Opinion

Opinion: Without Action, School Anti-Bullying Policies Feel Like Gaslighting

Officially labeling bully is only the first step to dealing with the problem.
Officially labeling bully is only the first step to dealing with the problem. Photo by Thomas Ricker/Flickr
Every day, the Kid With One F comes home from their Cy-Fair ISD school and hangs their ID on a thumbtack near the stairs. On the back is information for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline and the Harris Center Crisis Line. By my count, the kid has called those numbers at least three times in the last calendar year, usually sitting in a school bathroom trying to collect themselves after yet another round of bullying. One of those days included self-inflicted scratches on their wrist. They told me sometimes they think about throwing themselves down a flight of stairs.

Middle school is brutal. A 2001 study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) found that bullying actually peaks in middle school, before it either declines or plateaus in high school. Since my child is non-binary in a state where the government is actively targeting non-cis children and their families for harassment, the background radiation of intolerance and officially sanctioned bigotry adds another level of nastiness to the usual kid bullying. One might think that schools would be on high alert to deal with the issue in the current environment, but in our family’s experience, the school is much more interested in looking vigilant than dealing with the problem.

On the surface, CFISD has a perfectly adequate anti-bullying policy . . . when it comes to reporting. Everyone from the principal on down is expected to track and note a wide variety of bullying styles, in real life and online, in school or off campus. And then? The official policy just kind of stops. There are no prescribed punishments or transparent accountability standards for parents to see. The current state law is also entirely focused on definitions and counseling for victims, not responses to instigators. The furthest it goes is saying that families can sue over cyberbullying.

In the Spring, a boy kept screaming “you’re a girl” at my kid in class. We reported it to the teacher and administration, but he kept at it. I even confronted the kid at pickup, and that’s how I found out what it’s like when an angry Eighth Grade transphobe offers to fight you. That incident was captured on video and uploaded on TikTok. We made a report, and the only thing that ended the bullying was the kid moving on to high school.

"This is unfortunate to hear, and I am sorry [your child] has had to deal with that kind of hurtful behavior," was the email I got back from the teacher. "I had already spoken to [bully] about misidentifying [your child], so to hear that he took it a step further this afternoon after he left my class is upsetting. I will speak with [counselor] about this tomorrow to see what we can do to keep my class a safe space."

I never heard back.

Additional tip for being a better person: When someone blocks you, leave that person alone.
Screenshot by Jef Rouner
Around that time, my kid had a falling out with a friend, who then enlisted several other children to text them threats from unknown numbers. I took screenshots, wrote down the numbers, and turned everything into the school for an investigation. Nothing happened. All we could do was spend $40 changing my child’s number.

"Thank you for bringing this to our attention," the principal told me in an email. "It is unfortunate that some use social media in such a negative way. I commend you for standing behind [your child ] and providing the needed support. I will process with [counselor] when we return. Please know that we are here to support [your child] in all ways possible."

I never heard back.

In February, a girl in gym physically assaulted my kid by slapping them. There were witnesses, but the coach refused to believe them. We told the school, who basically stopped responding to emails and ran out the clock on the semester.

"I appreciate your email," the coach wrote me. "Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I assure you I will handle it during [class] today. I will let [your child] know to come speak with me if anything further does occur as well."

I never heard back. I still don't know if my kid will be moved out of that gym cohort when they go back to that class in January. Those emails, as well, never got a response.

In her book Complaint!, feminist writer and scholar Sara Ahmed talks about how institutions protect themselves from oversight by the people dependent on them through weaponized incompetence masquerading as action. The chronicling of offenses and failures becomes a substitute for addressing those offenses and failures. To quote:

“You learn about processes, procedures, policies, you point out what they fail to do, pointing to, pointing out; you fill in more and more forms; forms become norms; files become futures; filing cabinets become graves.”

This past semester, my child got their very own stalker in orchestra class. The boy, a football player, and his friends found any excuse they could to misgender and constantly harass my kid. When the director told the boys to knock it off, they simply followed my kid into the hall screaming at them until a panic attack resulted.

On our end, we consulted therapists, psychiatrists, and pediatricians to help our child deal with increasing suicidal ideation and self-harm. Once more, we told the school, met with counselors, and filled out forms, all perfectly in line with state law and district policy. All that was required for my child’s pain to end was to make one or two Eighth Grade boys leave them alone.

More promises of “serious talks” with the boys led nowhere.

Shortly before Christmas break, after yet another round of targeted hate speech, my kid told a counselor they were having suicidal thoughts. The school immediately, finally sprang into action. By that I mean the school brought in an armed resource officer who told my child they were going to be shipped off to a mental health facility immediately. I suppose I should be grateful. According to one parent friend,  her daughter actually did get dragged away after being the victim of a bullying incident.

 “[My Daughter] was assaulted from behind by two big Eighth Graders,” my friends told me. “[The school] didn’t take any measures to protect her. They put [her] in the cop car and forced her down to TCH West Campus for a psyche evaluation because she told them she wanted to hurt herself. The AP threatened me with CPS if I didn’t let the cop take her. Threatened me in front of her. I was flat out targeted.”

I sent an email to the official CFISD police department regarding the threats, pointed misgendering, and other behavior by the officer.

I never heard back.

My wife and I went up to the school and raised hell with every official we could drag into a meeting. By now, we’d been politely begging them via email for months to do something, anything to stop the harassment that was making my child miserable enough to not want to be alive. The most concrete reaction we’d gotten was a threat to remove my kid from the toxic situation and put them in an even worse one via state mental health facilities.

A week later was the winter orchestra concert, which we asked the school to prohibit the bully from participating in as a measure of consequence. My child texted me in the middle while the Sixth Graders were playing. The second the music started, the bully and his friends moved around my kid. They made no overt threats, but it was abundantly clear that they couldn’t wait to re-invade my child’s space the second no one was watching. I ended up walking back to the tables and physically sitting between my kid and the bullies.

"I am sorry that [your child] is experiencing this challenging situation," the assistant principal wrote me. "I have spoken with two of the students in question and they both insisted that they did not interact with [your child] . . . Through the course of that time the proximity between the boys and [name withheld] did decrease as they did sit on the other side of the table a couple of seats down. I have spoken with the mother of one of the boys to inform of the report and to let them know that I spoke with their child about this situation again. I am attempting to contact the other parent before leaving my office today. Please contact me during the winter break via email with any questions."

I did. That was the last I heard.

Frankly, I'm sure the only reason I got this in-depth a response at all was because I said in an email I had little choice but to publicly escalate the matter.

It is commendable to want to track bullying because data is important, but at some point, the policy has to include definite, measurable action in response to it. Bullies have basic pattern recognition. They realize there is little incentive to stop doing a thing they enjoy if it has no downside for them.

Schools have to accept that these are not misunderstandings. Bullies are not kind, thoughtful people making a mistake. If they were, they would stop once they realized they were hurting a person. When the hurt they do is pointed out, and they keep doing it, the only logical conclusion is that they want to hurt people. Acting like the rest of us aren’t giving them a chance to be better is lunacy and victim blaming.

Every wall of that school’s campus is plastered with signs saying bullying is wrong. The message is bright, loud, and unmistakable. For talking the talk, I can’t fault them.

But that talk begins to feel more and more like gaslighting when a school is so reticent to even boot a bully from performing in an orchestra concert to teach him basic negative feedback. Cy Fair ISD has already had one Eighth Grader kill themselves over anti-LGBT bullying in Hamilton Middle School. On the other hand, since that case was ultimately dropped for lack of evidence and CFISD walked away unscratched, maybe it’s just proof the district doesn’t really understand accountability either. So here I am, once again, talking about a district’s incompetence in public like I did over spaghetti straps on a five-year-old.

Where is the threat of institutionalization for instigators, harassers, and serial bigots? Why should my child, who has a whole mental health medical team, be the one treated like a criminal and a danger? How come the eternal burden of dealing with bullying is born by the victims? And where does all the energy for designing anti-bullying signs go when it’s needed to actually stop a bully? Shouldn’t the accused bully be the one sitting in an office with a cop staring daggers at him?

I realize that throwing bullies out of schools isn't a real solution to the problem. However, districts and state law seem to completely tiptoe around the idea of bringing official attention and power down on the hurtful. Surely sadism is worth encouraging parents to put children in therapy as much as depression brought on by that sadism.

If the policy only exists to keep schools from being liable for the damage bullying does, then it’s just concern trolling. Bullying is not a natural phenomenon like a hurricane, where all we can do is warn of the danger then comfort survivors. It’s a human problem with human causes, and the people who cause it need to be addressed if it is ever going to stop.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner