Joe Coles travels the country speaking to students and parents about bullying and cyberbullying.
After conducting a workshop Wednesday with children and parents in Sylacauga, he shed some light on the ways parents and schools need to work together to stop bullying.
“Bullying is just not for the schools to stop,” Coles said. “It’s the community, the parents.”
He said bullying is not a person, but a behavior and schools need to take special care in how they attempt to mediate a bullying situation.
“You don’t call the kid in that bullied and say, ‘Joe told me you bullied him,’” Coles said.
He said not only could that lead to retaliation, but also the student being bullied will be reluctant to talk about the situation again.
“If you’re a parent, go ahead and document who did it, when they did it and if any witnesses were around, and if they know any other people that person bullied,” Coles said.
“The school has to communicate back to the parent and say, ‘Here’s what we’re finding out, here’s what we’re doing.’ It’s not going to stop in a day’s time or in a week’s time.”
Several families with children being bullied in local school systems say they have received little to no support from the school or school system.
These parents have come forward to share their experiences on the condition that their identities and the identities of their children remain anonymous.
One mother whose children were in the Talladega City School System a few years ago presented a thick stack of documentation that detailed every letter, notice and email she sent to teachers, principals, the local superintendent and State Department of Education administrators regarding the severity of her son’s bullying situation.
“I transferred him from his school after he ended up with a mild concussion,” she said. “They all minimized the problem. These are all my letters. I had to apply for my child to get out of the school system.”
She said her son, who is now 14, suffered verbal and physical abuse in the city school system, and her daughter, who is now 8, was bullied by a teacher.
She now pays $1,200 a year for both of her children to go to school in the Talladega County School System.
She said she now regrets telling her son not to fight back and should have told him to defend himself.
“It was like it took something away from him,” she said. “I’ll never forget, he sat down right here on this couch and he said, ‘I feel just like that boy in Anniston.’”
What her son referred to was an incident at Anniston Middle School in 2009 in which 12-year-old student Tre’Juan Figures committed suicide after being the victim of bullying and harassment.
“He said, ‘It’s not that I’m suicidal, they just don’t believe me,’” she said.
After finding out about the bullying, the mother said she immediately went to the school, but said the problem was swept under the rug.
“It was like a backlash from the teachers for being a concerned parent,” she said. “Then my kids paid for it. They started bullying my children. I told the principal that there was a streak of cruelty with their staff and she agreed with me but didn’t follow up.”
When an issue of bullying is not handled at the local school level in the county system, Coordinator of Student Services Kelvin Cunningham intervenes when necessary.
“I get calls from time to time,” he said. “We would prefer that the local administrators take care of it, but when they don’t, I get those calls.”
Cunningham said he mostly handles bullying issues for middle and high schools, but will occasionally get a call about bullying at the elementary level.
“Most of the time it’s verbal,” Cunningham said. “Occasionally the parent will report that it’s something physical and I certainly want to make sure they contact the schools. We try to get with the school and get it resolved.”
Some parents say policies on paper do almost nothing to pacify them after witnessing their child come home from school with black eyes and bruises on a regular basis.
Cunningham, Talladega County Schools Superintendent Suzanne Lacey and Talladega City Schools Superintendent Doug Campbell indicated that it is expected to be resolved at the school level.
“What people need to know is an investigation needs to be done into the incident,” Lacey said. “Our premise is that we want every child to come to school and feel comfortable.”
Campbell said there are often a lot of dynamics surrounding a bullying incident, and many times the students being bullied do not want to come forward to talk.
“We have steps in place where if a student makes it known to their teachers and principals, we can use a collective approach to work together and solve issues,” he said.
But for one grandmother in Childersburg, waiting for a solution at the local county level was taking too long.
She sent her complaint to the desk of State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice.
“I reported it to Mr. Tommy Bice in Montgomery and the Talladega County School System called the school,” she said.
She said she realized her grandson was being bullied at his elementary school when he started coming home with bruises on his chest.
“They got in touch with the school out here and the principal called my daughter-in-law at work and was ugly to her. That’s a subject she won’t talk to me about anymore.
“She cut me off from the situation, but if he comes to my house with bruises again, I’m saying something.”
When the grandmother was asked why the school called the child’s mother and not her, the person who actually filed the complaint, she said, “Because they’re chickens.”
“It’s like the school turned around and bullied her because they want to be low-key and not keep everyone involved and not talk to me.”
She said her grandson suffers from seizures and although they are now under control, she worries that his stress from being bullied will bring them back.
After telling his teachers and parents about the verbal and physical abuse he was enduring, it only made matters worse, the grandmother said.
Now her grandson no longer wants to go to school.
“They tripped him, and held him down in the hall and hit him. I was furious,” she said. “He said, ‘They told me if I reported them again they’d cut my head off and mail it to my mother.’”
She said it is hard to blame her grandson for being so terrified about going to school.
“To be scared and get picked on and everyone laughing at him, I wouldn’t want to go either,” she said.
“It’s all going to start over in September. What’s going to happen then?”
Contact Aziza Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org.