State laws and school policies are necessary, but they’re not enough to stop school bullies. The third necessary ingredient is the responsible people who are paid to make schools safe. If teachers, psychologists and counselors, assistant principals, principals, district administrators and school board members don’t create effective school programs and don’t enforce the laws and policies, perpetrators will be freed and their targets will be victimized. According to the ABC News and investigative reporter Theresa Marchetta, Caitlin Smith was sexually assaulted in the final days of a summer program for incoming freshman at Englewood High School in a Denver, Colorado suburb. The evidence seemed clear-cut and, indeed, a court recently found the boy guilty of unlawful sexual contact with no consent.
The school had suspended him for the last three days of the summer program but what happened when school started in the fall?
The story is titled, “District Policies Fail Teen Victim: Guilty Attacker Remains in School.”
- In order for Caitlin to be allowed to enter school, the vice principal had the Smiths sign a “No-Contact Notice” which reads, "You have been involved in an incident that may be criminal in nature," and suspects can not "harass, threaten, annoy, disturb, follow or have verbal/physical contact with any victim or witness in this incident.”
- The perpetrator was immediately allowed back in school with Caitlin in the fall. He did not sign a No-Contact Notice and was still allowed back in school. This is despite a statement by Englewood Superintendent Sean McDaniel that, "I think that [the No-Contact Notice] would be a piece on the perpetrators side not on the victim’s side."
- On Caitlin’s first day back in school, she was taken right back to the scene of the attack. "They guaranteed they wouldn’t take me down that hallway. I was freaking out, crying, upset. I didn’t want to go through, was closing my eyes,” she said. School authorities asked Caitlin’s mother to keep her daughter out of school. She reports that, "They're asking me to hold my daughter out of school and giving an education to a child [the bully] who shouldn't even be there."
- To deal with such incidents, the Englewood School District has policies “which clearly states, multiple times, what happened to Caitlin was a ‘level one’ offense, ‘those which will result automatically in a request for expulsion to the superintendent.’”
- When Marchetta asked Superintendent McDaniel, “Should a student be expelled or consider being expelled for having unwanted sexual contact with a student?" he replied, "Absolutely, no question. Sexual contact? I would expect an administrator to suspend with a recommendation for expulsion. Then, that would land in my office.” But he then admitted that the perpetrator was allowed to remain in school without even signing the No-Contact Notice and that now, over six months after the incident, he didn’t know what the principal was doing about the situation.
- When Superintendent McDaniel was asked, “theoretically speaking, if it would ever be acceptable for a student accused of committing such an offense to remain in the population during the proceedings, he answered, ‘That’s a great question. No,’ [he added], ‘In that scenario to just to turn the kid loose back in to the student population with no requirements, parameters? No, I can not foresee a situation like that.’" But he then admitted that the perpetrator was allowed to remain in school without even signing the No-Contact Notice.
Parents and students need to know what to do after such an incident:
- Don’t hide; make a fuss. Immediately go to the appropriate school authorities and the police. That’s like we encourage victims to report rape immediately.
- Don’t stop at being polite, sweet and docile; at being a “good girl.” Immediately, find out what the school policies and state laws are. Ask for what you need and be prepared with consequences for authorities who won’t act.
- Find and rally other students and parents who have been harassed, bullied or abused – emotionally, sexually or physically. If any other kids excuse the perpetrator’s behavior and tell you that you’re being too harsh or if any other kids hassle, threaten or bully you, report them. Record evidence; that’s what cell phones are for. Travel with your friends.
- Give the school principal, therapist, district administrator and school board members one chance to act strongly. Do they rally other students to protect you? Do they deal swiftly with friends of the bully who harass you? Don’t be put off by stalling tactics. Be strong, brave and firm. Read “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids.”
- If the authorities won’t act, immediately get a lawyer skilled in both the pertinent laws and in how to bring media pressure to bear. Plan an overall strategy and tactics.
- Get an expert coach or therapist to keep your spirits up and to rally your strength and determination.
- Don’t accept bullying; don’t take the blame. In most cases the girl is not a “slut” or “whore” that others will call you. It’s usually not your fault. You should know that if the school authorities won’t act, they’re the problem, not you. You don’t have to be perfect according to their standards in order for them to actively help you. Don’t indulge in self-bullying. Negative self-talk, blame, shame and guilt never help. They only increase anxiety, stress and depression, and destroy confidence and self-esteem. Don’t believe negative predictions; your life isn’t ruined and in 10 years you won’t want to be friends with your high school classmates – certainly not the hyenas who pile on.
Isn’t it amazing that this happened in a Denver suburb near where the Columbine High School shootings occurred?
As you can see, state laws and school policies are necessary to give principals and administrators the leverage to act safely without fear of law suits by bullying parents of school bullies. But the responsible authorities must be willing to act courageously, energetically, skillfully and effectively. When they don’t, laws and policies become scraps of paper, blowing in the wind of their excuses.
Since the principal and district administrator didn’t protect a target of such bullying and abuse, I predict that there have already been other incidents at Englewood High School and there will be in the future. Bullies are predators. They look for easy prey and they push the boundaries. Once one hyena gets away with boundary pushing – darting in, ripping off some flesh and darting back safely – the rest of the pack will pile on.
In addition to the perpetrator and his family, the principal and district administrator have a lot to answer for. I hope a public outcry focuses on them.