak ISD initiated anti-bullying training for staff members during the spring semester and all junior high staff and students attended anti-bullying training sessions. Broughton also said that all campuses will have training and discussions on the anti-bullying topic during the 2007-2008 fall campus in-service and counselors and administration will be part of the planning process.
“You have requested the removal of the cheerleader sponsor. I do not find that such a removal is warranted,” Broughton said. “You have requested that the principal be reprimanded or demoted. I do not find that he has taken any actions for which he should be reprimanded or demoted.”
Broughton also said he did not feel it necessary to suspend the cheerleading squad due to the fact that actions in response to the Johnsons’ complaints had been addressed.
“It just became obvious to us that they really didn’t care about (our daughter),” Johnson said. “You know how adults think that if parents just stay out of it, the kids would just fix things themselves. These are things that don’t go away. They never did.”
Again dissatisfied with the district’s response, the Johnsons proceeded to level three, filing paperwork Jan. 31. On Feb. 2, the Johnsons removed their daughter from the district and placed her in another district.
“The fact is that every step of the way they didn’t do anything that we asked them to do. We asked them simple things like giving the mothers the Myspace comments and they didn’t. They couldn’t even do the simple things,” Johnson said. “They couldn’t change the schedules and when they finally did, they changed it back a couple of days later. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. He said they couldn’t do anything about a boy who wouldn’t let (my daughter) sit at the table. I would hope (the district her daughter is now enrolled in) would never do this.”
Looking back on the situation, Johnson said that she had no choice but to go through the grievance process and call attention to the actions of the students.
“I don’t think there was a way to stop Channel 4 from what they did. I knew it would be ugly. The only choice I had was to ignore it or tell the parents. I didn’t feel like I could tell the parents because the parents to me weren’t reasonable,” Johnson said. “People need to hold their kids accountable for what they do instead of making excuses for them. People will bail their kids out of anything almost, and not hold them responsible for their actions.”
As far as Myspace.com, Johnson and school officials agree that the Web site and similar sites have taken bullying and harassment to another level that is harder to regulate.
“Parents need to monitor their kids. If they’re going to let them have Myspace, they need to be monitoring — they need to have their passwords and they need to check their pages,” Johnson said. “It’s dangerous, not to mention the fact that they’re cursing and swearing. It’s dangerous and plus parents need to be aware of what they’re saying and doing. This whole problem would have been stopped if parents knew what they were doing.”
“To me, if you look at these little girls’ accounts, all they are doing is bragging. They’re just little bragging things,” Johnson said.
“There is no question that the popularity of Myspace, Web logs and other such electronic communication methods that exist outside of school gives students the opportunity to express themselves in ways that are hurtful or insulting, not only to other students but to teachers, administrators and others as well,” Broughton said. “However, the legal jurisdiction of school districts in Texas over off-campus behaviors of students is very limited. Schools do have some ability to address the behavior of students who are involved in extra-curricular activities if such behaviors violate conduct requirements for participation in such activities, but the options available for punishments are limited to restrictions on those extra-curricular activities.”
Johnson said that on the outside, her daughter appears fine.
“She is fine, outwardly. People have been very good to her. She’s made new friends. It still bothers her when people let her down,” Johnson said. “She’s a pretty loyal person and she says what’s on her mind, which makes these girls mad. If you make her mad, she’s going to tell you she’s mad. She’s not always right, but she certainly doesn’t play that fake, phony game. It’s very hard for her to get along with girls who do.
“I hope she’s taking away from this that everyone you think is your friend may not be your friend. People who are truly your friend are the ones worth fighting for. She learned a lot about adults, too,” Johnson said. “I’m going to make her write this summer. I’m going to let her tell her story. I think that will give me some insight on how she’s feeling, too.”
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