All October we have been bringing awareness to causes that have the potential to greatly impact a child or young adult's mental health. From ADHD to dyslexia, and now bullying; we want to do our part to continue to raise this awareness while also making that very important connection to mental health. As a parent, you know that many factors impact your child's mental health and you want nothing more than to make sure they are happy and healthy both mentally and physically. The "school bully" is a trope we see in nearly every single book, TV show, and movie that is focused on school-aged children and while its place in pop culture has been cemented; its place in our children's classrooms, playgrounds, cell phones, and school buses is deeply concerning and must be taken seriously.
We at PA Parent and Family Alliance sat down with one of our members; Julie Patton to hear from her about how her child was ruthlessly bullied to the point of self-harm. When Patton's school district did not take her child's safety seriously she took it into her own hands and won a court case that helped and is helping to protect every child that walks through those doors, even now long after her child has graduated.
"Something that I didn't realize was that the bullying was going on much longer than I knew. Sometimes children don't know the difference between getting teased by friends and getting bullied, they can't always tell that a peer is laughing at them, not with them," said Patton. "I didn't have a full grasp on the fact that they were being bullied until they started cutting. Even then they never came out and said 'I am cutting because I am being bullied.' I found out that the bullying wasn't limited to school either; it was impacting their extracurricular activities. My child had an IEP and many people don't know that it also covers extracurricular activities and the IEP team should be informed about this," said Patton.
Because Patton's child is in what the Federal, and State government consider a "protected class" (because of their dyslexia) she was able to more easily escalate her complaint when the school district did not appropriately protect her child's safety. To see if your child falls into a protected class click here.
Patton was no stranger to advocating for her child who has dyslexia. She had known about a very helpful resource called "A Letter to a Stranger" which is a template of how to effectively advocate for your child in a tone that will make you come across "as a rational, thoughtful parent who is expressing valid concerns." While she did know about this tool, she does wish she went about the initial report in a different way. At first, she told her child's teacher. "If I could go back I would have done an official report the first time. I reported it multiple times to the teacher and nothing ever got better for my child and I eventually got the principal involved."
Hearing that your child is being bullied is gut-wrenching. It can be hard to think about the best possible course of action when you are in such a heightened state of stress so we put together a tip sheet on 5 concrete steps that parents should take if they hear their child is being bullied. Click here for the fully clickable PDF version of the document.
"After that, all of my reporting went directly to the principal, and he often dismissed our reports. He told me one day that 'Each child gets a warning if they have been bullying another student,' and when you first hear this it sounds like a decent policy. However, I asked the principal; 'Okay, so my child can get bullied 400+ times before anything is done about it?' It wasn't just one student that was bullying my child it was a whole bunch and what were we supposed to do; wait for each of the 400 students to bully my child?" Patton went on to explain that not every student at the school was a bully. "There were a number of very sweet children that tried to stand up for my child. Sadly, they were in turn bullied for taking that stand and my child began to isolate themselves even more. The last thing they wanted to do was to make a friend only to have them endure bullying themselves. It was a horrible cycle."
"As a mother, I obviously wanted to protect my child and we did every single thing we could; formally and informally to try and do just that. They were getting bullied on the bus; so they started to ride their bike instead. However, the children that walked to school were now chasing my child and that wasn't a safe option either. I worked full time and there was no way for me to take them to school every day. It was such a helpless feeling. I do recommend keeping these informal attempts to stop the bullying in your notes. If you need it one day you want to be able to point at all of the different things that you, your child, and your family tried."
This bullying impacted the entire family's mental health. "As a parent, I am mandated to send my child to school. If I don't I can be charged with truancy fines or CYF/CYS would get involved. I was doing everything right, I was reporting it the correct way, but my child's safety was not being taken seriously. It made me feel guilty for not being able to homeschool my child. It had a drastic impact on my mental health." When it comes to her child's mental health; "I think the scars will live on with them forever. It exacerbated their depression and anxiety. They started cutting and isolating themselves. They weren't safe in the classroom, in the bathroom, in the hallways, or at any of their extracurricular activities. It took any joy that they had at school away from them."
Patton was fed up with her child being in constant danger, and nobody seemed to care so she decided it was time to escalate it. She had kept detailed records of all of the incidents that her child had told her about, all of the email interactions between her and the school, and notes from every single in-person meeting she had with anybody regarding the bullying.
The Patton family filed a complaint with The Office of Civil Rights; (listed as our 4th option on our tip sheet) and after 2 long years, they won the case. "I don't even like to say won because that makes it sound like something different than it was. We didn't get any money, we didn't ask for any money. What we wanted was for no child after mine to endure the kind of bullying and negligence that my child went through. They identified 4 pages of corrective actions the school was required to make and found that it wasn't only my child who was being bullied. The absolutely heartbreaking thing was that through the investigation it was found that it wasn't only students but a number of my child's teachers and coaches bullied them too. They identified many situations that had happened right in front of teachers and they would hear it and laugh; they made it okay to bully my child. They actively got involved to bully my child. "
This story is one that is hard to hear because as a parent your biggest fear is that something or someone will hurt your child. Patton and her child were living a lot of people's nightmares for far too long however now because of their strength every student that attends their school district has protections put in place that would not have been there without them pushing for the school to do better and be a better place for children to learn. Many children who are bullied have long-term impacts including PTSD, anxiety, depression, and Patton feels like her child will always carry the weight that the bullying inflicted. However, her child is now in their early 20's, have found friends that see the immense value in them as they, and are starting a career in the field of their dreams.
As Patton reflects back on what it was like to see her child go through that; she has a lot of insight as to what parents can do. "Try to be as proactive as possible. A good thing to do, even if your child isn't being bullied, is to sit down and read your school's handbook, you never know what kind of useful information you can find in those. Once you become aware of it; start to write everything down, every little thing. Make a note of things you hear as they are fresh in your mind because you will forget. With any luck it was a one-time incident; a fight between friends, the other child was having a really tough day. But don't take any chances and write it down. Do your best to protect your child; they have to go to school. I drilled it into my child's head that if something were to happen they needed to tell me immediately."
"We went over our safety plan often. I also tried to talk about things other than the bullying and reminded them that other things were going well in their life. I made sure my child knew that I was always going to trust them and they could always come to me and encouraged them to talk about it with their therapist. If they are being bullied in school look for activities they can get involved in that are completely removed from school. Even if you need to look in a town or two over, get them involved in an activity they enjoy and give them that environment to make friends with similar interests. Above all; take them seriously, and don't give up. Keep on speaking up for your child and the right people will eventually hear you."
Are you having trouble advocating for your child, or even knowing where to start? Reach out to one of our free and confidential Family Support Partners at 888-273-2361 or online here.
**The name of our member has been changed .**