James Jones, the Florida father who boarded a school bus to protect his 13 year-old daughter from school bullies, has been raked through the media for his over-reaction. He’s apologized profusely that he threatened the bullies and the bus driver who hadn’t stopped the bullying. The episode was captured by the bus surveillance camera. No doubt about what he did. The case will wind its way through the courts. No doubt he should have been more active in contacting the school instead of boarding the bus. He admits it.
But I think the discussion has focused on the wrong aspect of the situation; on his over-reaction.
The more important aspect is whether there was indeed bullying and, if there was,
- How come the school principal was unaware?
- How come the driver didn’t report it?
- How come the videotapes weren’t scoured to see if there was evidence for the alleged bullying?
- How come the principal didn’t talk to kids on the school bus about acceptable behavior at the beginning of the year?
- How come none of the witnesses were willing to come forward, knowing that the principal and teachers would protect them?
A possible answer to these questions might be that there was never any bad behavior on the school bus. But that would be surprising. What was your experience on the school bus? Ask your friends.
Jones, of Lake Mary, Florida, and his wife claim that their daughter, who has cerebral palsy, had been called names and pushed around. They also claim that they had complained to Seminole County school administrators in the past, but nothing had been done to help their daughter. Jones told deputies that boys placed an open condom on his daughter's head, smacked her on the back of her head, twisted her ear and shouted rude comments at her.
The response of the school administrators is the usual, “We didn’t know; they never contacted us.” They focused on Mr. Jones’s over-reaction instead of on the alleged bullying on the bus. “Changing the focus” is a typical tactic of bullies and people trying to gloss over their failure to respond effectively.
We don’t know the facts. School bus tapes haven’t been scanned. Complaints to the school officials by the Joneses haven’t been documented. However, I’m suggesting that in too many cases, school administrators are not proactive in creating an environment in which:
- Every kid knows that bullying is wrong and won’t be tolerated.
- Adults are monitoring areas in which most bullying occurs.
- Every child (every potential witness) knows what to do and that their reports will be confidential and they’ll be protected.
The huge outcry in support of Mr. Jones demonstrates the lurking fear that all parents have: principals, teachers and staff too often look the other way and don’t actively protect our children. There’s the lurking fear that our child will be the next bullying-caused suicide. We empathize with Mr. Jones’ frustration and anger.
I’d be more likely to believe the school principal if he or she stood next to Mr. Jones on nationwide television and said things like, “Yes, Mr. Jones over-reacted, but we won’t tolerate bullying anywhere at school, we’re reviewing tapes to see if there was bullying, we’re questioning the driver, we’re instituting a strong program to educate all teachers, staff and kids that we won’t tolerate bullying. We’ll get the facts in this specific case.”
I disagree with the supposed experts who say that parents shouldn’t intervene, even if the targeted children can’t protect themselves, for example, because the number of bullies is overwhelming or because the child has cerebral palsy and can’t protect herself, like Mr. Jones’ daughter.
I think we simply have to know how to intervene more skillfully so that, when necessary, we know how to force inactive, lazy or reluctant principals to act. For example, if the Joneses had been more skillful in documenting their complaints to the school, if they really did, there would be a clear paper trail of every interaction with the school administrators, including administrators’ signatures on minutes of every conversation and the Joneses would have copies. Individualized coaching is crucial to developing this skill.
More important than psychologists’ claims that “when [parents] jump in and [intervene], it helps the kids actually feel worse because they feel less control, they feel like they can't handle themselves and they feel defenseless without the bodyguard there,” is that when children actually are overwhelmed or helpless, they know that they’re protected by responsible adults. They can learn to protect themselves better as they grow more independent.
Mr. Jones’ daughter was helpless to defend herself. The stress, anxiety and fear are greater because she wasn’t protected. Let’s focus on the real problem; bullying on the bus, near the lockers, on the playgrounds, in the bathrooms, in the hallways, in the cafeteria and everywhere else bullies feel safe to attack their targets.