“Because no one ever does anything, Mr. La Marr.”
Those were the words that I heard after I directed the question of, “Why didn’t you say something about it?” to my fourth graders. You see, I had just found out that four of their classmates had been throwing rocks at the others during their PE class. Evidently, this was undetected by the PE instructor. I was absolutely flabbergasted that students in my class would be throwing rocks at other students in my class. We had worked so hard to create a classroom of caring and respect and comfort and safety, and it was gone just like that. Further, it was astonishing to me that no one, absolutely no one would tell me that this had been transpiring for a few PE sessions. The kids were satisfied to let it happen and write it off to the fact that no one ever does anything when they report instances where students disrespect and potentially hurt one another. Additionally, shame on all the adults who did nothing to help the students who needed adult intervention over the years, and left the young people with no confidence in getting the support they needed. The kids simply had yet to report occurrences such as this to the proper adult.
I have previously written about this incident in a previous post about building a caring classroom environment. However, with the recent suicide of 12-year-old Drayke Hardman due to his being bullied, it seems that the least I can do is write from my perspective of being in the classroom for nearly four decades and working on creating caring young people. Drayke had been bullied over time; his parents and school were aware of it. The school had suspended Drayke’s bully at one point, but it appears that the bullying did not stop. Drayke’s parents supported him and spoke with him about the possibility of harming himself, which he denied and, according to the stories online, was incensed over the suggestion that he might take his own life. Yet, for some reason, the young man saw no other way out of his nightmarish situation and on a Wednesday afternoon, he hung himself with his favorite hoodie from his bunk bed. He was found by one of his sisters, and resuscitation attempts were made. His heart began beating again, but the boy passed away the next day. His parents decided that the issue of bullying needed to be brought to the forefront, so the gut wrenching photos of Drayke lying in his hospital bed with his family kissing and hugging him good-bye were splashed across social media. The parents hold no ill will against the school, and they have stated that Drayke enjoyed his school. They now are left to suffer through what must be unbearable grief. It is commendable that they have the awareness that they did what they thought they could do to help their young man, and they thought the school had done what it could do to support Drayke. They are simply at a loss as to what needs to be done to curb bullying. They have gone so far as to hope for the bully to be alright and get the help that he needs to move forward in his life. Maybe this is the tipping point where new ways of looking at bullying come to fruition. For all the kids being bullied and for all the families praying that their child will not take their own lives, let’s all hope that something positive comes from Drayke’s death, and that he is the face of anti-bullying programs.
Many of the online responses in the hashtag #doitforDrayke implore parents to teach kindness in their homes. The aim is to cut the bully off before he or she becomes that bully. But kindness alone is not enough. To me, it comes down to teaching a kid to have positive self-esteem so that he doesn’t find the need to empower himself over others in order to feel good. It comes to teaching respect in our society. Over my years in education, I witnessed a drop in the amount of respect that children have toward teachers and their peers, and for the bullies, likely respect for themselves. The built-in respect that should be taught in home has eroded. Too often, I believe that parents want to be friends with their children, and they are not as willing as they once were to implement consequences for their children. Talking about respecting others and modeling respect for others has gone by the wayside in too many homes. It takes a lot of effort, and it takes a lot of consistency by the parent to teach positive behavior; it’s the hard work of raising children, but it is the necessary work.
Our society has become one where truth no longer matters. What matters is that one can get people to adopt his or her thought process, whether it’s true or not, right or wrong. Some adults haven’t a second thought in voicing strong, disrespectful sentiments about others, and that is observed by their children. When kids see adults modeling that behavior, what else are they going to do? They are impressionable, and they are trying to learn how to make their way in the world. When disrespectful, hateful comments are made by their adult models, the child’s value system is built to think that that is normal and the way they should behave. It simply is not the manner in which they should behave. Coupled with teaching respect to children, we need to teach empathy. Children need to be taught how to put themselves in each other’s places and understand how it would feel to be in those situations. Bullies have to be taught to empathize with their peers in a way that it would never occur to them to be mean. The effects of their actions can be far reaching and bullies need to understand and care about that. By respecting and empathizing with other people, the scars of bullying might never be etched, and Drayke might still be alive.
When classroom situations indicate that character education needs to happen, which is nearly every single classroom, the question is, does the teacher take that on, or does he or she let it go? I have always been a proponent of taking it on and redirecting my students’ behaviors to be positive, caring and respectful. Every student has the right to come to school and be himself or herself and learn in a positive environment. No one has the right to take that away and make a child feel badly about himself. In my previous article, I outlined the types of educational experiences I used to help young people make the right choices and be positive influences with respect to their peers. I am not alone in trying to tackle the problem of kids being mean to one another and disrespecting their peers. Yet, why did my students have the response of, “No one ever does anything”?
It’s because they feel they are powerless. Somehow, they do not trust that the adults who should be helping them actually help them. I think some of it is that the people who are hired to keep order on the playground during recesses are people who are not trained in managing conflict. They are not paid enough to really become involved and solve students’ issues, but more importantly, they do not know how to do that. Additionally, they are in charge of supervising over a hundred kids at a time on the playground. How does one supervise all the kids and solve a conflict at the same time? It is impossible. So, it is easy to see how someone can begin picking on others and with no redirection, become a full-fledged bully over time. Too many times I’ve heard the solution to recess conflict is, “You two work it out.” That doesn’t help a young person who doesn’t have the skills to know how to work out a conflict. It does give a ripe opportunity for a bully in development to reign supreme on the blacktop though. A weaker student won’t stand up to a strong personality, and “working it out” becomes whatever solution the bully wants. That bully is now empowered. The problem then gets passed on to the classroom teacher after recess. The crucial choice is now in the hands of the teacher: deal with the tough situation knowing that if anything happens that the children’s parents don’t like will come down on the teacher or let it pass.
The hard work is to deal with it, and that is what teachers have to do, especially if the parents at home are not teaching the values that mold a positive citizen for our society. But, what to do with the other students while the teacher deals with the students? Is it time for a full class meeting where the situation can be used as way to strengthen the culture of the classroom? If so, there goes instruction time, and the pressures are immense to teach standards to mastery, especially in this era of Covid where students are far behind. Yet, if situations that involve students who are unkind to classmates are ignored, the result is a gigantic snowball running down the hill at full speed. Children will then know that they can get away with poor behavior, they know that no one will do anything to stop the behavior, and the building of a potential bully is in full swing. So, the teacher drops everything and deals with it. But, to what degree of success? How well trained is that teacher?
I always tried to use my curriculum to teach kindness, respect, caring and to value one another. There are so many ways to use literature and history to teach the values I wanted in the classroom. When I needed to deal with student behaviors that could get out of control, it was easy for me to fall back on what we’ve studied. The kids always say the right things when we study instances of literature characters or figures from history behaving badly. Yet, can they generalize that and employ those ideas in their own lives? Not always, and that’s when the teacher’s role is vital. The parallels to the discussions we’ve had about the people in our curriculum need to be drawn to the behaviors that the students have exhibited. The character education posters I created and hung all over the classroom need to be emphasized so that students see that achieving the culture of our classroom is always a work in progress, and we can attain it when the team works together. If the message and the examples and the models are repeated consistently and often, the hope is that all the children will adopt the line of thinking and become the kind, respectful individuals that our society needs.
Somehow there are breakdowns, though. If there weren’t, then wouldn’t Drayke still be alive? What happened to the boy who bullied Drayke into thinking his only way out was death? I don’t have that answer, and there is no one answer. Was it a self-esteem problem for the bully? Was the bully being bullied at home by his adults or by someone else and that is the only way he knew? Did he just love the power he had over another individual? Did he have no empathy to understand what he was doing to Drayke? I know nothing of the bully himself, but when we see bullying happening in schools, we have got to take the extreme measures to ensure the safety of all students and damn the consequences. Frankly, I didn’t care that those parents wanted to take me on. They are the ones who were wrong, not me, and I knew it. Bring it on and challenge me all you want. Yes, it is stressful and something I did not need in my life, but no one was going to harm my students and get away with it. No one. They were my babies for six hours a day, and I cared for them as if they were my own; most teachers do. I did everything I could and knew how to do to keep them physically and emotionally safe. Some years were easier than others, but I did my best. No parent was going to bully me into letting their child off the hook. I was given the task to teach children. That goes well beyond academics. I needed to teach some of my darlings how to be respectful, empathetic members of society. I took that seriously, and I did not back away from the challenge. Not once.
In the responses that I’ve read online with respect to Drayke, many of them are directed to other parents and state that “we have to do better.” Yes, we all have to do better. The schools need to do better to eliminate bullying. The parents need to do better to teach their children that everyone has value and no one has the right to diminish that value. Society as a whole needs to do better and model behaviors that we want our children to adopt. As I write this though, there is a big bully in Russia commanding his army to take over Ukraine. What message does that send to our little ones? It says that if you are bigger and stronger than someone else, you can do whatever you want, even kill them. In essence, that is what happened to Drayke. A 12-year-old should not feel that the only way out is death because someone was bigger and stronger. The posts online are right: we have to do better. It starts at home with families, but it truly is a situation where we all need to be kinder, more caring toward one another, more respectful to different ways of living and employ empathy every single day.
“No one ever does anything, Mr. La Marr.” That was one thing I never wanted to hear. I made sure that it could not be said about me. I had your back kiddos of mine. Maybe I didn’t always to the extent that I did toward the end of my career, but the need to teach how to be a positive citizen truly did increase over the course of my time in education. We have a long way to go toward allowing all kids to feel safe; the consequences of failure are staring us in the face. I have wished every day since I read about Drayke that there was a way to bring him back and help him out so that he lives a long, happy life. But, maybe that long way to go in making children feel safe is why Drayke was on this earth. His role may be to show us what happens when we do not address bullying. How many more will follow him? We have to give all our children hope for their futures, and we have to support them. They are doing their best in a crazy world. Sometimes the crazy wins though. Drayke, many are thinking about you every day now. You are the cause of people rethinking how bullies are managed. We pray that you have switched on the light that yields positive change and saves other children from the path you chose. We are sorry that we couldn’t do that for you. As a society, we have to #doitforDrayke or his tragedy will be duplicated and his legacy will be erased. We owe him his legacy.
No child should ever feel like he or she has no value.
Bullying can create that feeling and the answer for some children is to take their own life.
That should NEVER be the answer. We have to serve our young people better.
For further reading:
Drayke Hardman's story from The Salt Lake Tribune
Get Help Now from from stopbullying.gov
How to Handle Bullying in School from U.S.News.com
Bullying: A Module for Teachers from the American Psychological Association
What are the Best Ways to Stop Bullying in Schools? from the Greater Good Science Centery, Berkeley, California