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From Bullied To Bully: "At First I Was Scared..."By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Friday, March 17, 2006
Pownal, Vt. - At 14, Sabrina Packard is a picture of teen-age girlhood. Tall, blond, and articulate, she likes sports, reading, and being with her friends. She has goals for her future.
|Bullying hurts both the bullied and the bullies.|
But those goals may be in jeopardy; Sabrina has been deemed a "bully" by Mount Anthony Middle School officials and is voluntarily seeking enrollment to the Bennington [Vt.] Center For Restorative Justice's "Diversions" program. Should she enroll in the program and drop out before completing its' requirements, she is at risk of criminal charges and juvenile court intervention if additional bullying allegations are made against her.
This year she is considered a "bully," but last year, she was among the bullied, Sabrina said during a very candid March 16 interview at her home.
For weeks during the 2004-05 school year when she was a seventh grade student, school bus rides to and from school were unpleasant, Sabrina said.
She spent her time on the bus being taunted by older students who attended the Mount Anthony Union High School, she said.
"It was part way through the school year and a bunch of them started picking on me and harassing me," she said. "They were so immature, and saying sexual things, like, 'she has a d**do,' and 'hey Sabrina, you got a d**do?' and other stuff like that. The other kids on the bus could hear it."
The first few incidents occurred without drawing any verbal responses from Sabrina, who felt powerless against the verbal onslaught, she said.
"It made me mad but I wouldn't say anything because I didn't want to get more stuff going," she said.
Sabrina said that she doesn't know if the school bus driver heard the taunts ["wouldn't somebody have stopped it if they heard it?"] and said that she did not report the incidents to her mother when the taunting initially began. As a seventh-grade student, she knew that she was the among the lowest rungs of the school social ladder and she did not want to be blamed as a source of trouble for the older students.
"They Wouldn't Stop..."
But as the verbal tormenting continued, she did confide in her mother, and she began to react on the school bus, she said.
"They wouldn't stop and finally I got to a point where I'd say 'grow up,' stuff like that, and worse stuff," Sabrina said. "I got to be as bad as they were, only I wasn't starting it. But I wasn't taking it, either."
When her mother Clara Howard contacted school officials about the problem, "they said they couldn't do anything because it was on the bus," Sabrina said.
Howard said that she called school officials repeatedly about the situation. As far as she knows, none of the students involved in the alleged harassment were disciplined by school officials. Howard did speak directly to one parent about the situation, and that parent put a stop to his son's behavior, she said.
"I was calling and calling [the school], and finally Sabrina told me that it [the harassment]stopped, but I don't know if it really stopped or if she just told me that it stopped because my calling was making it worse," Howard said.
There were incidents of name-calling and other situations on the bus that involved other students as well during that year, Sabrina said. Some respite occurred when the bus driver was replaced by another, more attentive driver, she said.
"When the new driver took over, that driver paid more attention and was strict [about bus conduct]," Sabrina said.
There were episodes of harassment on school grounds as well, Sabrina said. A MAUHS student became upset with Sabrina and allegedly threatened the younger girl with a physical assault.
"It was wicked bad," Sabrina said. "She was screaming in my face and saying that she was going to beat the crap out of me."
The alleged harassment moved from in school to the Internet, and Sabrina said that she became tired of threats and name-calling, which included sexual terms and crude slang.
"At first, I was scared but then I decided I couldn't let her think that I was weak," Sabrina said. "I told her that I'd fight if that's what she wanted."
Sabrina said that even when confrontations occurred in school hallways, no teachers intervened. Other students would watch and jeer, she said.
"They'd be watching and antagonize and stuff," she said.
To date, no physical encounter has erupted between the two girls but the tension exists, she said.
"We Had This Attitude...."
Seventh grade ended and when eighth grade began, Sabrina said that she was eager to start the new school year. Her grades were very good and she was already researching colleges and college financial aid options. Class work was easily conquered, she said.
And as a member of the middle school's "upper class," she was less likely to be bullied within school walls, she said.
"I started to slack off, and then I started to get into trouble with my friends."
"Trouble" included talking back to teachers and facing consequences such as day-long in-school suspensions, she said.
"It didn't seem that bad," she said, speaking candidly. "It seemed like me and my friends were getting into trouble for the same thing so who cared? My grades dropped but not a lot. We had this attitude like we were rulers of the school, like we were better than anybody else."
Sabrina said that she and her friends believed that their feelings were legitimate and part of a middle school social "cycle." All of them had endured varying levels of harassment or "bullying" from older students during the previous year, and none of them observed any significant consequences impact their tormentors, she said.
"It's pretty much the way we were treated as seventh-graders so we treated the [current] seventh-graders the way we got treated."
Most of the behavior was directed toward girls and included cruel remarks, mimicking the younger girls' conversations, and laughing at them, she said.
"We didn't think of it as bullying," she said. "We thought it was kid stuff."
One Girl's Punishment Is Another Girl's Shopping Spree
The behavior was reported to school officials. Sabrina was among a group of girls who were warned to stop the antics, and when additional allegations of bullying were made, discipline was delivered.
"I figured out that it was bullying when I got suspended [from school]," she said.
Of the four girls who were suspended from school for a period of several days, Sabrina's mother and the mother of another girl added home punishments to the mix. In Sabrina's case, her cell phone was taken, her computer privileges were rescinded, she was not allowed to use the house telephone and she was not permitted to socialize with her friends.
But, according to Sabrina and her mother, one mother took her daughter on a shopping trip during the suspension and one mother treated the suspension as though it were a school break.
Anyone Can be A Target
Bully behavior is common, Sabrina said. Students "pick on" each other over almost anything, including town of residence - "a lot of kids get picked on because they live in Pownal" - what type of house they live in, if they are perceived as "poor," their clothing, their hair color, physical characteristics, and other factors, she said.
"Kids will make comments about anything and it's getting stupid," she said. "Kids are coming up with the most ridiculous names and most of them are sexual in some way, like [a very crude expression]. A lot of kids have an attitude and the teachers don't like to say anything because the kids say stuff back."
When asked several times to identify the most offensive comment she's heard made directly to a teacher, she reluctantly uttered a four-letter word that is considered very vulgar by most women.
Attitudes And Tempers
"Attitudes and tempers are short," she said. "People just start flipping out. A lot of stuff happens in the cafeteria. I've had food thrown at me. I got up and said something but all they [the perpetrators] did was laugh. I don't want food thrown on me. There are cafeteria monitors but they are usually standing together and talking. I know that if I do something to them [food-throwers]because of getting food thrown on me, I'll be getting in trouble. So it's a choice between getting in trouble or getting people to stop causing a problem."
"Teachers can't be afraid to speak up," Sabrina said. "I know that classroom teachers are busy trying to teach, and I think that every class should have a teacher's assistant to keep an eye on things and see who really gets stuff started."
"And in the hallways, that's the kids' target time. Kids are always yelling and saying stuff to each other. Teachers either don't notice or they ignore it. Before school, when kids are outside before we can go to our lockers, that's when people get together in their groups and that's when stuff can start, when people are saying stuff to each other."
Girl-on-girl bullying often begins when one girl makes a cruel comment to another girl. The insulted girl may then find several friends to defend her and launch a verbal volley toward the girl who hurled the insult. The instigator may then find support from her cronies, and the situation escalates, Sabrina said. In other cases, several girls will pick on one lone girl with the sole goal of intimidating or humiliating her.
"It is stupid," she said. "I don't know why so many people do it."
On And On It Goes
A realization that her behavior is not "kid stuff" and could lead to criminal charges, court actions and additional consequences have caused Sabrina to re-think her actions and consider the feelings of others, she said. She does not want to hurt people's feelings, she said, and emphatically stressed that she doesn't want to be a target of bullying again.
Any changes in Sabrina's attitude are apparently not contagious; an incident that occurred at the school on March 16 resulted in a suspension for one classmate and another incident involving alleged sexual innuendo occurred in a classroom, according to Sabrina.
The innuendo incident allegedly involved male students who removed the rubber pads from the top portion of a classmate's crutches. The boys used the pads as "props" for allegedly obscene up-and-down hand movements, which were done within view of girls, Sabrina said.
"They were sitting there going like this," she said, as she briefly demonstrated the alleged gestures. "I told the teacher that she needed to pay more attention and she told me that I don't need to be judging her teaching skills."
"What Will Solve The Problem?"
For Sabrina's mother, the situation has proven frustrating and challenging. She does not want her daughter to bully or harass others and has engaged in numerous serious discussions about the behavior.
"I have talked and talked to her," she said. "I have reminded her how she felt when it was happening to her."
She has doled out consequences and it was Howard who initiated contact with the "Diversions" program. The program requires family commitment and attendance at meetings, and that commitment has been made, she said.
But there are family members who live outside of the home and disagree with certain components of the program. The family members have articulated their objections.
And Howard said that she cannot forget the bullying that Sabrina endured last year and the lack of response to it.
"This is hard," she said. "People look at you like you can't control your child. The program requires family meetings, so this affects all of us. It's hard when we give out punishments and the other parents take their kids shopping. We took the cell phone, the computer, the home phone, the friends; we took everything and I don't know what's next. What else can I take?"
At the beginning of the school year, Sabrina was interested in college and had begun researching college financial assistance options. Her future seemed bright, said her mother.
"Now, I'm afraid that she's going to lose the opportunities because of this," she said. "I want her to go farther than I did. I want to see her be able to go places and do things. I want her to understand that if anyone at school even thinks she is causing a problem, she'll have to go before the school authorities and that will mean repeating eighth grade. I don't think that will solve the problem."
"I know we are trying to handle this. I'm trying to straighten it out. I don't know what else to do...what will solve the problem?"
Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or at 802-823-9367.