Jeff interviews his daughter Helena about a horrific bullying experience she had at the end of the school year in 2022. Jeff and Sino, Helena’s two fathers, help her negotiate hard conversations about repair and apology.
Bullying remains a crisis in all schools and how institutions handle these everyday crises says a lot about them as spaces that are supposed to care for children. Unfortunately, institutional leaders often struggle with negotiating the complex terrain of bullying and harassment and this is the story of one such school failing and how our family – parents and our young person together – negotiated our pain and healing.
There are many structural variables that prohibit schools from moving forward in smart and caring ways, among them power, privilege, wealth, homophobia, classism, ableism, and racism – all of which our family faced head-on in this harassment experience. Along with these structural forces is also the disconnect between what a school believes it is capable and equipped to do versus what they actually do.
What do caregivers, parents and guardians do when a school fails their child? How do you negotiate the disappointment and move forward knowing that your child is in an unsupportive environment? How do you get to a place of renewal, reimagining what safety could be so that as a family you still want to have a strong partnership with the school?
I was a sissy boy growing up in the 1960s and, to put it mildly, school was not a safe place for me. A “sissy boy” is what they called us back then, those of us boys who didn’t fit an already narrow view of what a male child should be and look like in a 1964 first-grade class. Nearly all my memories of school are those of being bullied. Funny, then, that I ended up being a teacher myself, and now a professor of teacher education. I guess that I “returned to the scene of the crime” because I wanted to be a safe space for students and give them what I did not have while I was in school. Still, though, the bullying of my childhood continues to haunt me all these years later. I still unpack the traumas of my childhood in numerous articles, like How I Learned in School that I was Poor and A Sissy Speaks to Gym Teachers. My own recovery is ongoing.
And then there is Helena. My husband Sino and I adopted Helena at birth and she is currently 13 years old and in the 8th grade. She is an extraordinary child in so many ways and such a complete joy to parent. Helena’s bullying started early in her school career and it has been consistent through schooling. It is her multiple intersecting identities that are usually the targets –being a Black girl, having multiple learning disabilities, having two queer dads, being adopted, being in a multiracial family, and any other difference that peers can find to make her a target of their ill will. This recent bullying experience was a severe crisis for all of us though, and surfaced ways the school’s response could have been healing-centered versus harm-inducing. Helena, Sino, and I want to share this experience with you because we believe that storytelling is essential to crisis healing. We have raised Helena on the power of storytelling and she, more than anyone, knows that part of recovery and renewal is in the vulnerability of sharing our narratives freely so that others can make meaning out of pain and crisis. Story has always been our tool of navigation. Helena, who dreams of becoming a filmmaker, has used stories before to address crises, whether it be a message on anti-bullying or on disability justice.
As parents, the most heartbreaking part of this violent experience was bearing witness to the absolute despair we saw in our daughter’s experience with the boys who targeted her with their hateful statements. Their words hit at her very existence and her worthiness; it tore away the one thing she had sought so long and valued so much – friendship.
I sat down with Helena and Sino to make meaning this horrible experience and here is a capture of our conversation. Please note that some of what Helena shares might be activating; we kept the rawness of her story because it is hers.
Jeff: Tell us, Helena, about this recent bullying experience you had at the end of this school year.
Helena: Before I tell you my story, it is important that you know that this has been my best school year ever regarding having friends. My own class has a tough history with each other and there has been a tough mean-girl group in our grade. I just haven’t been able to make friends in my own grade very much. I decided this year that I would reach down to 6th-grade and up to 8th-grade to make friends. That led to my happiest year of school because I made a great group of friends with the 8th-grade boys. For the first time in my school life, I had a literal place at the table where a group of friends saved me a seat or scooted over to make room when they saw me coming. It felt so nice.
But one day a group of the nicest boys were volunteering to help some younger kids and I was left alone at the table with the lead bully in school and two of his followers. They started on me quickly. They told me that I would be better off if I had been aborted than to be living with two gay men. They attacked my birth mother. They were awful and homophobic about my two gay dads and made inappropriate comments about their sex life to me. I did speak up for myself and told them to stop and not to speak about my family that way. But it was three older boys against one younger girl and they didn’t stop.
Jeff: What happened next?
Helena: Well, as soon as I got in the car with you and Papa, I told you what happened. You two called the school immediately and told the administration. Everyone seemed really outraged. You set up a meeting for the next morning.
Jeff: Before we go on with the story, Helena, I want to go back to your introduction and unpack it a bit. You said that school has been tough. When you are in a class or school where the culture is one of exclusion instead of inclusion, can you tell me what that feels like?
Helena: I feel uncomfortable and not safe when there is exclusion. It makes me not want to be in that space. Feeling safe in a school means to me that you can talk to anyone, especially the teachers and administration about anything. In a safe school, everyone has your back.
Jeff: Is there something you think that teachers and schools can do to make things more inclusive?
Helena: I think teachers need to be more aware of what is going on socially with students. For instance, they have more experience with kids than we do and so they should be able to see which students will work with others well and which will clash. I get put with the same group of students for every group work and it feels unfair to me because they are not very collaborative and always shoot down my ideas. Some of the worst bullying I’ve experienced happens in small groups and in ways that teachers can’t even recognize. So just don’t always put us in the same groups. Think it out a bit more and monitor it better.
Jeff: Your school uses a social-emotional program. Does that program work for you?
Helena: I think that program makes the adults feel better, like they are doing something, but it has no impact on me really.
Jeff: I think you were bold to cross both gender and grade-level to make friends with the 8th-grade boys. How did you go about doing that? Can you think of any strategies that you used that might help other kids cross borders and make friends too?
Helena: Like I said, our grade has always had a mean-girl group and the whole school knows it and they have tried – and failed – to negotiate it over the years. That is what made me reach out to boys, to be honest with you. I just walked over to where the 8th-graders sat and their lunch table was full. I stood there a moment and waited for them to make room for me and, just when I thought they might not do that, one of them said, “Hey Helena? Come and sit with us!” and that is how they made room for me. I can’t tell you how important it was for just one single peer to be inviting me. That was the first day I was welcomed and so I just kept going back every day because it was a welcoming space.
Jeff: How did it make you feel when that one boy invited you back to the table?
Helena: I was completely shocked and relieved! I was shocked because no one had ever done that for me before in my school. Never! Some people just don’t understand what a big deal that was to me. There are only a few students in the whole school who have the strength to do that, to be kind and openly inviting. And I was relieved because I thought for sure I would just be excluded again, so I was so relieved that I wasn’t still hurt by being excluded.
Jeff: How did being included change your school experience?
Helena: Well, I have one good girlfriend in my class, but to have a whole group of friends – and especially friends that I had made all on my own – gave me joy! What I mean by “joy” is that I felt uplifted and excited. Joy is when you wake up in the morning and you are immediately so happy to be going to school because there will be friends happy to see you.
Jeff: That sounds amazing. But that must have made that violence at the lunch table feel even more terrible, huh? Because that had been your happy place for the whole year and now, right in the final weeks of school, this bully had stolen that from you. How did that make you feel?
Helena: I felt so angry, not happy at all, and very upset that another student wanted to ruin my joy. Anger makes my whole body feel like it closes up. Finals were coming up, too, and I couldn’t study at all.
Jeff: I’ll tell a bit of the story now since I was there. We met with the principal, the vice-principal, and a counselor the next morning and you told everyone your story. Papa and I were right beside you. Honestly, the administration was upset and it felt like they really heard us.
Unfortunately, not much happened after that. The administration did pull all of us into a conversation that day, but those boys used that time to let me know that they were furious that I had told them (which I had not). The administration called the boys’ families, but no response from them. They emailed the families, but again, no response from them. Three weeks out from the incident and nothing had been addressed or resolved. The boys were still in school and enjoying the last celebratory days of school and had no accountability for their harassing behavior. We had asked for all kinds of meetings where we wanted to dialogue and do some restorative work, but it became very clear that no one wanted to speak with us or address our concerns.
Three weeks later, as we neared some rigorous middle school final exams, there was no relief in the pain our family had experienced. We were left with no collaborative way to resolve our pain and so we had to make a path for ourselves. I am going to invite my husband Sino to tell how we created a path to healing.
Sino: My academic background is in negotiation, conflict-resolution, and peacebuilding and, since the school stated that they had a restorative justice program, our hope was to be a part of that restorative process. We wanted a peaceful resolution where Helena would be able to tell the boys how she felt when they said those hurtful words to her. We wanted to support our child to have power and agency in this difficult situation. We explained the concept of “calling someone in” – which is where you check your peers by explaining to them their missteps with compassion and patience, and then hopefully they’ll change their problematic behavior. We talked through all of this as a family, took some notes, workshopped it, and came up with a speech that Helena could read to her peers.
By the way, creating this kind of scripted response is important to Helena because she has several learning disabilities and prefers to think things out and deliver them in this fashion. This entire process took hours and hours of time and we were fine with that, as we really wanted to be socially just in our actions; we really wanted to live out our own family values. Of course, the first step in a restorative justice process is that all people come to a circle willingly of their own accord and agree to the process. That never happened and, in the end, we were the only ones present and the only ones putting in great amounts of effort for a peaceful resolution.
Also, we came to find out that no one in the school was certified in Restorative Justice and, consequently, the whole process was being bungled and feeling performative rather than authentic. To be clear, we were not seeking disciplinary action or seeking to shame anyone for their behavior. Our intentions were always to build stronger and deeper friendships.
Jeff: Can you explain how, in the end, you came to a resolution?
Sino: As we said before, the other families never responded to any calls from administration to meet. The administration seemed to have no leverage to call a meeting with the other parents for various reasons that we assume had to do with wealth and power; we think this because the administration began to use legal terminology with us and it was apparent to us that they were more afraid of being sued by wealthy parents than being interested in a restorative process.
We, of course, did not feel comfortable meeting with anyone’s children without their consent. In the end we called for a meeting with the same three administrators and asked if we could read our pieces to them instead of to the boys. At least that way, we thought, Helena would still have the agency of speaking truth to power. We went first and read our parent response to the administration team.
The administrators sat intently and listened, their bodies leaning into the circle we had created. In what would be a really powerful and tender experience, Helena began to read her pieces to the administration team – first the one she had written for the lead boy and then the one she had written separately for the assistant. She got emotional at parts and handed them off to either you and I and, when she had gathered herself, she would take them back and keep reading.
We read all three pieces and the administration responded quite compassionately and expressed regret over having failed Helena to her face. What was most evident to everyone was that the boys who would never hear Helena’s call-in and her loving and compassionate reach-out had really missed a great opportunity for transformation and growth.
We think our story of crisis and unresolved pain is a common one. Sure, in a perfect world we would all get together and beautifully resolve conflict and find ourselves in a place of peace and wellness. Honestly, we tried. But for various reasons we are still all reflecting on, we could not collectively come to recovery and repair.
What we realized as parents is that the school team needed training, because without it, more unintentional pain can erupt. Of the families involved in the incident, we were the only ones willing to meet and do the work of reconciliation. That is a big problem for many reasons and among the important reasons for us was that we were not about to model and teach our daughter that the emotional labor in any relationship is carried out by a single individual in that relationship. Two of the three boys were also White, and we were not going to be in a situation where a Black girl did all the work for White boys.
One positive outcome came because of our insightful daughter. In the very beginning of this three-week crisis, Helena beautifully identified the group of boys by name who were her upstanders – the boys at the lunch table who throughout the entire year had stood up for justice when this same lead boy had been unkind. It was her idea to want to meet with these upstander boys to affirm them. The vice principal and the counselor facilitated and witnessed this meeting and stated that it was one of the most transformative moments they’d ever seen on a school campus. The affirmed boys were quiet and listened to Helena speak, and then tenderly affirmed her back. It was a lovely moment for Helena and really strengthened her relationships with that group of upstander boys. Here is that piece, which Helena titled An Ode to Upstanders.
For us, the goal was to make sure that Helena knew that she had agency in this situation. She had done the incredibly difficult work of processing her trauma under our loving care and had come to a place of deep understanding far beyond her 13 years. She got to speak her truth to power and they listened. The administration was deeply moved by our loving efforts for restoration.
In the end, we simply hoped that our experience might better prepare them for the next time any hurtful event would occur under their watch.
We hope that reading our story will provide insight for other parents, guardians, administrators, teachers, and counselors into the nuances of moving forward when the structural inequities of institutions do not support healing and reconciliation.
Here are some summarized tips to help guide you on navigating the everyday crisis of bullying:
- Storytell every bit of what happened. There truly is something emancipatory about writing out your lived experiences. It validates them. And, for young children like Helena, a journal provides a place where the toxic experience can literally be written outside of their body and placed on a blank page.
- Build capacity early and often. We have always had conversations with Helena very early on about issues of classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and a plethora of other injustices. There are extraordinary early childhood children’s books that can help any guardian talk about even the toughest of subjects. Speak to your school or local librarian for specific titles. Helena handled this crisis well because she had the capacity to do so because of the years of building we’ve done with her in helping her negotiate other incidents.
- Control your expectations. This is probably our biggest advice. We all have our ideas about how people and institutions should behave and we are often grossly disappointed that they don’t follow our line of thought on matters. Institutions, formed and deformed by human beings, are not without flaws.
- If no one is willing to meet you halfway, then create a new path on your own that will bring you peace and healing. Don’t be afraid to “call it” and say that it is over, that you’ve invested too much emotional labor and enough is enough. Then, forge your own path that allows you to find peace.
- Create the space for agency. It is a critical part of growth for children to have their agency, which means a child knows they have the capacity to have power and resources to fulfill their potential. We got nowhere with the other families who were unwilling to participate in any way, so we urged our administration team to meet with us as an alternative.
- Forgive your failing institution and commit to stronger partnerships with it. Our institutional relationships, like all relationships, need forgiveness, care, and stronger bonds. We made it clear that we were remaining supportive parents and would continue our strong partnership with the institution.
- Look for hope in the worst situations. Helena taught us this one, as she immediately identified the “upstanders” in her group of friends and deliberately sought them out and spoke affirmations to them, thus strengthening their sense of justice.
SCRR community: We’re so thankful to share our story and hope that, in the sharing, you can find glimpses of recovery and renewal as well.
With grateful hearts,
Jeff, Sino & Helena